This morning was nice and calm and I decided to wander around and see what I could find in the garden. Found a few large Atala caterpillars munching on my coontie out back. They're very hard to take a good photo of, because depth of field is such a problem. Coontie are low-growing plants, so it's difficult to maneuver a tripod into position, so the "traditional" digital answer to this problem (aligning and stacking multiple exposures taken with slightly different focus points) is much harder to achieve. So the best I've been able to do is hold as still as possible, try to align the axes of the lens with those of the subject, and hope for the best. Here's a passable image, probably the best I've managed despite having the photo op literally 15 feet from my back door whenever I feel like it:After I was done frustrating myself with this subject in the back yard, I wandered around to the font, where I found this lovely Gulf Fritillary butterfly resting on the Bahama Senna: Unlike the ones flying up high in the passionvine out back, this one was very still. I suspect it was freshly emerged and still drying its wings; they're not normally this quiescent in the bright morning sunlight. The native plant society might not think too much of my garden, but the native insects appear to enjoy it anyway!
It doesn't take long to "survey" the yard when you're a backyard naturalist. A few minutes in the morning, as long as you actually get out and do it, can have some interesting results. This morning, as I was grinding through the normal workaday toil, I decided I simply hadn't been outside enough for the day. So I took my camera and wandered around the front and back yards for about five minutes. And in those five minutes I found a butterfly that I'd never seen before! It's another hairstreak, like the very common Mallow and the much less common Martial, but this one is a relatively recent newcomer to Florida, having been definitively established only since the mid-70s: Fulvous Hairstreak. William Chapman Hewitson (1874) bestowed the species name (angelia); said species name is almost certainly behind one of its common names, Angelic Hairstreak. While it's always nice to see new butterflies, especially ones that are rather strikingly handsome, this one brings up some decidedly mixed feelings. Its most common hostplant is the non-native invasive tree species Brazilian Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius—often written as S. terebinthifolia because, Latin). The plant itself is fairly pretty when it's in fruit, as the huge clusters of tiny red berries against the dark green foliage give it a festive appearance. It was first imported as an ornamental in the 90s—the 1890s1—and, because it thrives in this environment, became very popular. A couple of common names from back in the 50s when it first found widespread cultivation as an ornamental in south Florida were "Florida Holly" and "Christmas Berry." And on the surface, what's not to love? It's fairly pretty, particularly when trimmed up as a specimen rather than allowed to grow to its natural form (basically, a 30-foot sprawling globe), it grows and propagates easily, and it has high wildlife value—the birds love the berries (which allows it to spread easily via seed transport, aka the poop train). But dig a little deeper and you discover that perhaps this plant isn't so nice:Like most hairstreaks, it's a small butterfly, with a wingspan less than one inch. And, like many hairstreaks, it's fairly pretty. Perhaps the combination of those two traits was the reason
- It's a member of the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and, like its cousins in that family (think poison oak, poison ivy, poison sumac), is a skin irritant. So just trimming it up to look nice can cause sensitive types (like me) to break out into a painful rash.
- It also produces allelopaths, chemical substances that inhibit the growth of other plants in its area. Like a planet, it clears its own orbit.
- Its so easy to grow that it currently dominates over 700,000 acres in Florida, making it the number one invasive plant species in the state.
Given the abundance of Brazilian Peppers in Florida, it is surprising that the Fulvous hairstreak is not one of the state's most prevalent butterflies.It isn't though. This sighting was my first in the fifteen years I've lived in Florida. As Cech and Tudor continue:
While it does often occur in swarming local colonies, the Fulvous is not an everyday sight throughout its range. It poses no visible threat to its hostplant's viability, based on it apparently modest appetite as an herbivore.More's the pity, some might say. Sometimes I don't know whether to admire or curse Nature's whimsy. Beautiful native plants like the Fiddlewood (Citharexlyum fruticosum) get stripped down to twigs by the fiddlewood roller (Epicorsia oedipodalis, a fairly ugly little caterpillar that grows into an even uglier moth), yet the beautiful butterfly that feeds on Brazilian Pepper doesn't even put a dent in that noxious weed. Still, I suppose it's a good thing that I don't see too many of these little butterflies in my yard; it means there aren't too many Brazilian Peppers in my neighborhood. There's also another way of looking at it: there are reports from Cuba of this butterfly feeding on a diverse genus of wildflowers, Salvia, of which I have several different varieties in both front and back yards. If the south Florida hairstreaks feed on Salvia as well, I won't mind having them around at all! References Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Glassberg, J. 2012. A Swift guide to butterflies of North America. Sunstreak.
I've already mentioned how glad I've been to have the Bahama Sennas I put in last spring (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii). They've attracted my "everyday" sulphur, Cloudless (Phoebis sennae), a nice Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe), and now a new butterfly for the yard (one of the only new insects discovered in this windy, windy November), the Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea):As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a different butterfly than any of the ones I'd seen before. Its size alone made it stand out; this is Florida's largest sulphur butterfly, even larger than the appropriately named Giant Orange Sulphur (P. agarithe). The cloudless sulphurs I see every day, while not exactly shrimpy, look small compared to this hulking giant. The color also made it stand out. The entire underside (that is, what's visible when it has its wings closed) was "rusty" orange, and the orange was particularly prominent when it was flying. I managed to capture a moderately nonhorrible image of the hindwing orange area, although it's nothing to write
home an entire blog post about:
The orange at the base of the female's hindwing is not the "bar" referred to in the name, though. The orange-barred part of the name comes from the male, which has a thick orange "bar" on the forewing (In case you didn't know, in describing an animal, stripes run vertically, while bars run horizontally.):
According to almost all of my books, the orange-barred sulphur colonized Florida from the West Indies in the late 1920s.1 According to Cech and Tudor, it is less migratory than our other sulphurs (Cloudless being the "typical"—or perhaps extreme, rather than typical—migratory sulphur, occurring over a wide range at various times of the year.)
Like most sulphurs, its larval host plant family (what the caterpillars eat) is the sennas in the genus Cassia (as opposed to the sennas in the genus Senna—plants are awesome!).
The caterpillars of the Orange-barred are highly variable green or yellow, but no matter what basal color they have, they have bold markings that make them quite a bit more colorful than the green-with-a-yellow-racing-stripe Cloudless cats:
However, I have yet to find one on my property; all of the candidate caterpillars I've found have turned out to be early instar cloudless sulphurs; as they grow, they get greener and greener.
Caterpillars of all the sulphurs appear to prefer to eat the flowers, although the leaves will do when there are no flowers present. (And there are rarely flowers present, since there are so many generations of caterpillars, and they all prefer the blossoms, or if those are absent, the buds.)
This spring I overhauled the front part of the front yard, getting rid of some scraggly dune sunflower and replacing it with some more long-lived plants. (Not that dune sunflower is bad or short-lived, but I have it in many other areas of the yard as well, and it needs frequent cutting back to keep it looking nice.) I put in some of the usual suspects with lovely little flowers: beach creeper (Ernodia littoralis), blue porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), and a few actual wildflowers (a wild petunia, among others). I also put in three (count 'em, three!) little plants on which I pinned some rather high hopes: Bahama senna (Senna mexicana var. chapmanii). These are also called dwarf senna, so I suppose I shouldn't count on them to grow very large, but the pictures I've seen of them in my plant guides show some tremendously flowering plants, with big yellow flowers dominating the scene. That one lonely bloom in the picture above was supposed to be just the first of many. Hasn't worked out that way; once the blooms that were on the plants when I brought them home from the nursery were gone, there were no more. Rufino Osorio's guide mentions that they flower most profusely in autumn and spring, so perhaps a long period of summer dormancy isn't anything to worry about. But they also never seemed to grow. Whenever I went out to look at them, I saw snapped-off new growth, as if the plants were just too brittle for our breezy locale. I checked for insect damage but could never find a culprit, even though I know that several lovely yellow butterflies use these as their larval host plants (which was one of the reasons I'd brought them into the garden, after all.) Recently, however, as I was out pulling weeds after several months of heat-induced procrastination, I noticed what I'd probably just been overlooking for the past few months: a big, bright green and yellow caterpillar munching contentedly on the leaves, practically denuding the branches it was on: The bright blue outlines around the black spots, combined with the yellow racing stripe on a green body are distinguishing characteristics of the lovely Cloudless Sulphur butterfly, an insect whose devotion to its larval host plant is reflected in its taxonomic name: Phoebis sennae. This caterpillar, despite its bright colors, just blends right into the leaves and stems of the host plant. It's the same kind of camouflage enjoyed by some parakeets. Take a look at them out of their natural setting (on a telephone wire, for example) and you'd wonder just how in the heck they could ever conceal their bright green colors. Why haven't they all been eaten by predators? But then you watch an entire flock of them just completely disappear into the green-leaved canopy of a large tree and it hits you: their camouflage is just perfect for where they evolved. At least, that's what I'm telling myself after months of apparent obliviousness to these quite large caterpillars trimming my bushes so effectively. Here's what this lovely young rascal will eventually turn into: Here's another shot of a different larva, from the top (I just love the symmetry of the spots and the "wings" of the senna leaves): And a different adult: We have lots of butterflies here in south Florida. And if we plant pretty little plants that they enjoy, we can enjoy even more of them!
The Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) is one of the most common butterflies in my backyard, and it's one of the most impressive as well. Large and brightly colored, it's attracted to the nectar provided by the abundant flowers of the butterfly sage (Cordia globosa) that I have growing in several places, as well as to its larval host plant, any of several vines in the passionflower family. I have a couple of them; one is a cultivar of Passiflora incarnata, with very showy flowers: Another is the true native, Passiflora suberosa. The flowers of this second vine are much less showy but the plant is no less attractive to the butterflies for that reason: the attraction is the chemicals contained in the vine, not the nectar or the beauty of the flowers. The larvae eat the leaves and incorporate the toxic chemicals (cyanogenic glycosides) they contain. Here are some of the fruits and foliage of this "maypop" vine: The other day I found yet another species of passionvine that I didn't plant and haven't seen before, with intriguing red three-petaled flowers: When I first saw the flowers, they looked so much like the bougainvillea that's growing nearby (right down to the three stamens in the middle) that I simply assumed one of those flowers had somehow fallen off that plant and onto this volunteer passionvine that's growing up between the cracks on my patio. But closer inspection revealed the flower to be part of the passionvine itself, so I'm stumped. And unfortunately, since it's a volunteer vine in a bad location, it probably won't survive long. And on top of that, because it's growing up between paver cracks, it's situated too tightly for me to be able to dig it up and put it somewhere nicer; I just have to hope that it sprouts again in a more favorable location. If you look at the leaves in the picture above, you'll notice that someone's been eating them; here's a picture of the culprit: They sure look, um, interesting, when they're young, don't they? When they grow up, they look much more attractive:
Halloween is right around the corner and the butterflies are popping out of the woodwork. I've seen the "standard" passion vine butterflies (heliconians attracted to the Passiflora vines I have growing along the backyard fence) all summer, and they're still out in force, but I've also got the smaller "grassy" butterflies flying around now. One that I've been trying to get a good picture of for a long time is the lovely little yellow (which, by the way, is actually its standard American name), Eurema lisa: Sida acuta, which longtime readers of this blog might recall as the larval food plant of the Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak) and the mexican clover (Richardia grandiflora, which no one really "likes" but I tolerate for its year-round flowering, which keeps nectaring insects like bees and butterflies attracted to the yard when nothing else might be in bloom). The little yellow is probably more common in my yard now that I've got a good patch of Powderpuff (Mimosa strigillosa) going in it; that, along with Partridge Pea, is its larval food plant. It's also a darn pretty little thing: I haven't seen any of the caterpillars yet, as far as I know, but I've seen more than one of the butterflies, so I'm hopeful this will be a semipermanent addition to the insect fauna at the homestead. Etymology My favorite site for online etymology of hard-to-find insect names is the Century Dictionary Online. While the main site appears to be gone, there are some easy-to-search other sites that still produce results. And thank goodness. After all, my initial thought for what Eurema might mean was that it can't just be a corruption of Eureka, "I have found it!," can it? And, well, no, not really. Here's what it says:They're normally pretty quick to take flight when approached, so I was quite happy that this little lady (males don't have the large pink spot at the top corner of the hindwing) was calm enough to allow me to approach and get a few images. She was nectaring from a couple of weeds in the front lawn, the wire weed (
I have a new puzzle on my hands. I don't know of any places in the neighborhood with enough coontie to support the Atala Blue butterfly (Eumaeus atala), but I've got one "sleeping" on my pool deck: regal darner I "rescued" from the pool back in September didn't last four minutes. For more on the coontie plant and the butterfly it supports, read this information sheet from UF/IFAS. And have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Back around Labor Day I wrote a couple of short pieces about the various egg-laying episodes I've seen on the hybrid passionvine in our back yard. This particular plant is a cross between our native Passiflora incarnata and a Mexican variety, thus explaining why our "3-lobed" native has 5-lobed leaves. The star of the September post was our state butterfly, the Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia); in that article I showed a few pictures of the adult form and the eggs. But I wasn't able to hit for the cycle—the life cycle, that is—meaning showing photos of egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult. I posted the pictures I had: the adult butterfly and the egg. While I still haven't got the complete cycle, I'm only missing the triple, because today I got the double: a good photo of the larval form, the caterpillar. While it's true that passionvines have developed some chemical defenses against herbivory, the heliconians have outsmarted the plants, incorporating those chemical defenses into their own chemical defenses against lepidivory (to coin a term). And now there are quite a few heliconian caterpillars (all Zebras) on the vine. Here's what initially attracted my attention: supplements its diet with pollen. Apparently this richer food source enables the Zebra to live for several months, rather than the days to weeks of other types of butterfly. Hooray for Heliconius! Hooray for Zebras! No, not that kind of zebra. This kind:
There hasn't been much to post about recently, with all the wind and clouds keeping photo ops to a minimum. The heliconians (zebras and julias) are still hanging out around my passionvines, and the blues are still festooning the scorpion tail. I'm also seeing sulphurs around, as I have been all summer—no surprise with False Tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum), the larval host tree of Large Orange Sulphur (Phoebis agarithe), on the premises—but trying to get a picture of those strong and erratic fliers is like trying to get a picture of the wind itself. I've also been seeing a couple of large swallowtail species. One of them is the familiar Battus polydamas that I had around the old house, thanks to the robust Dutchman's-pipe we had there. Here at the new house they drift over to our house from our across-the-street neighbors, who have a much smaller, but still quite productive, vine. The other swallowtail I'm seeing now and again is the striking Heraclides cresphontes, Giant Swallowtail. It's a two-toned beast, as you can see from the couple of snapshots below, taken back in 2008 when I was frequenting Fern Forest at lunchtime. In this one you can see the black upperside with the strong yellow spots, the hint of color on the tail and dorsal side of the abdomen: one of the first plantings that I put in, my Zanthoxylum fagara, also known as Wild Lime or Lime Prickly Ash. As its common name implies, it's a member of the citrus family. And lo and behold, I saw what looked like a giant bird dropping! On closer inspection, though, that "bird poop" had shape, structure, and even what look like ocelli at the "head" end: if the timeline on this website from way out west (Utah!) holds true for my area (which it might not; the humidity and extra daylight of subtropical Florida might favor rapid larval development). Here are a couple more shots of this little guy. In this next one you can see the shiny skin that increases its resemblance to fresh bird poop. (And note the wicked thorn visible on the plant in this shot; that's why I put this particular plant in the corner, where it wouldn't get much traffic. I don't want people getting stuck by those vicious spines!):
a caterpillar with excellent options in both bird-dropping and snake-mimicry. When viewed head-on the later instar caterpillar passes as a credible snake mimic with scalelike markings all about the thorax. When viewed from the side and top its visage is that of a bird dropping, especially in early instars. Its shiny skin adds to the disguise, giving the larva the character of a freshly deposited dropping. (78)And my third guide (Minno et al 2005) echoes the other two in noting that this is one of the more conspicuous and predictable caterpillars. One note about the name: the genus to which this species is traditionally assigned (Papilio) is disputed. Some taxonomists prefer to split this large group into three or more genera, one of which is Heraclides, to which these "splitters" assign Giant Swallowtail. Others prefer the "traditional" classification of this animal as a member of Papilio, but they place it in the "Thoas" group (there actually is a Thoas Swallowtail, a rare visitor in extreme Southern Texas). Two of my three caterpillar guides (all dated 2005—a banner year for caterpillar books, with one each from Oxford, UPF, and Princeton!) still list the Giant Swallowtail under Papilio (P. cresphontes), but Minno et al, brave taxonomists, list it under the new name, Heraclides. The insect conservation group the Xerces society follows this new taxonomy, at least based on their entry for a closely related species, Schaus' Swallowtail:
Traditionally, all North American swallowtails were placed in the genus Papilio but were recently split between three genera. Papilio aristodemus was transferred to the genus Heraclides Hübner 1819.I don't have any skin in this game; I just want to know what to call the darn thing! [UPDATE: The Heracleidae, of course, are the descendants of Hercules; Cresphontes is one of those people.] References Allen, T.J., J.P. Brock, and J. Glassberg. 2005. Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America. New York: Oxford UP. Minno, M.C., J.F. Butler, and D. W. Hall. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and Their Host Plants. Gainesville: UPF. Wagner, D.L. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
One great thing about working from home is that it's relatively easy to see wonderful things on your lunch break—that is, if you've planted the right backyard habitat. Last week I wrote about the butterfly-attracting qualities of Heliotropium angiospermum, or Scorpion's-Tail, which is conveniently located between my pool and the backyard fence. Back then, I was captivated by the sight of a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterfly resting on one of the exquisitely sculpted leaves of this showy little flower. Today I went outside to see who else might have been visiting (before the Pearl Crescent there was the Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), and as you can see from the photo below, today it was the turn of Leptotes cassius. This handsome little devil is the common and widespread (well, in Florida and Texas, anyway, although the two populations are geographically distant enough that they have been recognized as two separate subspecies, theonus in Florida, and striata in Texas) Cassius Blue butterfly: Wild-Tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum):
Wild-tamarind plays an extremely important role in the ecology of South Florida hammocks. It is a fast-growing pioneer species. Seedlings establish themselves in open, sunny areas and quickly grow into large shade trees that serve as "nurse" trees for a wide array of hammock species needing such a canopy to become established. [In fact, it's doing that for my Pearlberry shrub right now!]If I ever find a caterpillar in this tree, I'll be sure to post about it. The branches are pretty far above the ground, though, so it's not too likely anytime soon.