Tag Archives: butterflies

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar © Sean Horton

Take 5: Caterpillar Craze

What on earth are caterpillars, anyway?

“Caterpillar” is a common name for the “larval” (immature) stage of insects of the order Lepidoptera, a.k.a. butterflies and moths.

Finding caterpillars in nature is not easy! The easiest way is to look on their preferred host plants. Monarch butterfly caterpillars, for example, prefer to eat milkweed plants, so that’s where you’re most likely to find them hanging out.

If you love butterflies and caterpillars, you’re in luck! The 10th Annual Butterfly Festival at Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester is this Saturday, August 12. There will be activities for kids including face painting, an obstacle course, a story tent, and nature-themed arts and crafts, as well as a Caterpillar Lab with caterpillar expert Sam Jaffe.

To celebrate these cute, crawly creatures, here are five caterpillar images from our Picture This: Your Great Outdoors Photo Contest. The 2017 photo contest is open now, so enter today!

Isabella Tiger Moth Caterpillar (a.k.a. "Wooly Bear") © Callie Bucchino

Isabella Tiger Moth Caterpillar (a.k.a. “Wooly Bear”) © Callie Bucchino—Wooly Bears are unique for being commonly identified by their larval stage rather than their adult stage.

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar © Brendan Cramphorn

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar © Brendan Cramphorn

Brown-hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis) © Ron Verville

Brown-hooded Owlet (Cucullia convexipennis) © Ron Verville

Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar © Ingrid Moncada

Polyphemus Moth Caterpillar © Ingrid Moncada

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar © Sean Horton

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar © Sean Horton

Monitoring the Monarch Situation

A Quick Guide to MonarchsThe Case of the Missing Monarchs, which we reported on last summer, continues. For the second year in a row, observers are noting very few of these beloved bright orange fixtures of summer.

Their absence brings up a lot of questions, many of which cannot yet be answered conclusively. What we do know:

  • Monarch wintering habitat in the mountain forests of central Mexico has been greatly depleted in recent decades.
  • Because monarchs travel over such a wide area, they’re vulnerable to environmental change all along their route.

Stay Informed

There are many great resources closely monitoring the monarch situation including:

  • The Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental agencies, and academic programs.
  • The Xerces Society a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.
  • And, locally, the Massachusetts Butterfly Club, a chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.

Spread the Word

The more people that know about the monarch’s plight the better. Share our Quick Guide to Monarchs, which explains how to identify a monarch (versus its lookalike, the viceroy) as well as other useful information.

Butterflies and Moths: Busting the Myths

Distinguishing a moth from a butterfly should be easy, right? Well, it may be harder than you think. Butterflies are renowned for their bright colors, and moths have a reputation for drabness and nighttime flight—but many don’t fit this pattern.

Butterflies and moths are very closely related, and belong to the scientific order Lepidoptera. Though butterflies may steal the show in your garden, there are far more moth species than butterfly species. Here are four helpful tips for telling them apart.

1. Color isn’t everything: Some butterflies are dull and some moths are colorful.

There are plenty of bright, showy butterflies, but many of our local species have subdued hues. This common ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) is a good example.

Common ringlet

Common ringlet

And while it’s true that most moths aren’t as colorful as butterflies (bright colors aren’t as visible at night when many moths are active), there are plenty of exceptions. Here in Massachusetts you’ll find moths in a rainbow of hues. Just look at the rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda).

Rosy maple moth via Patrick Coin/Flickr

Rosy maple moth via Patrick Coin/Flickr

2. Most moths fly only at night—but some fly during the day.

You’ll usually see butterflies flying during the day, and moths at night. But beware—some moths are active in the daytime. A few, such as this snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), will even visit flowers alongside butterflies and hummingbirds. Learn more about these hummingbird moths.

Snowberry clearwing moth

Snowberry clearwing moth

3. Many butterflies hold their wings together vertically, whereas most moths don’t.

This mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is holding its wings together above its back in a pose more typical of butterflies.

Mourning cloak

Mourning cloak

Moths, on the other hand, tend to assume one of two poses. They’ll either rest with their wings held to the sides, as in this common lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria)…

common lytrosis

Common lytrosis

…or with their wings laid against their backs, as in this banded tussock moth (Lophocampa tessellaris).

Banded tussock moth

Banded tussock moth

But there are exceptions. Some butterflies will even hold their wings in a confusing mix of horizontal and upright, as in this dun skipper (Euphyes vestris).

Dun skipper via John Beetham/Flickr

Dun skipper via John Beetham/Flickr

4. One of the best ways to tell them apart is to look at their antennae.

All butterflies and moths have antennae—a pair of long sensory organs between their eyes. In most butterflies there’s either a thickened club or hook shape at the end. Check out the black blobs on the antennae on this silver-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene).

Silver-bordered fritillary

Silver-bordered fritillary

The antennae of moths lack these thickened tips. Also, some are covered with little projections, making them look like combs or feathers, as in this non-native gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar dispar).

Gypsy moth

Gypsy moth

Now it’s time to test yourself. Can you tell if this is a moth or a butterfly?

Butterfly or Moth?

If you guessed butterfly, you’re right. This Juvenal’s duskywing (Erynnis juvenalis) isn’t the most colorful insect, and it tends to lay its wings flat. However, the ends of its antennae are thickened (in this case, they’re hook-shaped).

For more on the amazing members of Lepidoptera, join one of our butterfly and moth programs.

Rare Butterfly Spotted

Pipevine Swallowtail via Lisa Daley-BrombergWhen Lisa Daley-Bromberg sent us this photo she took in Uxbridge, Massachusetts asking for an identification, we got very excited.

You see, it’s a pipevine swallowtail, an essentially tropical species, that is very uncommon in Massachusetts.

In fact, there were only 11 records for the state during the 5 years of the Butterfly Atlas Project (1986-1990). But, like many other southern species, it is appearing more frequently in our area due, most likely, to the changing climate.

Photo © Lisa Daley-Bromberg

The Myth-Busting Mourning Cloak

Mourning cloak copyright Frank ModelEvery year I wait eagerly to see my first butterfly of spring. Most likely, it will be a mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), a large butterfly with velvety brown wings and yellowish white wing edges. This beautiful “harbinger of spring” emerges on the first warm days, often before all the snow has melted.

How does the mourning cloak appear so early in the season? Hold onto your hats because this gorgeous insect contradicts everything we tend to believe about butterflies:

Myth 1: Butterflies die or head south for the winter.
Mourning cloak adults hibernate through the New England winter. Relying on “antifreeze” chemicals in their blood, mourning cloaks spend the winter in a sheltered place, such as in rock crevices, under bark, or in a woodpile. They emerge on warm days, sometimes as early as February, and treat us to visions of spring with their graceful flight. Other overwintering butterflies in New England to watch for include eastern commas, question marks, and compton tortoiseshells.

Myth 2: Adult butterflies only live for a few days.
Due to their overwintering strategy, mourning cloaks can have a lifespan of over 10 months. One of our longest-lived butterflies, mourning cloaks have been seen in flight in Massachusetts during every month of the year.

Myth 3: Butterflies nectar on flowers.
There are no blooming flowers in early spring when mourning cloaks emerge, so how do they feed? Mostly on tree sap, particularly from oaks. Mourning cloaks will also feed—brace yourself—on animal droppings and decaying things. Occasionally, if I have been hiking hard, a mourning cloak will land on my hand or head, attracted by the minerals in human sweat.

So, on the first warm day head toward a sun-dappled opening in the woods, preferably with storm-damaged trees and broken branches dripping sap, and wait for this resilient insect to make its appearance. Like you, it has managed to survive another New England winter.

To learn more about the mourning cloak and other butterflies of Massachusetts, check out Mass Audubon’s Butterfly Atlas.

Photo © Frank Model

Big News for the Giant Swallowtail

To say Mass Audubon has been all aflutter over the recent spate of giant swallowtail sightings is putting it mildly. Why are we getting so excited about a butterfly? Well, the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) was generally considered a rare butterfly in the state, usually spending most of its time to the south and west of Massachusetts.

In fact, according to Butterflies of Massachusetts, between the years 2000 and 2008, there were no giant swallowtails spotted in the Commonwealth. Then a few sightings were reported in 2009 and 2010 and even more in 2011. But this year, there have been many reports from all over the state including Ipswich River (Topsfield), Arcadia (Easthampton and Northampton), Drumlin Farm (Lincoln), Wellfleet Bay (South Wellfleet), and Broad Meadow Brook (Worcester).

Sharon Stichter, editor of the Butterflies of Massachusetts website, confirms that giant swallowtails have been reported in 2012 from just about all areas of Massachusetts. “Last year, we had the first-ever large influx of this southerly species at Sheffield at the beginning of the summer season. Then the offspring (the second brood) radiated out over the state, laying eggs on host plants,” she said.

How could a butterfly that was once rare in Massachusetts be seen in so many places? The short answer: Climate is an important factor in the shifting ranges of many species worldwide, and there is evidence that this is true for Massachusetts, too.

Stichter notes that the unusually mild 2011-2012 winter allowed for many of their chrysalids to survive, resulting in this year’s even larger summer flight. However, she adds, a cold winter could knock the species back to further south, at least temporarily.

It’s not just the giant swallowtail that’s relocating. According to a new study just published by Harvard Forest scientists and the Massachusetts Butterfly Club (including Stichter), there is evidence of “strong shifts in butterfly populations due to climate warming in the state.” The report goes on to say that some species that were once common are showing sharp declines, and southern species, like the giant swallowtail, are showing some of the biggest increases.

Identifying a Giant Swallowtail

While you may find a giant swallowtail around its host plants, which include northern prickly ash and hop tree, you’re most likely to see one feeding from common nectar-producing species such as milkweeds, bee balm, and thistles, among others.

Just don’t let its cousin, the more commonly seen eastern tiger swallowtail, confuse you. Here’s how to tell them apart:

Eastern tiger swallowtail

  • A tiger swallowtail’s open wings are mostly yellow with thin brown vertical stripes and a brown border across bottom.
  • When on a plant, a tiger swallowtail will settle its wings for a few seconds at a time.

 

Giant swallowtail

  • A giant swallowtail’s open wings are mostly deep brown with a yellow stripe running across to top and lower wings.
  • A giant swallowtail typically flutters constantly while nectaring.
  • The giant swallowtail has X-like yellow markings near the end of the upper surface of the wing tips and a yellow spot on the tails.

Have you seen a giant swallowtail in Massachusetts? If so, tell us when and where in the comments.

 

Five Common Summer Butterflies

Summer is a magical time for watching butterflies. A quick hike in the woods, a few quiet moments in a garden, or even a walk down a city block almost always turns up a few butterflies, more if you’re looking for them. Amidst this bounty of butterflies, here are five species likely to be flying whenever you venture outside:

With its bright orange color, black markings above, and silver spots below, the Great Spangled Fritillary is easy to recognize and, unlike most butterflies, will sit still on a flower head. Fritillaries are the reason I let wild violets grow in my lawn and garden—in the spring, young caterpillars who have overwintered in the leaf litter, crawl to a nearby violet patch and begin munching.

 

This must be the year of the American Lady butterfly; they’re everywhere! This lovely, medium-sized butterfly lays its eggs on Pearly Everlasting and pussytoes. When resting with its wings upright, it displays a splash of pink on its forewing and two large blue-centered eyespots on its hindwing (in contrast to the Painted Lady, which has four smaller spots on its hindwing).

 

Skipper butterflies are like the LBJs (little brown jobs) of the bird world and can be maddeningly difficult to identify. That being said, of all the Skippers, one is easier to ID than the others: the large Silver-spotted Skipper. A wonderful introduction to the world of skippers, the silver spot on its hindwing flashes like a beacon as it nectars in gardens, meadows, and roadsides.

 

If you’re in a sun-dappled woodland and a large, black butterfly with iridescent blue clouding on the top of its hindwings flies by, it’s probably a Spicebush Swallowtail. Its distinctive caterpillars, with large fake “eyespots,” feed on spicebush and sassafrass. One of my happiest springtime memories is gently uncurling young sassafrass leaves to greet the new caterpillars.

 

The Cabbage White may be an odd choice for this list. It’s a non-native butterfly, which feeds on invasive garlic mustard plant and the crucifers of our vegetable garden. But given a little time, the Cabbage White, which is often mistaken for a moth, can work its way into a butterfly lover’s heart. I can always count on it to make an appearance, even when no other butterflies are flying.

 

Want to learn more about butterflies and how to attract them?

Photos via Frank Model

Don’t Weed the Milkweed!

If a gardening catalog offered a plant that sported unique flowers, attracted butterflies, fed and protected the beloved monarch butterfly, provided nesting material for goldfinches and orioles, was easy to grow, and was native to our state, wouldn’t we be eager to plant some in our gardens?

So, what is this magical plant? Milkweed! There are over 70 species of milkweed native to the United States. In Massachusetts, species you may see include: common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterflyweed, whorled milkweed, and poke milkweed. Each looks different and each blooms at different times depending on the species and location.

Common milkweed is probably our most recognizable milkweed. Found in fields, meadows, disturbed areas, and roadsides, its large, thick leaves exude a milky substance when broken; its pink blossoms attract a frenzy of insect activity in early summer; and its distinctive seed pods release a hundred or more seeds flying on silky parachutes in late summer and early fall.

But don’t let the “weed” part fool you. This plant is a treasure not to be plucked. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Milkweed provides plentiful nectar to honey bees, bumble bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and other native pollinators. Milkweed depends on insects for pollination and in return the insects receive easy nectar from milkweed’s many small flowers growing in large clusters.
  • Monarch butterflies depend on milkweed for their survival. Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed and the toxins in the plant make the caterpillar and adult unpalatable and poisonous to vertebrate predators. The monarch’s bright orange color acts like a warning sign to predators: Eat me and you’ll get sick!
  • Milkweed provides habitat for tiny aphids “herded” for their honeydew by ants; milkweed bugs who feed exclusively on milkweed seeds; crab spiders who assume the color of the milkweed flower and jump out at unsuspecting butterflies; and many more bizarre and wonderful creatures.
  • Milkweed has an interesting history. In the genus Asclepias, milkweed is named after the Greek god of medicine (Asklepios) and the plant has been used medicinally for ailments ranging from asthma to tapeworm. (Not recommended!) Early settlers and pioneers used milkweed’s seed silk as stuffing for pillows and mattresses and ate every part of the plant after boiling in several changes of water to dispel the bitter toxins. (Again, not recommended!)

So, please, don’t weed the milkweed! Instead plant it, grow it, nurture it, and acquaint yourself with a patch near you.

To learn more about milkweed, visit a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary near you or come to the Annual Barbara J. Walker Butterfly Festival at Broad Meadow Brook in August to purchase milkweed, plant milkweed seeds, and learn more about butterfly gardening.

Photo of a monarch on common milkweed via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service