Tired from a long journey, faded monarchs seek homes for the next generation

My friends Bob and Bev photographed this very faded, tattered female monarch flying around the milkweed plants in their backyard near the Museum last week. The butterfly is a migrant from Mexico, looking for places to lay her eggs as a last hurrah before she dies.

Detail of a healthy monarch’s wing

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

She must be very tired!

Last fall, she flew from somewhere in eastern North America all the way to central Mexico, where she spent the winter mostly in hibernation. A few weeks ago, she and the other overwintering butterflies, sensing the lengthening days and warming temperatures, left the shelter of the sanctuary’s trees and headed back north to complete the journey. They are just now getting to Texas.

This old girl’s eggs will hatch and — if they have enough milkweed — the caterpillars will mature and pupate. Then, when they emerge as adult butterflies, at least some of them will continue the journey north. By July, monarchs will have reached the northern limit of their range. These summer generations don’t live as long, and don’t travel nearly as far.

P1070759If you see worn and faded monarchs at this time of year, they are almost certainly migrants returning from their winter in Mexico. You can help them to fulfill their “purpose” by providing nectar for their last few meals, and more importantly, milkweed for the new generation. These returning migrants will only last a few days now that they’ve gotten here — they are on their last “wings” after nearly nine months of life, and at least 2,000 miles of travel.

P1070760

A healthy Monarch Butterfly

Cockrell Butterfly Center Spring Plant Sale

Spring is almost here!

Of course it has felt like it for months now, but with all of the rain we have had lately, we should have a good show of blooms. And with the blooms come the butterflies. Most of the time, butterflies get most of the attention, but have you ever thought about creating a moth garden. Why moths? There are approximately 11,230 identified species of Lepidoptera in North America. Almost 90% of those are moths. Now, while most moths can appear small and drab, even serve as pests for some plants, there are some very interesting and beautiful species of moths. For example, Hawk or Sphinx moths (sometimes even called Hummingbird moths because of their large tapered bodies and hovering flight) are large and sometimes showy with interesting, cryptic patterns adorning their wings.

 Their caterpillars look similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail with their large eye spots and chunky bodies.

They feed on a variety of plants, but what I see the most are Tersa Sphinx moths (Xylophanes tersa) because they eat the leaves of Pentas (a very popular nectar plant for butterfly gardens). So think of those Pentas as two plants in one, nectar and host! The adults are seen mostly on white flowers that bloom (or stay open) at dusk. Moon Vine, Cestrum, Jasmine, Rangoon Creeper and Evening Primrose are all recommended as excellent moth attractors!

Most other showy moths like Polyphemus, Luna, Cecropia, IO, and Imperial moths are in the Giant Silkworm family (Saturniida) and do not feed as adults because they do not have mouthparts. Their host plants are trees, mostly Oak and Hickory related species, so it is kind of hard to find their caterpillars. If you do, you are lucky! Some of the most beautiful and impressive caterpillars are from Saturniid moths. The adults are attracted to bright lights at night, so this is a possible way of encountering them.

Polyphemus Moth

The spring plant sale for the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a one stop shop for any butterfly (and moth) plants you need. We will have the standard, reliable plants that every butterfly garden should have, like Porterweed, Mexican Milkweed, Brazilian Pipevine, several Passion vines, Mexican Bauhinia, Pentas and more. This year we also have some different natives to share with you. We will have Salvia azurea (Pitcher Sage), Cirsium texanum (Texas Thistle), Simsia calva (Bush Sunflower), Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush) and Eupatorium greggii (Gregg’s Mistflower). Some non-native, but excellent butterfly plants that we will also have are: Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Celosia spicata (Cramer’s Amazon Celosia), several types of Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons) and many many more!

Cramer's Amazon Celosia

The spring sale is Saturday, March 31st, 2012 from 9am to noon. Located on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. We accept cash, check and credit. Come early and bring a wagon!

Butterfly Gardener Alert!

Today’s post was written by Soni, horticulturalist for our Butterfly Center. She and the other employees are hard at word preparing for our upcoming Plant Sale on April 10.

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Got butterflies? Probably not, if your garden suffered freeze damage over the past few months. After this unusually long and cold winter, many of us have lost plants, especially species that are more tropical and not adapted to freezing temperatures.

But now that winter is finally behind us, it’s time to replant! Butterfly gardeners won’t want to miss the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Spring Plant Sale. It’s happening soon:  Saturday, April 10, 2010 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Some of you may be seasoned butterfly gardeners, but others may be asking, “How DO you ‘garden’ for butterflies?” It’s quite simple.   For a successful butterfly garden you need two types of plant:  nectar and host plants.

Mix of flowers

Coneflowers and Rudbeckias
Creative Commons License photo credit: Per Ola Wiberg ~ Powi

Thanks to their specialized mouthparts – a long, thin, straw-like proboscis – adult butterflies can only consume liquid food.  The blooms of nectar plants produce a sugary liquid (nectar) that butterflies sip to give them the energy to fly, mate, and produce eggs.  Most nectar plants have colorful flowers borne in showy clusters.  Some examples of good nectar plants for our area are Porter Weed, Echinacea (Purple Cone Flower), Zinnias, Rudbeckia (Brown and Black-eyed Susans), Monarda (Bee Balm), Lantana, Salvias, Eupatorium (Mistflower), Cuphea, Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), and Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), among many others.

Green Papilio polyxenes caterpillar

Eastern Black
Swallowtail Caterpillar
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyanocorax

In contrast to the adults, baby butterflies, aka caterpillars, have chewing mouthparts and eat leaves.  Many butterflies are quite choosy in their caterpillar stage, and can only survive and grow on specific plants, which we call host plants.  For example, Monarch caterpillars will only eat Asclepias (Milkweed); they cannot and will not eat anything else.  Female butterflies seek out the appropriate host plants for their babies when they are laying eggs.  Some host plants that can be included in your butterfly garden are Asclepias (for Monarchs and Queen Butterflies); Passionvines (for Gulf Fritillaries and if you’re lucky, Zebra Longwings); Citrus and Rue (for Giant Swallowtails); Dill, Parsley, and Fennel (for Black Swallowtails); Aristolochia aka Pipevine (for Pipevine and Polydamas Swallowtails); and Cassia aka Senna (for Sulphur Butterflies).  If you see caterpillars eating these plants, rejoice!  You will soon have lots of beautiful butterflies coming to your nectar plants.

Some of you may think you don’t want caterpillars eating away in your garden.  If so, you can avoid host plants and include only nectar plants.  However, you’ll get more butterflies if you plant both.  We predict that soon you’ll be treasuring every caterpillar!

Many of the nectar and host plants listed above will be available at our sale.  We strive to provide butterfly-attracting plants that are either native or naturalized in Texas, and that perform well in the Houston area.  Our sale is also a good place to learn more about butterfly gardening.  Several experts will be on hand to answer questions and to help you choose plants.


Plant Sale! At the Cockrell Butterfly Center from HMNS on Vimeo.

So save the date:  Saturday, April 10, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Come early, the plants go fast!

Fall Butterflies in Houston

Last week I gave a workshop/lecture at the Houston Arboretum about “Butterflies of Houston.”  I had not chosen the title, and confess I was a little nervous about the emphasis – I can hold my own talking about butterflies in general, and especially about Central American butterflies, but I am not an “expert” on the local species.  Especially not the “LBJs” (little brown jobs; mostly skippers) of the butterfly world!  However, I put together my slides and gathered some field guides and hoped for the best.

It was a fun class.  The participants (regrettably, only about 9 people) were interested, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their own butterfly gardening and viewing attempts.  We decided to go ahead with the scheduled field trip on Saturday even though the weather prediction was for possible rain.

spicebush swallowtail larvae
Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar.

It was overcast but not raining as we gathered in the Arboretum parking lot.  No butterflies were flying, but one of the participants quickly pointed out a smallish camphor tree that had the characteristic rolled leaves housing my favorite caterpillar, the spicebush swallowtail.  These adorable creatures look like toy snakes – they are bright green with large eyespots on their thorax.   A discussion ensued as to why some of the participants had never had spicebush caterpillars on THEIR camphor (or sassafras) trees.  We concluded (or at least I concluded) that the female butterflies really seem to seek out small trees – young saplings, not mature trees.  Perhaps the young trees haven’t yet upped their levels of caterpillar-deterring chemicals, or perhaps their leaves are more tender.  Or perhaps the caterpillars are simply harder to find on larger trees.  And besides, the butterflies really do seem to prefer the hostplant they are named for – spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – but it really doesn’t do all that well in our area.  In any case, I have noticed the same pattern (more caterpillars on small/young plants) in the citrus-feeding giant swallowtail as well.

Not finding much more in the parking lot, we wandered down the Outer Loop trail to the Meadow.  I had hoped to see a few forest butterflies such as tawny, hackberry emperors, red admirals, or even goatweed leafwings, along the Loop Trail, but no such luck.  However, soon after arriving at the Meadow, I was very excited to find caterpillars of the goatweed leafwing on the Texas goatweed (Croton capitatus, aka hogwort or woolly croton) plants growing abundantly along the roadside edge.  Like spicebush caterpillars, these guys hide in rolled up leaves of their hostplant during the day.  However, in contrast to the whimsical spicebush cats, leafwing catepillars are rather drab, greenish with whitish bumps on the body, and a slightly warty, dark head.  And, they spit copious amounts of bright green fluid when you try to unroll them!  I complained to my companions that I had just pulled two large goatweeds out of my garden after waiting all summer for caterpillars!  Perhaps I had given up too soon, or perhaps one needs to be closer to a forest habitat as a source of the egg-laying females.  Who knows? (This could be tested, however, if someone wanted a definitive answer!)

gw leafwing frass chain

But back to the caterpillars:  another cool thing about leafwings is the unique “frass chains” that the caterpillars make when they are very small.  This damage is also characteristic of tropical members of this family, and I have seen it often in the field – often the first clue that a caterpillar is on a given plant.  What IS a frass chain?  First of all, you should know that “frass” is the technical (and very nice, I think) word for “insect pooh.”  The tiny caterpillars eat the tip off a leaf, leaving just the midvein.  They then use their silk (all caterpillars have silk-producing glands in their mouths) to glue tiny pieces of their excrement (frass) to the end of the midvein, elongating it by as much as ½” (it helps to have a hand lens or magnifying loupe to see this).  They also sometimes glue random bits of dead leaf material along the midvein higher up.  Then, during the day, the little caterpillar, which is about the color of a dead leaf bit itself, sits at the end of the frass chain, hidden in plain sight.  So clever!  When it gets larger it moves into a rolled leaf (also held together with a bit of silk).

gulf fritillary Agraulis vanillae
Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae.

We then noticed the much showier, spiny black and orange caterpillars of the most common butterfly we saw that day, the spectacular gulf fritillary.  Gulf frits, like all members of their subfamily (the longwing or passionflower butterflies) eat passionflower vines as caterpillars.

caterpillars
Gulf fritillary caterpillars on passionflower vine

And there was plenty of the native Passiflora incarnata, or maypop, growing in the Meadow.  The butterfly itself is one beautiful bug, especially the males, which, like many other butterflies and songbirds, are more brightly colored than females.  Males are a brilliant orange above, with a few black spots; females are similar but a duller orange.  The underside of both has sunrise-like hues of pinkish orange on the upper wing, and spots of silver (yes, silver!) spots spangling the lower surfaces of both fore and hind wing (rendering the butterfly very difficult to see when perched in the vegetation).

buckeye cat

We also saw several buckeyes, one of our prettiest butterflies, with large eyespots and multi-colored patterns in brown, purple, orange, and blue on the upper wing surface.  The underside is quite drab and cryptic – it is hard to imagine it is even the same butterfly (but this is true of most butterflies, that the underside is drab or camouflaged no matter how showy the upperside).  We found buckeye caterpillars too, blackish and spiny, easy to see on the slender upright stems of their hostplant, Agalinis fasciculata or false foxglove.

I was determined to identify some skippers, even though this large group of mostly small, mostly brown, mostly very fast-flying butterflies had heretofore been a bigger challenge than I wanted to take on.  But I had my reputation to uphold!  We did come across several individuals, and luckily the group was patient as I flipped through the field guides.  Eventually we managed to identify to all of our satisfactions the skippers we saw, including a clouded skipper, an ocala skipper (we think), and a fiery skipper.  Much easier to ID was the showy (in skipper terms) white-striped longtail – the brilliant white stripe on the underside showing clearly when it perched to sip from the lavender blazing star (Liatris) or ironweed (Vernonia) flowers blooming profusely in the Meadow at this time.

scoliid waspWe did not see any blues or hairstreaks (well, I saw a tiny Ceraunus blue and a gray hairstreak after the group had left) but we did see several other interesting insects.  A pretty scoliid wasp – metallic black with bright creamy white spots on the abdomen – was very interested in the abundant flowers of late-flowering Boneset (Eupatorium serotinum). This native plant looks like a weed except when it is blooming, as it does only at this time of year.  Its tiers of small, fuzzy, white, fragrant flowers attract many small butterflies, especially hairstreaks and skippers, along with other insects including wasps, flies, and ermine moths.  On the goatweed we encountered several groups of a funny little bug (a hemipteran, or true bug) that looked much like a Volkswagon beetle.  The nymphs were gregarious, huddling in groups of 5-8 individuals.  When we disturbed one group, they followed each other in a little train until they found a new place to rest. 
goatweed bugs

Finally we saw a really big butterfly – the powerful and dramatic spicebush swallowtail, which we were able to identify on the wing (it never landed) as a male because of the greenish (rather than bluish) wash of scales on the upper side of the hind wing.  A gorgeous butterfly.  On a sunnier day we might have seen other swallowtails – probably giants, possibly pipevines, perhaps Tiger swallowtails, which I have seen at the Arboretum on other occasions.

Carlos Hernandez
Male Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly.
Photo by Carlos Hernandez.

In sum, although we didn’t see hordes of butterflies, we all agreed it was a pleasant and productive outing, and finding all the caterpillars bodes well for the coming weeks.  After our relative success identifying skippers, I am ready to get out on a sunnier day when more are flying – and tackle more species!

Note:  If you are interested in watching butterflies, you should invest in a pair of close-focusing binoculars.  These are now widely available.  The difference between regular binoculars and these is that the closest you can focus with regular binoculars is about 10 feet or so – with close focus you can get to within 4 feet of your subject.  This is especially useful for observing small things like insects.  Both kinds are equally good for focusing on things far away, so you don’t lose anything by choosing close focus.

You will also want a field guide or two.  Although not really a field guide, I recommend John and Gloria Tveten’s “Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas” – it has gorgeous photos of adults and often the caterpillar stage, and tons of good information about the habits and habitats of most of our local butterflies.  You should also pick up either the “Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America,” or Jeffrey Glassberg’s “Butterflies through Binoculars:  the East.”  These are much less detailed than the Tveten’s work, but are much more comprehensive (and useful not just in Houston). Those of you who really get into caterpillars will want a copy of David L. Wagner’s “Caterpillars of Eastern North America.”   This book has fabulous photographs of nearly 700 caterpillars of both butterflies and moths, with a small illustration of the resulting adult, and nice descriptions of where the caterpillars are likely to be found and what they eat.  And don’t miss Wagner’s wonderful enthusiastic preface and introduction, which include all sorts of fun and useful information.

The next few weeks should offer prime butterfly watching.  So get out there – on a sunny day almost any area with some natural habitat and blooming plants should yield butterfly results!