One of the major natural wonders of summertime is the profusion of butterflies. Some call them flying flowers, which is appropriate given their beauty and close association with flowers as a nectar source.
Butterfly variation and diversity can cause confusion so it is helpful to learn the most common species. Here are some of the most abundant butterflies in our farmyard this week.
At the top of the list are the swallowtails, of which the tiger is the most common. However it is confusing since it comes in a yellow and black morph.
Sulfur Orange butterflies puddling on wet soil.
All male swallowtails are yellow and have narrower black stripes on the forewing and a little blue on the hind wing in comparison with the female.
The black stripes, including one right down the center of the body of the yellow morph, divert attention away from the body and head.
Most swallowtail females are dark. These "black tigers" show some hints of dark stripes with lots of blue on the hind wing. It is believed the black tiger morph benefits from being a mimic of the toxic pipevine swallowtail, which predatory birds avoid.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Galax, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The coloration and shape of the hind wing with the tails and orange eye spots is also thought to function as a head mimic, diverting predators away from the more vulnerable head and body. No matter how you analyze this butterfly, it is a thing of beauty and some scientific mystery.
Another group of butterflies are the fritillaries, which are more plainly colored. Great spangled fritillaries are common earlier in the summer but variegated fritillaries are seen most often now.
Variegated fritillaries are particularly attracted by late blooming butterflyweeds, which grew in fields mowed June 25. This removed the fescue and allowed warm season grasses and flowers to thrive.
Clearly this species it is not advertising its presence.
Meadow fritillaries, smaller and similarly colored, like to congregate on and drink (called puddling) from organic material of animal origin and from water sources, which contain salts. Finding enough salt is a common problem with herbivores whose diet is high in potassium but not sodium, hence the common use of salt licks.
You can attract butterflies by putting out wet sand with a dilute solution of sodium chloride in it.
A large group of orange sulphur butterflies and some eastern tailed blues were also found "puddling" along our dirt road sipping soil, water, which must contain the desired sodium. Each sulphur extends its proboscis into the soil.
A common group of butterfly frustrating to identify is the skippers. They are so difficult to tell apart. Skippers have large bodies and short wings, which they hold out at an angle. The common checkered skipper is most obvious.
In our Florida yard we have one of the most beautiful and distinctive species, the mangrove skipper. It has iridescent blue streaks and patches.
So do not despair, you can easily learn to identify the common butterflies of your area first, and then progress to more difficult species to learn. This bootstrap method of gradual progression in knowledge is a good technique to follow for learning dragonflies or plants or whatever taxonomic group that interests you.
While there is nothing intrinsically special about knowing the name of something, it is tremendously powerful to be able to recognize individual species since this is the means by which you can begin to make observations on behavior, ecology and thus look for patterns.
Pattern recognition is the holy grail of ecology and provides special satisfaction to the nature lover. It explains why I find great pleasure in returning to the same habitats time and time again to see how things have changed, or not.