Bountiful butterflies plus more on moths: Why you should appreciate both this summer

Houston is brimming is with butterflies this season! Moths, too.

After a dismal showing during last year’s prolonged drought with almost no butterflies at all, this year local butterflies have bounced back with a vengeance! Or maybe “vengeance” isn’t a word usually associated with butterflies. In any case, there are lots of them.

gulf frit1A Gulf Fritillary

I have never seen so many butterflies in my backyard garden – both as babies (caterpillars) and adults. Pipevine swallowtails are particularly abundant right now, and I had dozens of monarchs a few weeks ago. I’ve seen black swallowtails and giant swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, and a few sulphurs as well. I just acquired three small sassafras trees, and they came complete with a couple of my favorite caterpillars: the spicebush swallowtail, which are the inspiration for the giant caterpillar sculpture at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. And I’m not the only one who is seeing an abundance of butterflies; many Houston gardeners have made similar observations.

spicebush cat2A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

In addition to these garden species, I’ve noticed big numbers of some of the forest-inhabiting butterflies such as hackberry and tawny emperors, question marks, and red admirals. These butterflies typically visit sap flows or rotten fruit, and their caterpillars eat hackberry or elm leaves (or nettles, in the case of red admirals), so to see them you need to take a walk in the wood. I take my dogs walking at “Wortham Island,” a former oxbow bend of White Oak Bayou that is now an off-the-beaten-path wooded area in northwest Houston, and have seen clouds of emperors, lots of question marks, and a red admiral or two. Snout butterflies, another species more common in wooded areas, have appeared in my yard for the first time, sipping water off the sidewalk.

emperors feeding
Tawny emperors feeding

And a new butterfly species may be on the horizon! As we reported in the latest Museum News, a zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), until now unknown in Houston, was spotted laying eggs on paw paw plants at a local nursery. Hoping that this sighting might not be a complete accident, I’ve planted a couple of paw paws in my yard, and am keeping my eyes open and fingers crossed. Zebra swallowtails are fairly common in the Big Thicket area, less than 100 miles northeast of us. I’ve always said that if people from Cleveland, Texas to Houston would just plant paw paws, we could probably bring this gorgeous butterfly to our area!

Eurytides marcellusZebra swallowtails may be migrating to Houston

On the down side, I have not seen any orange-barred sulphurs for a couple of years, and the polydamas swallowtails, which seemed to be overtaking the pipevine swallowtails, have also been less visible.I’m guessing that the cold winter of 2010-11 may have knocked back the populations of these tropical species, and they haven’t made it back in large numbers yet.

So why is this year so good for butterflies? I can only guess that the weather conditions have been just right this spring and early summer. We’ve had enough rain and lots of warm, sunny weather in between. Certainly all the interest in planting for butterflies can’t hurt. The only reason there are so many pipevine swallowtails and monarchs in my yard is because I’ve had dozens of their caterpillars eating all the Brazilian pipevine and Mexican milkweed I’ve planted. Providing host plants is vital. Of course, where I’m seeing the butterflies now is at the pentas and Mexican bauhinia that are blooming profusely these days, so nectar plants are important too!

pipevine cats1
A Pipevine caterpillar

On a different note – but still keeping with the lepidopteran theme – there is a wonderful new Peterson Field Guide available on moths of northeastern North America. Unfortunately it is NORTHeastern – but many of the species portrayed in the excellent illustrations do occur in our region. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. Moths may have more subtle coloration than butterflies, but many are quite spectacular mimics of lichen, bird droppings, leaves, or other insects. And although a few are pests of forest trees or in the garden, most are harmless and are important sources of food for bats (as adults) and songbirds (as caterpillars).

I was interested to read in the moth book introduction that there is a citizen science program on moth-watching in Great Britain. So little is known about our moth fauna here in the USA; it would be great if something similar could be launched here. Did you know that there are about 15 to 20 times as many moths as butterflies? In North America, there are about 11,500 moth species to 725 butterfly species. Perhaps with the availability of books like this one, people will start to pay more attention to these poorly known and poorly understood creatures. All it takes is leaving your porchlight on and observing (and trying to identify) the nocturnal creatures that are attracted to it. But be aware that some of the most colorful moths fly during the day.

Another useful thing to do where moths are concerned is to rear the caterpillars you find. Just because they don’t turn into beautiful butterflies does not mean they are not interesting in their own right! Do keep a record of the host plant the caterpillars eat.

Long live the Lepidoptera!

Tagging Monarchs at HMNS

Today Soni (CBC horticulturist) came down to my office and said “You should see all the monarchs in the outdoor butterfly garden. They must be part of the fall migration. Why don’t we tag them?”’

Surely by now most people are aware of the amazing migration undertaken each year by the fall generation of monarch butterflies. As the temperatures cool and the days shorten, monarchs emerging from their chrysalids are cued to head south. Somehow they “know” that their survival depends on it. Before winter sets in, millions of individuals – basically the entire eastern population – start to fly southwest, towards the remote mountain sites in central Mexico where they will spend the winter hanging on the branches of fir and pine trees.

Soni and net
Soni netting butterflies

The spring and summer generations behave very differently. After emerging from its chrysalis, one of the first things a new butterfly typically does is look for a mate (“nature abhors a virgin” as my friend Phil DeVries would say). Mated females search for milkweed plants on which to deposit their eggs; males look for more females! These fair-weather generations probably live for a month or so as adults. The autumn generation, however, does not mate, but saves its energy for the long journey ahead. As fall approaches, butterflies stock up on nectar, packing on fat for the flight and for several months of hibernation.

At the northern edge of the population (southern Ontario/northern Great Lakes area), the migration starts in late August, with butterflies flying on average about 50 miles a day and picking up more migrants as they travel south. By early to mid October, monarchs are streaming through Texas. Virtually the entire eastern population passes through our state – but most of the migrating butterflies pass to the west of us, through Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, then over to Del Rio and into Mexico. Since fewer butterflies typically pass this way, the coastal migration route is not as well known. All the more reason for us to get out there and tag!

monarch tag
How to tag a monarch

Monarch researchers began tagging monarchs back in the early 70s, even before anyone knew where the migrating monarchs were ending up (the roost locations were discovered in 1975). Tagging data collected over the years has enabled us to map the distribution of the population, and to understand that a single generation makes the long trip south and then heads north again after spending the winter, largely dormant, in Mexico. This is hard for some people to understand, especially given that most butterflies only live for a few weeks. The migrating/hibernating monarchs may live as long as eight or nine months.

tag instructions
Tagging instructions from Monarch Watch

The monarchs’ arrival at the overwintering grounds typically coincides with Dia de los Muertos (November 1, Day of the Dead), an important fall festival in Mexico. Some locals apparently see the orange and black visitors as the spirits of their dear departed relatives, returning to celebrate the day. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem; throughout history humans have used butterflies as symbols of the soul and/or reincarnation. Did you know that the word “pysche” in ancient Greek meant both “butterfly” and “soul”?

But back to the present, and Houston. It was a beautiful afternoon so we all trooped outside, armed with nets, pens, data sheets, and numbered tags purchased in advance from Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization based at the University of Kansas that coordinates monitoring efforts. Soni also took a roll of scotch tape and some microscope slides. She is checking the butterflies for OE (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a sporozoan parasite. If present, the parasite spores can be seen under a compound microscope (they are much smaller than butterfly scales). If there are enough of them in a caterpillar’s body, these parasites can spell death for the butterfly. Luckily, parasite loads are typically low in migrating individuals – perhaps butterflies weakened by the parasites simply can’t make the long journey.

OEtest
Taking scale sample for OE test

Lots of monarchs were coming around the corner of the Butterfly Center, dipping down to our outdoor butterfly garden and stopping to sip nectar from the blooms (they especially seemed to like wheat celosia and purple porter weed). Then they’d head off towards the Sam Houston statue and on in the direction of Rice University (southwest of us!). We caught 11 butterflies in the garden (and missed many more), tagged them (noting whether male or female), took a scale sample, and released them. Off they flew!

We’ll send in our data to Monarch Watch, and of course we hope that someone will find one or more of our tagged butterflies on the roost in Mexico. It is highly unlikely – given the millions of monarchs at the roost – but tagged butterflies (usually dead ones) do get found and reported. If one of ours is found, Monarch Watch will contact us – and they/we will know that butterflies do migrate to Mexico from our area.

tag team
Tag team

Local butterfly gardeners know that a number of monarchs stay in Houston over the winter. We often don’t have killing freezes here, and the recent craze in butterfly gardening means that there is lots of Mexican Milkweed aka Butterfly Weed around.  This plant, Asclepias curassavica, is a perennial from Central America; unlike our native milkweeds, it does not die back in the winter months. Also, predatory wasps, which take many caterpillars during the summer, are mostly gone – so if it doesn’t get too cold, Houston is a good place for monarchs to spend the winter. However, these butterflies are taking the risk of dying should we have a strong cold snap as we did last year.

Here are two great websites with information about these amazing butterflies and about how to get involved monitoring their migration: Monarch Watch at www.monarchwatch.org and Journey North at www.learner.org/jnorth/.

Photo from You: Insect Identification

Last week we received a photo of a very bizarre looking insect from Melissa who lives in the Seattle area. I had an idea of what it was when I opened the file, but it was a bit of a head scratcher!

For the most part, all insects in a particular order share the same distinguishing characteristics and it’s easy (for me) to tell what group they belong to. Grasshoppers look like grasshoppers, butterflies like butterflies, wasps like wasps, etc. But there are some exceptions to the rule. Some moths mimic beetles, some flies mimic bees, and some insects just look like 3 different things at once! This was the case with the bug Melissa found.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

It is a very alien-like creature called a plume moth. Plume moths do not look like the typical moth or butterfly. But then again, since there are about 250,000 species (10 times the amount of butterflies) of highly variable insects known as moths, there really isn’t a typical moth.

At first glance, a plume moth resembles a crane fly. You know those large clumsy flies you see in the spring, whose legs fall off if you look at them wrong. They have very thin wings that are divided into lobes. The forewings typically consist of two lobes and the hindwings have 3.  At rest, many species hold their wings straight with the lobes folded together, making them look like a “T.” There are 154 species of these moths found in north America, making species identification very difficult and often requiring a microscope. The adults are quite inconsequential and can go relatively unnnoticed. They’re often mistaken for a bit of dead grass! This allows them to be easily overlooked by potential predators and most other things.

Luckily Melissa noticed this one enough to snap a picture so we could learn about this cool insect. The caterpillars are the most significant life stage and can be pests on some crops such as artichokes and ornamentals such as geraniums and snapdragons. On the other hand, they have been used as biological control to combat invasive plants such as West Indian lantana.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

Even though I’m an entomologist, there are a million described species of insects, most of which I’ve never seen. I always love the challenge of identifying different species that people find in their particular corners of the world. Then I can add another species to the list of ones I know about. And by reading, you can too!

I encourage everyone to spend some time outside observing the smaller things that are out there. If you find something that interests you, snap a picture, and send it in to blogadmin@hmns.org. We love to receive these kinds of queries! We’ll identify and feature your bug in our blog.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Flickr Photo of the Month: Butterflies! [Feb. 2011]

_MG_8184
_MG_8184 by mkerkstra on Flickr.

Posted here with permission.

There are some amazing photographers that wander the halls of HMNS, and when we’re lucky, they share what they capture in our HMNS Flickr pool. Each month, we share one of these photos here on the blog.

This month, we have a reminder that the time of ridiculously chilly weather is almost past us this year, from Michelle Kerkstra, mkerkstra on Flickr. I’m always particularly impressed by the gorgeous butterfly shots that show up in the Flickr pool, as these stunning insects are also notoriously twitchy.

From the photographer:

Butterflies have always been a favorite subject of mine ever since I visited my first butterfly garden in Mackinac Island, MI with my grandparents when I was a little girl. Butterflies are perfect subjects to photograph, especially in an enclosed setting such as the Cockrell Butterfly Center, because you have the unique opportunity to see hundreds of unique subjects up close each with their own splendid color patterns!

This shot in particular was a wonderful surprise as it caught the profile of the butterfly perfectly and the background cast a wonderful halo effect around the wings.

For advanced photographers looking to shoot butterflies, I recommend using a macro telephoto lens at a substantial focal length (I took this photo using a 70-300mm) for more working room and using a tripod.

PS. Michelle has an entire set of lovely butterfly photos – check ‘em out!

Inspired? Most of the Museum’s permanent galleries are open for photography, and we’d love for you to share your shots with us on Flickr, Facebook or Twitter. Check out the HMNS photo policy for guidelines.

Visit our Cockrell Butterfly Center to see – and photograph – these stunning insects for yourself!