This semi-annual sale’s not about skivvies, it’s all about Skippers (and Painted Ladies, Nymphalids + more): The Semi-Annual Plant Sale!

I think we can all agree that butterflies are awesome. They are familiar and beautiful, but there are also some little guys out there that hardly ever get a second glance. I’m talking about hairstreaks, smaller nymphalids, skippers and the like. From far away, these butterflies may not seem like much, but up close they are just as pretty as a giant swallowtail.

Hairstreaks

Let’s start off with one of my all time favorites: the hairstreaks. These members of the Lycaenid, or “gossamer winged,” family get their name from the thin, hair-like lines that cross the under surfaces of their wings. Many of the hairstreaks have slender “tails” on their hindwings, which resemble antennae on the wrong part of the body! While resting they will rub their hindwings together, causing their “tails” to wiggle. Coupled with colored eyespots, this makes their back-end look just like a false head. This illusion comes in handy with predators, attracting them to the wrong end of the body, allowing the butterfly a quick escape in the opposite direction.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Hair Streak

The hairstreaks are fast butterflies with erratic flight patterns. They can also be hard to view because of their size — from ½ inch to only about 1 ¾ inch in wingspan — so it can be hard to identify different ones in the field. If you do come across a hairstreak, however, try to get a good look — they’re worth it! Some species of hairstreaks have only one brood per year in the spring, while others have several from spring through fall.

You generally can’t attract hairstreaks to your garden with host plants. They eat a wide variety of larval foods, depending on the species — some are dried up leaves, mistletoe (try planting that one!), hackberry, oaks, cedar, pine and a variety of legumes. The best way to attract hairstreaks to your garden is by planting the nectar plants that they like. Some good ones are almond verbena, lantana, asters, frog fruit — anything with really small, tubular shaped flowers arranged in clusters.

Nymphalids

Nymphalids, or “brush-footed” butterflies, are also some of my favorites. This family of butterflies takes its name from their highly reduced front legs, which are covered in tiny hairs and resemble brushes. At first glance, it appears these butterflies have only four legs. This family is very diverse in size and shape, without many recognizable characteristics in common. As adults, however, many do not visit flowers for nectar, but rather feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, dung and carrion. These guys know how to survive a drought!

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Texas Crescent

You may see some of these butterflies flying about on warm winter days. Some species overwinter as larvae and/or adults; however, they won’t breed until host plants become available in the spring.

Some of my favorite “brushfoot” butterflies in Houston are the Texan Crescent, the Question Mark and the American Painted Lady.

The Texan Crescent (Anthanassa texana) is tiny — up to 1 ¾ inches in wingspan. They are around for much of the year, spring through fall. Their host plants include members of the Acanthus family: flame acanthus, ruellia, dicliptera, shrimp plant. When you get caterpillars, you will have lots, so expect your “fruit cocktail” shrimp plant to be stripped!

Question marks (Polygonia interrogationis) are gorgeous! If Stevie Nicks were a butterfly, she would be this one, with its dark purple, velvety, gypsy-like wings. I have seen question marks in the country covering the sides of dirt roads, absorbing minerals. Their larvae feed on the leaves of elm and hackberry trees, and sometimes nettles. These butterflies are out during most of the year, hibernating during the winter and estivating (becoming dormant) during the summer. One sat for days on my outdoor ceiling fan this summer. They are on the larger side, size-wise — up to 3 inches across.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Question Mark

American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterflies are about 2 inches wide and are abundant in spring and fall. Their favorite host plants are in the Aster family. I learned that the larvae of this butterfly feed on the curry plant — which we will have at the fall sale!

Skippers

Skippers are cute little creatures that have been classified as an “intermediate” between butterflies and moths. However, most lepidopterists agree that they are more closely related to butterflies. Skippers have stout, hairy bodies with large heads. Their antennae are spaced far apart, more on the sides of their head, with a curled hook at the end instead of the usual clubbed antennae seen in “typical” butterflies. Their wingspan usually measures less than one inch, except for the long-tailed skippers, which may be over 2 inches across.

Semi-Annual Plant Sale | Oct. 6, 2012Fiery Skipper

Depending on the species, in the larval stage, skippers eat mostly oaks, mallows, legumes and grasses. You may have some of these in your lawn or garden right now!

Skippers often drink nectar from low growing flowers. I have seen them many times on trailing lantana by the Museum greenhouses. They also like to imbibe nutrients and salts from shallow mud puddles.

Their flight is fast, whirling and erratic, so the best way to observe them is while they are perched on a flower sipping nectar.

The HMNS Semi-Annual Plant Sale

When: Saturday, October 6th from 9 a.m. to noon
Where: On the 7th level of the museum parking garage
How Much: FREE

We’ll have all the necessities: milkweed, pipe-vine, passion-vine, porterweeds, lantana, pentas, and more. We will also have a lot of the favorite plants of those “lesser known” butterflies that I’m sure you will now be looking for this fall!

If you plan on coming to the sale, please come early to get the best selection. To make life easier on yourself, please bring your own wagon.

See you Saturday!

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!

Tis the Season to be worried about butterflies!

Grey Hairstreak, P7020072crop
Creative Commons License photo credit: Anita363

This year, I think we’ve gotten a record number of phone calls from people who are concerned about butterflies they’ve seen near their homes or have raised in their gardens. It’s no wonder that butterflies are very popular around here and no one wants to see them perish in the not-so-toasty temperatures outside! It may seem silly to some, but I can certainly sympathize. I spend a great deal of my time raising insects and I certainly get attached and would do things to care for them that might make some question my sanity! However, butterflies and other insects have been surviving through the winter for millions of years. Butterflies native to Houston have definitely got the climate figured out by now! So, before you go darting across your lawn after that poor butterfly, there are some things you should know!

As I pointed out in my post, “Where Have all the Bugs Gone?” bugs, including butterflies, are not quite as sensitive as many believe. These small but resourceful beings have quite a few tricks up their sleeves! Over-wintering, hibernation, migration, hunkering down; these are just a few examples. Butterflies in Houston pretty much have it made. Especially when you consider the fact that there are butterflies in the North, like the Morning Cloak, that can survive through a truly frigid winter and emerge in the spring better than ever! Our winter is very mild comparatively, with plenty of warm, sunny days. Here are some common Houston butterflies and how they survive the winter.

Papilio thoas nealces  [The Giant Swallowtail]
Creative Commons License photo credit: fesoj Giant Swallowtail

Swallowtails (giant swallowtail, black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and more) –  These butterflies spend the winter in a suspended state called diapause and they spend it as a chrysalis. They are immobile, take in no food or water, and are extremely resilient. They can certainly hadle the very few freezes we experience here in Houston. I have had swallowtail chrysalids that have not emerged for nearly a year and a very healthy butterfly was the result!

Longwings – The gulf frittilary is our resident longwing. This is another butterfly that can be seen year-round in any of the four life stages. The mobile stages such as the larvae and adult will hunker down to avoid freezing temps. The immobile stages, the egg and pupa, are more resistant to temperature.

Orange-barred Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaibara87 Cloudless Sulphur

Sulphurs - These sunny yellow butterflies can be found all over the world, including above the Arctic Circle – how’s that for cold! Favorites like the cloudless sulphur are found throughout the entire year as adults, even during the winter. When the temperatures drop too low, they hide in crevices in trees or man-made shelters and they fly when it is warm, gathering food to continue to carry them through the winter.

Monarchs - These are the most popular of all! Monarchs are known for their incredible migration from as far north as Canada, down to the mountains of Central Mexico. These butterflies, unlike some others, cannot withstand the freezing temperatures of the North. They do not only go to Mexico, some find their winter homes in California, Peninsular Florida and the Keys, and even here. We have a population that does not migrate from Houston because the temperatures are warm enough. If you see a Monarch outside during this time, don’t worry, they haven’t missed the boat, they are quite happy here!

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

So you see, we do not need to intervene – butterflies know what to do when it gets cold. The temperatures outside right now are not deadly, just uncomfortable. Insects can go a long time without food or water and as soon as the sun re-appears, they will get their fill. If it does freeze, they will seek shelter.

Now, if you have been raising monarchs or other butterflies in your garden and you bring them inside to be warm, there is a chance they will emerge as adults when it is way to chilly for them to be released. They cannot be kept alive inside your home either. In this case, we will happily allow you to release them into our conservatory where they will be quite happy! Some butterflies will indeed perish during these few cold months, but it’s all part of the cycle that has been going since the creation of Earth and we should try not to intervene to much!

Until next time, Happy Butterfly Watching!

100 Years – 100 Objects: Madagascar Sunset Moth

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Nancy, the museum’s director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and curator of entomology. She’s chosen a selection of objects that represent the rarest and most interesting insects in the Museum’s collections,that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org- throughout the year.

Madagascar Sunset Moth – Chrysiridia rhipheus

Madagascar Sunset Moth-6x5This spectacular, iridescently colored moth is considered by many to be the most beautiful of all Lepidoptera (the order of “scaly winged” insects, i.e., butterflies and moths). A day-flying moth endemic to Madagascar, it was originally described as a butterfly due to its resemblance to the swallowtails. The rainbow of colors on both upper and lower wing surfaces that make this species so sought after by collectors are not due to pigments, but result from the scattering and reflecting of light by microscopic ridges and pits on the highly curved scales covering the wings.

The museum has several hundred specimens of this moth.  It is relatively common in its native habitat, where it periodically undergoes massive one-way migrations when the hostplants for the caterpillar stage (they feed on trees in the spurge family) increase the amount of distasteful toxins in the leaves.  Interestingly, after the migration has lessened pressure on the hostplant, the amount of toxins in the leaves subsides to normal levels.  In the American tropics, a close relative, the green Urania moth (Urania fulgens), also makes mass migrations for the same reason.

Learn more about moths and their relatives in a visit to the new Brown Hall of Entomology, a part of the Cockrell Butterfly Center– a living, walk-through rainforest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org