Written by Joanne Wells
OUR BUTTERFLY MEADOW
Designed to attract butterflies, the Butterfly Meadow fulfills the needs and demands of the butterfly: a sunny, open space filled with flowers, attractive flowers. Ideally sited with an abundance of trees on the surrounding property, a warm, sunny day will find butterflies flitting from flower to flower in the meadow—only to dart into nearby trees for shelter. Here their needs are met: trees providing shelter from rain and wind, flowers providing nectar and pollen for the appetite of that perfect insect, the butterfly. Likewise, both trees and flowering plants provide food for the ravenous appetite of the butterfly larva, the caterpillar.
Note: The Alamo Area Master Naturalists have established a Butterfly Learning Center at the Heritage Homestead on Voelcker Lane in Phil Hardberger Park (East). There is a garden of desirable plants for nectaring and egg-laying as well as a Hatch House for pupating caterpillars and releasing butterflies.
THE CALENDAR OF THE BUTTERFLY
The butterfly has a calendar: Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. During Winter, the season of rest, most butterflies retire to the refuge of trees and other natural shelters and remain in pupa/chrysalis throughout those months when plants are not available to provide nectar or food for the voracious needs of the growing larva/caterpillar.
Early Spring rains bring new life to the Butterfly Meadow: the delight of a Texas Spring brings the show of wildflowers for which Texas is known—and the Butterfly Meadow springs into bloom, to be closely followed by butterflies. Filling the air, competing for first flowers, the newly emerged butterflies compete with each other for nectar from the flowers. The air is soon filled with the passion of butterfly courtship. With the flush of new growth, the butterflies mate, then deposit eggs on the only food plant that nourishes each butterfly species.
By early Summer the voracious appetites of a multitude of hungry caterpillars have decimated the lush growth of Butterfly Meadow flowers and stripped leaves from trees. As plants diminish and the heat of summer bears down, the fat caterpillars shed their skins, revealing the pupa/chrysalis beneath. Tucked away on the bark of a tree, the caterpillar, in the safely of its pupa, begins the transition to butterfly.
The rhythm of the seasons is precarious in the life of the butterfly. Protected in its pupa from predators, in about three weeks the developing butterfly prepares for its entry into the world as a fresh, new butterfly. Fall! And with it, the rainy season of the Texas. The Butterfly Meadow leaps into the full flush of new growth as butterflies emerge from pupa to welcome the blossoms. Fall plant growth provides for the nourishment of the new butterflies as well as the caterpillars to follow. The late days of October provide the prime time for butterflies. The heat of summer has diminished into weeks of temperate days when the butterfly population is at its peak.
The first cold days of December intimate that Winter is coming. Meadow plants past their prime no longer provide flowers for nectar or plants necessary for the caterpillars’ voracious appetites. The butterflies of Summer, never destined to live more than a few weeks or months, fade with the season. But the caterpillars, fat with tender growth of the fall harvest months, prepare for the long, cold months within the safety and protection of the pupa. The seasons end, another generation of butterflies waits for Spring.
BUTTERFLIES — TO NAME BUT A FEW
Texas tops the list of greatest butterfly diversity in the United States with over 400 species recorded. Verified in Bexar County alone are 184 butterfly species. A count of butterflies in Phil Hardberger Park is in progress, as the Butterfly Meadow was established in 2012. The following list of butterflies, abbreviated as it is, contains butterflies commonly found in the PHP Butterfly Meadow as well as our other local natural areas.
Monarch (Danaus plexippus) monarch As it holds the place of honor as The State Butterfly of Texas, the Monarch is listed first. The Monarch is a transient visitor to Texas; its primary residence (and winter roosting site) is the State of Michoacan, Mexico. Monarchs begin their annual journey from Mexico, flying through Texas to their destination in the North East United States and into Southeastern Canada. In February, Monarchs leave their winter roosts in the Oyamel trees of Michocan, begin to mate, then to seek milkweeds on which to deposit eggs. Millions of butterflies fly ever northward seeking milkweed, the only plant on which its caterpillar can and will feed. Some Monarchs tagged in Mexico have found their way across the United States, laying their eggs as they travel. A population of Monarchs in California, long presumed to be a separate and distinct population, has proven via DNA testing to be so. The twenty-year tagging of Monarchs has documented times, pathways and range of this butterfly, unique in its migratory habit. The end of summer finds the Monarch beginning the long monaarch caterpillar journey back to Mexico: woe to the Monarch which dallies! They cannot survive frost in any of the life stages.
For more information on the Monarch visit MonarchWatch.org.
Queen (Danaue gilipps) Along with the Monarch, the Queen is a Milkweed Butterfly, as its caterpillar feeds only on milkweed. Resembling the Monarch in color and pattern, it is about 2/3 the size of the Monarch. The Queen is found in Texas gardens from May until November, surviving the cold months in its chrysalis.
Pipe Vine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) This black swallowtail pipe vine swallowtail sports gaudy colored spots and iridescence on its hind wings which differentiates it from a similar black swallowtail, (Papilio polyxenes). The Pipe Vine Swallowtail is found only where its larval plant food, Pipe Vine (Aristolochia spp.) is available for the caterpillar to feed. Its distinctive chrysalis resembles an inch-long seahorse, usually green-gold in spring and brown in the fall. Butterflies tend to have set times for their life stages; the Pipe Vine Swallowtail will regularly spend 15 days as a caterpillar and 15 days in its chrysalis. The wildflowers of our Butterfly Meadow are hugely attractive to the Pipe Vine Swallowtail, which will be found on thistles, frost-weed, lantana, fire- wheel or indian paint brush–but then on to the lavender verbena. It likes them all!
Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) Largest of our area butterflies, the Cresphontes is striking for its bold yellow and black geometric markings and its powerful wing strokes in flight. Its size, and the length of its proboscis, allows it to take nectar from flowers with long tubes, competing with hummingbirds in the garden.
Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) Another large black and yellow swallowtail, the Glaucutiger swallowtails’ wings are more graceful than powerful in flight, its pattern rather lyrical than the bold pattern of the Cresphontes. In places where the Tiger Swallowtail is found with the Pipe Vine Swallowtail, often female Tiger Swallowtails will be a solid black-on-black, providing a protective confusion to predating birds between it and the distasteful Pipe Vine Swallowtail.
Black Swallowtail (Papillio polyxenes) Of the several “black” swallowtail butterflies found in Texas, only this butterfly is commonly known as the “Black Swallowtail.” To be definitive, it is called the polyxenes–a good reason to use the scientific name. The caterpillar feeds only on plants in the parsley family, although it readily eats the herb “common rue,” which is in the citrus family. It takes nectar at lantana, butterfly weed, phlox and thistles.
Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) A showy, paprika orange-red with silver spots on the underside of its hind wings, the Gulf Fritillary will be found wherever larval plant food, passion vine, grows. In recent years the local Passiflora foetida has been augmented with a wide variety of exotic passion vines. I have never seen Gulf fritillary—or any butterfly–take nectar from the showy blossoms of passion vine. It favors lantana and composites. Of the several tropical butterflies using passion vine as larval plant food, the Gulf Fritillary is most hardy and tolerant of cold. As the first frost kills passion vine to the ground, however, the loss of larval plant food ends the continuation of the cycle of life for the season.
Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) One of the butterflies known also as Angel Wings or Leaf Wings because of the irregular edges of the wings. A small silver streak on the dark under-surface of the lower wing gives it the “question mark” designation, while the upper surface is a brightly-colored orange and brown. As the butterfly is more to attracted to mud, rotting fruit, animal dung and tree sap than flowers, look for it where ripe persimmons have dropped from the trees. Larval plant foods include hackberry, cedar elm and tall wild nettle.
Cloudless Giant Sulfur (Phoebis sennae) If they are in the Butterfly Meadow, they are readily seen—a medium-to-large butterfly with both upper and lower wing surfaces a bright yellow. As they nectar at diverse flowers, look for them in late summer and early fall at buttonbush, lantana, and butterfly weed, as well as salvia species. They also take moisture from mud puddles. Larval food is various species of senna, partridge pea, and sensitive pea. Larvae feed on leaves of cassias.
Painted Lady (Vanessa carduii) The Lady can be found from early spring to late fall, one of the most frequently seen butterflies in the Butterfly Meadow and the most widespread of butterflies in the world. The caterpillar feeds on more than 100 plants, including thistles, mallow and legumes. It is sometimes referred to as thistle butterfly for its preference to thistles.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A BUTTERFLY? WHAT MAKES A BUTTERFLY A BUTTERFLY?
Like all Insects—and butterflies are insects—the adult butterfly has compound eyes, antennae, three main body parts (head, thorax and abdomen), six pairs of legs, and a hard, chitinous exoskeleton. Butterflies are insects of the order “Lepidoptera.” Their two pairs of wings are scale-covered, some brilliantly so, making them powerfully attractive to us. They have a tube-like proboscis used for taking in the fluids on which they feed and a pair of long antennae.
HOW DO WE CLASSIFY BUTTERFLIES?
Texas butterflies can be organized into families:
Swallowtails (Family Papilionidae) Large butterflies with “tails” on their hind wings. All Swallowtail caterpillars have a Y-shaped gland behind the head called an osmeterium. When disturbed, the osmeterium is extended and exudes a strong odor, a concentration of the fragrant herb on which the caterpillar feeds: parsley, dill, fennel, citrus, pipe-vine—depending on the species. Twenty species of Swallowtail have been recorded in Texas.
Whites and Sulphurs (Family Pieridae) Small-to-large butterflies easily separated into their two main families: the Whites and the Sulphurs. Forty-eight Pierid species are recorded in Texas.
Gossamer-wing Butterflies (Family Lycaenidae) These small, gray butterflies can usually be found perched with their wings closed. Two main families in Texas are the Hairstreaks and the Blues. Hairstreaks have a pair of tiny, tail-like filaments extending from the hind wings. Blues are identified by their blue color and the absence of tails. Approximately sixty-seven Lycaenid species have been recorded in Texas.
Metal-marks (Family Riodinidae) Small butterflies often found perching on flowers or the undersides of leaves. Seventeen species of Metalmarks have been recorded in Texas.
Brush-footed Butterflies (Family Nymphalidae) Brush-footed butterflies are the most diverse family and can be divided into eight distinct subfamilies in Texas. Prominent in Brush-foots is their greatly reduced forelegs, giving the appearance of only two pairs of legs, as seen in the Snout butterflies where the forelegs give them the conspicuous “snout” appearance. Some Brush-foot adults feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion and dung. One hundred and nine Nymphalid species have been recorded in Texas.
Skippers (Family Hesperidae) The small-to-medium-sized Skippers can be identified by the “hook” at the tip of the antennae. Approximately two hundred Skipper species have been recorded in Texas, some of which are conspicuous for their long tails.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES?
As in many cases, for every rule there is an exception: so it is with determination of what is a moth and what is a butterfly. Most butterflies fly by day, most moths at night. Most butterflies sport bright colors, while moths do not–except for the magnificent Imperial Moth, gaudy in its fuchsia and yellow. Butterflies have clubbed antennae, while those of moths are feathered (in the male; female antennae are rather thread-like). And watch closely should you see a “bumblebee,” yellow and black with clear wings, nectaring at honeysuckle. The Sphinx Moth is laying her eggs on honeysuckle leaves at high noon. See the link below for: “Butterfly, Moth or Skipper.” from Butterflies of Eastern North America, A Coloring Album and Activity Book by Paul Opler and Susan Strawn. 1989.
WHAT IS THE LIFE CYCLE OF BUTTERFLIES?
Lepidoptera—Butterflies and Moths develop through four stages of the life cycle referred to as complete metamorphosis:
Stage 1: Egg, which the female lays on or near the larval host plant, usually hatching within three to five days. Eggs of each species are distinct and different.
Stage 2: Caterpillar or larva, often described as a “worm-like” growing stage. Only a caterpillar will become a Butterfly or Moth: a worm will always be a worm. Caterpillars of each species are distinct and different and will feed voraciously on particular plants for several weeks or months, preparing for their next stage.
Stage 3: Chrysalis or Pupa The caterpillar slips out of its skin, revealing the chrysalis beneath. Anchored by silk threads, the chrysalis is attached in a safe place while metamorphosis, the process of changing from caterpillar to Butterfly or Moth takes place. The pupa phase lasts from a few weeks to several months or even years, depending on the species. The Chrysalis/Pupa of each species is distinct and different.
The “cocoon” is the pupa of a moth. Only moths encase their pupa. The caterpillar of the moth wraps the pupa with silk from its mouth and often incorporates leaves or other debris to protect the pupa. After making the cocoon, the caterpillar sheds its skin inside the cocoon.
Stage 4: Adult Called by Victorians “That Perfect Insect,” this is the insect with jeweled wings we have anticipated. Emerging from its pupa, the new Butterfly must stretch its crumpled, wet wings, pumping fluid into them as they expand and dry. It is then prepared to fly, seeking soluble nutrients which it ingests through a straw-like sucking proboscis. The Butterfly or Moth has a final task: to find another of its species, mate, and lay the eggs for the next generation. In its life of flying from flower to flower, it will also distribute pollen of the flowers it visits
A WALK IN THE MEADOW: GETTING TO REALLY KNOW OUR BUTTERFLIES
Now that you have background knowledge of butterflies, you’re ready to really observe. Take a camera. Photograph butterflies. Return to a shady spot, take out your butterfly field guide and start a Butterfly Notebook, which will be your permanent journal. At the top of the page, write DATE, PLACE, BUTTERFLY, NOTES (include flower). This is scientific methodology—a record of what you observed. You will eventually identify the butterfly, but the place and date cannot be retrieved. You may never again see this butterfly at this place, on this date. AND—did you remember to note the flower which had halted the butterfly in her meander? Even if you do not go on keeping your own Butterfly Notebook, identifying butterflies, observing which plants they use, and enjoying their natural ecology is something you will continue to do.
Butterflies are beautifully seductive and call us to them.
Butterfly, Moth, or Skipper: Adapted by Joanne Wells from “Butterfly, Moth or Skipper” in “Butterflies of Eastern North America, A Coloring Album and Activity Book,” Paul Opler and Susan Strawn. 1989.
Butterfly Life Cycle: “Butterflies of Eastern North American,” Paul Opler and Susan Strawn, 1989.
Butterfly Gardening: A SA Natural Area article Compiled by Janis Merritt:
Bibliography: Great resources for area butterflies annotated by Joanne Wells
For more information for children see, Flutterfly Butterfly.