Summer Flowers and Visitors

The dynamic relationship between sequential summer blooms and insect visitors is fascinating, especially when the visitors are butterflies and moths. Like the invertebrates, I follow the sequence of bloom. But, I’m searching for rewards other than nectar!

Knapweed (Centaurea), dominant in abandoned fields and open habitats in July and August, is a popular source of nectar for bees, butterflies and many other insects. In good light, a macro view of the mix of vivid colors can be spectacular.

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Cultivated Phlox is a preferred food source for the Hummingbird Moth (Common Clearwing; Hemaris), but is also a good choice for attracting a variety butterflies to the backyard.

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Joe-Pye-Weed (below) and the goldenrods are breaking bud now, attracting the next wave of insect visitors!

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Photos by NB Hunter (July and August, 2018). © All rights reserved.

 

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Milkweed: plant it and they will come!

In recent years milkweed has received much attention as habitat for dwindling populations of monarch butterflies. Most of the more than 100 species in the Americas are tropical, but one species in particular is a staple of monarchs in the North: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

My backyard milkweed project started in 2015 with a few transplants from a nonproductive, roadside location. Establishment was slow, but they’re now flourishing. Vegetative reproduction by root sprouts has created a colony of about 30 stems and the large, fragrant flower clusters are insect magnets (according to the US Forest Service, over 450 insects are known to feed on some part of the plant, including flower nectar). I focused on the Lepidoptera, attempting to document the variety of butterflies and moths that benefit from flowering milkweed. Multiple benefits from a single management action is a best-case scenario. The value added from a colony of milkweed is much greater than monarch habitat.

I’ve observed 9 or 10 species of butterflies and moths thus far, as well as countless bees, flies and other insects. This is a sample!

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Honeybee

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Monarch

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Tiger Swallowtail

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Cabbage White

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Ctenucha Moth

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Fritillary

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Tiger Swallowtail

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White Admiral

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Monarch

Photos by NB Hunter (early July, 2018). © All rights reserved.

A Milkweed Project

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.

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Banded Hairstreak butterfly (milkweed flowers are a preferred food source)

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Virginia Ctenucha moth

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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).

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Flower Crab Spider

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Clearwing Moths

Something is missing from the meadows and the many blooming wildflowers that define them in late summer: butterflies. So, Plan B – cultivated Phlox around the house.

A common, reliable summer visitor, the Hummingbird Clearwing is a daytime moth that hovers and feeds like a hummingbird.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Twisting in the Breeze

While walking along a nature trail at an environmental education center, I discovered several tussock moth caterpillars. They were suspended above the trail tread on strands of silk, twisting, turning and drifting in the breeze.

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Brightly colored critters appear to be easy pick’ins for predators, but have evolved unseen avoidance strategies to compensate for the absence of camouflage. This one, the Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae), is loaded for bear. The hairs have microscopic barbs, and the longer ones (hollow lashes) are connected to poison glands. The flesh is repugnant and toxic as well. Predators learn from experience and, seeing a juicy black and white caterpillar twisting helplessly in the breeze, turn tail and hunt elsewhere. The conspicuous coloration actually serves as a warning.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wet Meadows in Early Summer

Seasoned wet meadow habitats are usually a tangle of shrubs and herbaceous plants in a mosaic of thickets and openings. They’re transitional habitats, evolving from grassy, weedy meadows to woodlands. A dominant, overstory tree canopy is absent, although increasing numbers of young trees forecast a very different landscape in the decades to come. Wet meadows are places where one is likely to get wet or muddy feet, even when it hasn’t rained for awhile. They’re also places that support rich wetland communities of plant and animal life, all begging to be observed and photographed!

These images were all captured last week while exploring  just a few acres of wet meadow habitats.

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Baltimore Checkerspot on Birdsfoot Trefoil; the primary host plant for caterpillars is Turtlehead, a wetland wildflower

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Virginia Ctenuchid moth on dogwood; Silky and Red-osier Dogwood are dominant shrubs in aging wet meadows and important wildlife habitat

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The Browns or Satyrs are signature butterfly species in wetlands; adults feed at bird droppings and sap flows – not flowers

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Twelve-spotted Skimmer, a common hunter in open habitats

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Swamp Milkweed, a popular source of nectar in wetlands

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Northern Pearly-eye, resting on a favorite tree in the transitional zone between wet meadow and forested swamp.

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Baltimore Checkerspot

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Daytime Moths

This has not been a good year for butterfly sightings in central New York. So, rather than dig into my archives for old butterfly photos, I’ll feature one of the few members of the butterfly and moth group (Order Lepidoptera) that I’m seeing daily, in the field as well as around the house: a moth that refuses to act like a moth!

The species is the Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe), also called Common Clearwing or Hummingbird Clearwing. These moths are very “unmoth-like” in two ways: they’re active during the daytime and, as their name implies, they look and act like tiny hummingbirds. In flight, the mostly transparent wings move so fast they’re barely visible. When nectaring, they hover, just like a hummingbird.

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Hummingbird Moth nectaring on garden Phlox, 1 of 5

Hummingbird moths have a long, tongue-like feeding tube (proboscis), an adaptation for nectaring on tubular flowers. The proboscis is coiled in flight, then extended for feeding.

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The adults are active throughout the summer and are most often seen in landscape gardens when Bee Balm (Monarda), Phlox and other tubular flowers are blooming. Earlier today I watched one nectaring on Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium), a wildflower approaching full bloom in damp meadow habitats

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Hummingbird Moth nectaring on Bee Balm

The larvae feed on a variety of woody plants, especially those in the honeysuckle and rose families (honeysuckles, Viburnums, hawthorns, cherries, etc.). They weave a cocoon on the ground, in leaf litter, where they overwinter (to encourage these plump little pollinators, a little benign neglect in the form of leaf litter around the edge of the yard could be helpful!).

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.