Last fall I was excited to find a couple of beautiful yellow and orange butterflies (Orange-barred Sulphurs) flying around the Bahama Senna shrubs in the front yard. Search as I might, though, I never did find a caterpillar. This fall I've seen them flying on several occasions, but they've never settled down while I've had my camera with me. (Seriously, I've never seen so much fluttering and so little landing.) Even though I haven't been able to get a photo of an adult, I have finally found a caterpillar, so I guess things balance out. I was cleaning up the yard and taking down the shutters the morning after Hurricane Matthew passed by, staying politely out to sea but giving us all a healthy scare, when I discovered this bright yellow caterpillar on one of the shrubs: Calloo callay! This little guy brought a little brightness to an otherwise drab gray day.
May is the month the butterflies in my yard really get going. It's not hard to see why many people speculate that there's a link between the little yellow butterflies in the sulphur family and the word butter-fly itself. Here's a buttery yellow Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) ovipositing on its preferred plant, Spanish Needles (Bidens pilosa):Yes, it looks kind of like it's actually depositing an ant, but it isn't. It's laying an egg! And now that the rainy season appears to have kicked in, I'm expecting a lot more insect life to come a-visitin'.
I've been focused on other things so far this year, so I haven't been working out in the garden nearly as much. And without being outside as much, I haven't encountered nearly as many animals as I normally do. This weekend, though, I was able to get out in the back yard for a little while, and I found a few insects flying around. One was a moth that I'd never seen before, Slosson's metalmark (Tortyra slossonia). Very flashy, quite small; it was walking around on a typically huge elderberry flower (technically an inflorescence, or collection of flowers) that was about six inches diameter. It was fairly quiescent, which normally makes for a good photographic subject, but the wind was blowing the plant around fairly frequently, making focusing a challenge. Unfortunately, right as the wind started to settle, the moth was flushed by an approaching butterfly, and I never saw it again. Here's the best image I was able to obtain: a brief write-up on the "little brown jobs" common to birding and butterflying.The plant was in shade, so I had to use flash, and the tone of the image is a bit muted compared to the brilliant metallic orange-red of the wing stripes, but the "face" of this little beast is so interesting I had to show a picture of it somehow. I can't wait to meet this guy again and get some more shots! And over on the sunny side of the house, I saw a pair of male little brown butterflies giving each other problems. Neither one wanted to allow the other a place to perch and bask and (perhaps) espy a passing female. But every now and then one would alight for a few seconds and allow a frame or two to be squeezed off. Here's one that worked, well enough to ID the guy as a Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius): If you're curious, you can see a female E. horatius that I found a few years ago in the "courtyard"; that experience prompted
The senna plants I put in this spring have been paying dividends for the last couple of months already. A nearly constant population of Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) butterflies has been present, both adults and caterpillars, although the former are quite a bit more difficult to photograph than the latter. Still, I've managed a few decent shots. This month (October, for those of you who aren't reading this the instant I post it) these plants brought in a new species to the yard: Sleepy Orange, Eurema nicippe. I knew it wasn't a Cloudless Sulphur right away, because it was quite a bit smaller, and the upper side (visible only in flight) was bright orange. It nearly always has its wings folded when it lands, though, so the only images I have are of the yellow undersides: The brown patches on the wings indicate that this is a female. A good clue to its being an orange and not another kind of yellow or sulphur is that there are only two orange butterflies in this butterfly family: tailed orange and sleepy orange. As long as you see the orange wings in flight, you've got a 50-50 chance of identifying it right away. And the tailed orange has a very different wing shape, so... About as easy an ID as they come. Here's the other side of this beautiful butterfly: The "sleepy" in the name comes from the marking that looks like a "closed eye" in the forewing. Very few internet commentators give an illustration of this, at least those who work from live insects, because it's very difficult to get a good photo of this butterfly with its wings open. But if you do manage it (and I haven't), or you just use specimen photos, you can see the two spots that do indeed suggest closed eyes, at least to those with a little imagination: And apparently John Henry Comstock, the godfather of entomology in America, gave this species the first part of its common name based on that character.Butterflies and Skippers of Ohio (1992).'>1 I'm not sure when the common name changed from Comstock's original Sleepy Yellow to the current Sleepy Orange, but it helps easily distinguish it from the other Eurema species: if you see orange, you know it's not one of the "yellow" yellows. Here's the picture of it from Comstock's How to Know the Butterflies: It's surprising how many different guides don't show winter and summer forms when they're different, or female and male; for Sleepy Orange, there's quite a difference, so you'd need to show all four forms to really help your reader. The yellow on the summer form is "clean," with the various black markings showing up in stark contrast to the brilliance of the ground color. Minno and Minno (1999) illustrate this species (and most other species) quite well, with two male and two female specimens, one for each form (click the picture if you'd like to see the caption at legible size): Like several of the oranges and sulphurs, Sleepy Oranges enjoy both the flowers and the leaves of many kinds of cassias; mine is Senna mexicana, var. chapmanii, native to Florida and the West Indies. When it blooms (when the caterpillars leave it alone long enough for it to do so!), it has a pretty yellow flower. I saw one the other day, but it was so windy I wasn't able to get a picture of it. Here's one from April instead: Enjoy! References Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Comstock, J. and Comstock, A. 1904. How to Know the Butterflies. New York: Appleton. Minno, M. and Minno, M. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening: A complete guide to attracting, identifying, and enjoying butterflies of the lower South. Gainesville: U of Florida P.
Skippers are the little brown jobs of the butterfly world: small, fast, hard to see clearly, and hard to distinguish in the field. Fortunately, a good camera can overcome almost all of those problems, and it came in handy last month when I uncovered a new species visiting the yard: Three-spotted Skipper, Cymaenes tripunctus. Pelidnota punctata, the grapevine beetle that I saw back in 2013 and have yet to finish writing up... Like most butterflies in this family (the Grass Skippers), its larval host plant is various species of grasses. Listed in my manuals are bamboo, paragrass, crabgrass, thin paspalum, guineagrass, sugarcane, and eastern gamagrass. While I'd like to have that last species, which is nice and ornamental, I have thin paspalum (Paspalum setacea) instead. It's a bunch grass, but very low growing, not very attractive, and I rip it out whenever it gets too thick. I guess I'll have to start inspecting it for caterpillars before I do!In the photo above, the butterfly is sipping nectar from the Bahama Strongbark (Bourreria succulenta) tree in the front yard. That tree is a favorite of many nectar-drinkers and pollinators, from the common European Honeybee to the more specialized leafcutter bees in the family Megachilidae. Flower flies, also called hover flies, in the family Syrphidae also frequent the blossoms, as do my most common resident butterflies, Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary. Last month I also noticed a huge spike in the population of Monk Skippers (Asbolis capucinus); on a good day I'd see 8 or 9 of them hanging out between the dwarf strongbark (I have a hedge of it out front) and the regular-sized tree. And one day I noticed another lightly marked brown butterfly, about half the size of the hulking Monk, and was able to get a couple of reasonable shots of it. Good enough, at least, to secure the ID. Since that first sighting (September 23), these have been fairly regular visitors to the yard. Here's another shot from a week later: Now it's near the middle of October, and I'm still seeing them on a regular basis (and still waiting for the light to be just right, so I can get a pretty, instead of just a decent, shot of one). But I can't wait any longer to post the "New Backyard Bug" post or I'll forget about it, as I've done with poor
I've been documenting my tiny area of the world for so long now (4-1/2 years at the "new" house [built in 1928] and 7 years before that at the "old" one [built in 1968]) that it's always an exciting day when I can record a new species. The other day I posted about two new bees, and just this morning I got a new butterfly! Unfortunately for those who like things tidy and all animals correctly named, I'm not entirely sure which species this is. That's because, at least if you believe the national butterfly guide books, it is part of a pair of species [Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis) and White Checkered-Skipper (P. albescens)] that cannot be identified in the field, and neither of them are "supposed to" be this far south in Florida. See for yourself on the range map in the newest (2012) field guide to North American Butterflies (Glassberg's Swift Guide): It's always best, though, to consult local guides whenever possible. According to Minno's 2005 Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants, the range is all of Florida, even if it had "just recently" expanded its range into the state: Of course, I'm sure neither Common nor White bother to read the guidebooks, and furthermore, should such a book-reading butterfly prodigy ever appear, I'm convinced that it wouldn't consent to confine itself to its agreed-on range, should the guidebooks every bother to agree! What's more, both of them are potential visitors south of the lake (that's Lake Okeechobee in case you aren't in the south Florida club), so either one is possible. The one thing I'm sure of about this butterfly is that it's NOT Tropical (P. oileus), the one checkered-skipper that "should" be in the area according to the guide books. That one looks rather different, although if you're new to checkered-skipper ID you might have to take your time to come to that conclusion. References Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak. Glassberg, J., Minno, M., and Calhoun, J. 2000. Butterflies Through Binoculars: A Field, Finding, and Gardening Guide to Butterflies in Florida. New York: Oxford UP. Minno, M., Butler, J., and Hall, D. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P.
You find some funny things when you start reviewing your photo files looking for images to delete (file sizes are big these days!). So the other day I posted a photo sequence of a
Lasioglossum bee [UPDATE: chalcid wasp] lying in wait inside a flower to surprise a Cassius Blue butterfly in the act of taking a drink. In case you missed it, here's one of the images:
Another image I took that day was one that I hadn't even considered posting. It was a typical throw-away image of a Martial Scrub-Hairstreak nectaring so deep behind a flower cluster that you couldn't even see its head. It was both underexposed and (at first glance) uninteresting. Here's a crop of the main subject, with a bit of Photoshop processing to try to bring out some detail in the badly exposed image (shooting darkish wings against a brightly sunlit white wall isn't easy):
Normally I discard these underexposed images without even a second thought, but for some reason right before I hit "delete" my eye was drawn to the left of the image. I decided right away to save this one despite its rather poor technical quality because it was such an interesting and serendipitous capture of insect behavior:
There's another (maybe even the same one as in my previous post!) bee waiting in line for this flower!
Here's the full size detail of the bee; just enough to see that it is indeed a bee, and most likely in the genus Lasioglossum[UPDATE:wasp in the family Chalcidoidae].
If I'd been trying, I'd probably have had to spend hours and hours, and I still might not have been able to get even this nice an image of this tiny bee in flight. I'm amazed by the people who can take good images of flying bees insects.
I haven't seen nearly as many dragonflies in the back yard this summer as I have in years past; I'm not sure why. But it seems that nowadays I have to travel if I'm to see anything like the diversity or abundance of species I'd enjoyed in my back yard for the four years we've been in the new place. So the Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend I went to Yamato Scrub, camera in hand, hoping to score an odonate fix. I managed to find quite a few, as well as some lovely little butterflies. As usual, I saw many more than the few who cooperated for the camera. Here are two, one each from the dragonfly and damselfly groups. First, the lovely red dragonfly Tramea onusta, called the Red Saddlebags (there is a Carolina Saddlebags as well; almost indistinguishable except that the black spots on the tail in Red are only on top, whereas in Carolina, the black goes all the way down the sides):And here's a damselfly. This one's a bluet, I suspect Atlantic (Enallagma doubledayi), but I can't rule out Familiar (E. civile) without having the specimen in hand and an argument with specialists: I think the broad bar of blue connecting the "eyespots" (called postocular spots by specialists) on the back of the head argues strongly in favor of Atlantic over Familiar, but it's by no means conclusive. Here's the bit I'm talking about: According to Paulson, who wrote the book on these bad boys, "postocular spots larger in Familiar and without occipital bar, but overlap." Bonus picture: Ceraunus blue butterfly, Hemiargus ceraunus: I love how the blue in the tailspot lights up so brilliantly in the right light. References Paulson, D. R. 2011. Damselflies and Dragonflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton UP.
April's showers have brought an explosion of new insect life to the garden. This morning I went out to check on the new plantings (record heat yesterday had made me concerned despite the relatively frequent recent rains) and discovered at least a half dozen Halloween Pennant dragonflies: http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Nathalis-iole Glassberg, J. (2012). A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America. Morristown, NJ: Sunstreak. Minno, M. Butler, J., and Hall, D. (2005). Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and their Host Plants. Gainesville: U of Florida P. The dreaded Wikipedia for Faraday's coining of the term "ion."Three or four little blue dragonlets (yes, this one isn't blue; they aren't when they're relatively fresh males or, if they're females, they're this color throughout life): And a new butterfly species for the yard. (I'm sure it's been here every spring; this is just the first time I've been able to document it.) It's a small yellow butterfly with a name that pretty much says the same thing: Dainty Sulphur. It's the smallest North American pierid (the term for butterflies in this family, "whites and yellows" or "whites and sulphurs"). They feed on low-growing plants in the Asteraceae, which basically means they feed on weeds. Around here they like Spanish Needles and perhaps other herbs in the genus Bidens, so there's very little reason to fear for the future of this weedeater. No one, and I mean no one, can get rid of Spanish Needles. (Glassberg, though, describes the status of this butterfly as "uncommon to abundant, decreasing immigrant northward and westward.") The taxonomic name is Nathalis iole, which translates roughly to "Nathalie's purple." I actually have no idea what the derivation of Nathalis is, so I speculate it honors someone Boisduval, who named the species, knew or fancied. The specific epithet, iole, though, comes from the Greek "ion" (ἰόν), which can mean either "violet," for the faint purple flush that is sometimes present on this butterfly (the caterpillar actually has two purple stripes on it), or "ion," the term Michael Faraday invented in 1834 to describe how something "goes" (from the Greek past participle of "to go," which is another meaning of ἰόν) from one electrode to another through an aqueous medium. (Boisduval names the species in 1836, so "ion" might have been in the current, so to speak.) References "Attributes of Nathalis iole." Butterflies and Moths of North America (website).
It seems that every November the Atalas cruise through my neighborhood. There are supposed to be several broods per year, but each and every documented sighting I have had on my property has been in the month of November. And last December I installed their larval host plant, coontie (Zamia pumila), so they might have a reason to stay: covered with droplets of a bitter-tasting liquid." How do you suppose the researchers found out what it tasted like?) In my yard, the coontie plants on which the life cycle of this butterfly depends are located next to several ready nectar sources, chief among them the butterfly attracter par excellence, Cordia globosa, with its small inflorescences present throughout the year. Here's a shot taken on a windy day: The bright reddish-orange abdomen and the iridescent blues on the dark black wings are eye-catching, to say the least. An unusual survival strategy in nature, unless, like this butterfly, the flashy insect is advertising not just its presence, but its don't-mess-with-me inedibility. The coontie has similar warning signs, with the bright red seeds of the seed cones saying "don't eat me": These warning colors are one way noxious chemicals are signaled to would-be predators or consumers. Wise are they who heed the signs. If you don't know the story of the Atala butterfly and its relationship with its host plant, by all means, go read about it.Of course, not every butterfly that stays is happy to have done so: Looks to me like the spider got it all wrapped up and then decided that the chemical brew in the butterfly's body wasn't too much fun to ingest. I'm not sure, but that's my working hypothesis. After all, the coontie, a cycad native to Florida, has some nasty chemicals in it to prevent herbivory, but the atala larvae are able to not just neutralize them but use them to their advantage to prevent insectivory! (The cuticle of the larva is apparently "