Unprecedented numbers of Painted Lady butterflies fluttered about in fields of goldenrods and asters this month. They were everywhere, sometimes two to a flower cluster, presenting ample opportunities for environmental portraits. On more than one occasion they actually photo bombed a monarch shoot!
Warm sunny days are fueling carpets of wildflowers in abandoned fields. Nectaring butterflies – monarchs, painted ladys and others – complete the scene as they dart, flutter and glide about in a continuous and purposeful manner. It all seems right. And September is a wonderful time of year to be alive.
In recent days the life cycle of monarch butterflies has unfolded before my eyes. My post on late summer white-tails will have to wait.
Monarch caterpillars are feasting on the leaves of milkweed, with several sizes or instars visible. This one is actually on a milkweed pod, in search of a fresh leaf to chew on.
After feeding, growing and molting for about 2 weeks, the mature caterpillars pupate. This chrysalis was discovered in a large patch of milkweed plants at the edge of a field.
The pupal stage may last another 2 weeks, but it’s worth the wait. The emergence of the last generation of monarchs in late summer is a defining moment. Their field trip to wintering grounds in Mexico is a miracle.
Monarchs fluttering over fields of goldenrods bring fitting closure to the wildflower season and offer a heart-warming prelude to autumn colors on the horizon.
When the cool nights and shorter days of late summer arrive, priorities shift dramatically to subjects like white-tailed deer and preparation for winter. Aside from the occasional Monarch flitting about in fields of asters and goldenrods, butterfly photography is an afterthought.
A recent field trip and opportunity to observe butterflies in a cultivated landscape reminded me that there’s still a lot going on in butterfly world! And, most important, a landscape with continuous bloom into late summer can attract and nourish a wide variety of insects at a critical time. The host plants in this post are Sedum (‘Autumn Joy’) and Butterfly Bush.
Tiger Swallowtail on Sedum (1 of 2)
Red-spotted Purple on Sedum (the red spots are on the underside of the wing)
Old fields, forest edges and road corridors harbor an impressive variety of summer flowers, many of them alien. Knapweed is one that I have grown to appreciate due to the tremendous insect activity associated with its flowers. On a hot, muggy summer afternoon it is possible to hear a field of knapweed in full bloom before you see it….bees! I liken the sound to that of the faint hum of traffic on a distant highway.
I appreciate the importance of this bloom as a food source for bees, and couldn’t walk away from a serving of knapweed honey. However, the main reason I trudge through the matted, thigh-high tangles of knapweed in the mid day heat is butterflies.
Several years ago I discovered a group of milkweed plants growing at the edge of the property. They were in the shade of a 60-foot-tall Norway spruce and lacked the vigor and floral production of open-grown plants. Mindful of the decline of Monarch butterflies and their habitats, I transplanted about 15 plants to better sites in full sun. This was done in the spring of 2015 and 2016.
Most plants survived the stress of transplanting but they didn’t become fully acclimated and established until this year. I’m now pleasantly surprised with the results, and plan to continue the project. The new colonies are producing root sprouts as well as flowers, and the response of nectaring insects was immediate.
Here is a small sample of milkweed visitors last week – and several plants have not reached full bloom yet! This is a wildlife manager’s dream scenario: one action, with multiple benefits.
Banded Hairstreak butterfly (milkweed flowers are a preferred food source)
Virginia Ctenucha moth
Tiger Swallowtail butterfly
Given the insect activity, I wasn’t surprised to find a common 8-legged predator lurking in the flower clusters: the Flower Crab Spider (I had to gently lift the flower cluster and shoot one-handed to get the image).