Beautiful Spring-time Butterflies!

Spring-time is almost here and the butterflies will soon be fluttering all around town.  I have actually seen a lot already, but we do live in Texas, so that’s not a surprise.  Since I work in an exotic butterfly house, I definitely have my favorite exotic butterflies, but I also have a few favorites that are here in Texas as well.  Many of you may be expecting me to write about the monarch, Danaus plexippus, but I thought I would write about some different, but still very common ones that we find around here in Houston.  If you are interested in monarchs, please check out Nancy’s blog - all about monarch migration.

Morning Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joel Olives

The Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, is a butterfly that frequents Houston quite often.  Its caterpillars feed off of every single part of the passion vine plant, which make them poisonous and nasty-tasting to predators. 

A couple of summers ago, I had tons of these caterpillars on my passion vine plant.  The caterpillars have large spines along their body with an underlying bold purple, orange, and black coloration, serving to warn predators of their danger!  I’m sure many of you have seen this bright orange and black butterfly fluttering around nectar plants such as Lantana, Zinnia, Coneflowers, Butterfly Bush, and many others. 

One of the most distinct characteristics of the Gulf Fritillary is the spectacular silvery, almost mirror looking, spots on the underside of the wings.  The males and females look very similar, but the black stripes on upper side of the female’s wings are thicker and more pronounced.  Although this butterfly is not here in the Butterfly Center very often, take advantage of its beauty outdoors right here in Houston.  

The goldrim butterfly, Battus polydamas, is a member of the swallowtail family (Papilionidae), but it does not have the typical tails that many of these butterflies have.  The name ‘gold rim’ comes from the golden-yellow crescent shaped markings on the upper edges of both the fore and hind wing.  Caterpillars of this species are gregarious (living together) in the early stages but become solitary when older.  The caterpillars are a dark reddish gray color with paired fleshy tubercles along the back of the body.  

I am very fond of these cute caterpillars and was fortunate enough to take this adorable picture in our butterfly garden right outside of the museum.  Adults are mainly associated with disturbed areas of the forest and can be seen visiting gardens throughout the city.  They are nectar feeders and especially like Lantana.  Like many swallowtails, this butterfly flutters constantly while feeding instead of stopping to rest.  This butterfly is fairly common in Florida and South Texas and will at times stray to Kentucky and Missouri. 

Clouded Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

Once spring-time hits, I seem to see this next butterfly all the time!  As a native of heavily populated areas such as parks, yards, gardens, and road edges, the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, can be seen almost anywhere along the gulf coastal states. It is characterized by its pure bright yellow to greenish-yellow wings. The males use strong rapid flight to search for a receptive female. The eggs are laid singly on leaves of Cassia,which the caterpillars happily consume, and hide underneath, to rest. The pupae are oddly shaped, compressed from side to side with a greatly distended “chest and belly”. They use a silken girdle to attach themselves to the leaf during pupation. These butterflies are harmless to plant life and are a welcome visitor to any garden.

One of the largest butterflies that I see around town is the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontesThis fantastic butterfly is native to large portions of North, Central, and South America. It very common in Houston and can be seen gracefully fluttering and sipping the sweet nectar of flowers such as Lantana, Azalea, and Honeysuckle.

Characterized by the striking diagonal yellow band across its forewing, and its long yellow-filled tails, this butterfly is a joy to see in one’s garden! The larvae feed strictly on citrus plants and are commonly called “orange dogs.” As a defense, they cleverly disguise themselves as bird droppings as they sit motionless during the day and feed at night. As with other swallowtails, these caterpillars’ posses a bright reddish orange, y-shaped gland called an osmeterium, which contains a mixture of highly noxious chemicals that smell like rancid butter. This gland helps to protect the caterpillar from small predators such as ants and spiders. The pupal stage remains inconspicuous, resembling a piece of tree bark.

These four butterflies are only a few of the wonderful butterflies that live in Houston.  If you are more interested in butterflies you should check out Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texasby John and Gloria Tveten.  It’s a wonderful book and has amazing pictures.

Love Butterflies?
Bring them to your garden with scrumptious (to butterflies, anyway) host plants – available at our Spring Plant Sale April 4, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Stay tuned for more details!

Protection from Predators

Butterflies will lay eggs on host
plants, like this Cassia alata. But,
how do you protect the caterpillars
that emerge from hungry predators
in your garden?

This week, I received a phone call from a museum patron who was concerned about wasps capturing her Gulf fritillary caterpillars from her Passionflower vine in her butterfly habitat and flying off with them. Because her host plant was a vine, it was not possible to protect the caterpillars from predatory attack; she would just have to allow nature to take its natural course.

There are however, a few methods we can suggest to you for protecting your caterpillars from predators. One method is to drape bridal-tulle (fine mesh) over the existing host plant within your garden. This tulle can be supported by a frame such as a tomato cage. Stitch up the sides of the mesh with a hem stitch so that the stitches are touching one another this way, the predators have no entrance. Along the bottom edge of the tulle you can pierce v-shaped wires into the soil. You can make these with an old wire hanger and a wire cutter. You should secure the bottom edge of the tulle by inserting it into the soil to a depth of about 1-2”. Wasps and Yellow Jackets will try to enter the enclosure through the bottom if they know a food source exists.

Another method of protecting caterpillars from predators is to remove the caterpillars from the host plant and place the caterpillar and its food source into a secure container with air holes or a screen or tulle covering for air circulation. You can use and old aquarium, pickle jar, Rubbermaid container etc. as a temporary home. Place a clean paper towel at the base of the container each day. You do not want to leave the frass (waste) in the container because it will cause mold to grow.

In this photo, caterpillars of the Cloudless Sulphur,
Phoebis sennae species feed on their host plant, Cassia
alata. I always find it amazing that the butterflies
find their way up to the top of the parking garage
in search of specific host plants to lay their eggs on.

Today, I removed 12-15, caterpillars along with stems of fresh food and placed them into a container with holes in the top. Each day, I will spray the foliage within the container, put in fresh food and change out the paper towel. When the caterpillars are molting, they will remain stationary for 4-8 hours. Once they shed their skin, they are very fragile. It is best not to disturb them at this time. Some caterpillars crawl off and rest upon the side of the container for this period of time before and after molting. You don’t want to place your container in a sunny window because this will cause the interior temperature to rise to an uncomfortable level. If you have fine mesh on the top though, that is OK. In that case, you should mist more than two times a day with a spray bottle of water.

Finally, whether or not you have housed your caterpillars in the garden or in a container, they will soon pupate. Twelve to twenty-four hours before the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis you will see the wing coloration of the species just under the covering of the chrysalis. When the butterfly does emerge it has to spread its wings to dry. Do not disturb it at this time, it is fragile. Touching it could possibly cause it to be deformed and you wouldn’t want that.

vôa borboletinha!
Creative Commons License photo credit: .mands.

In another twelve to twenty-four hours you can safely release it to your garden where it will immediately find a nectar source to feed upon. If it is cloudy and raining, the butterfly will roost under a stem or a leaf until the temperature reaches 78 degrees or above. Once its body temperature warms up it should take flight.

Upon flight it will seek out its host and nectar sources so be sure to have plenty on hand in your garden for your new friends. I hope this sheds a little light on how you might save some of your beautiful caterpillars from predation in the future. Protecting them with an artificial environment is an easy thing to do.