Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you. ~Nathaniel Hawthorne
This year was a disappointment in many ways due to a harsh winter and droughty, hot summer. Many plants in both gardens and the natural landscape suffered as a result, but certain creatures had a splendid year. Butterflies in particular seemed to do well, especially certain species of hairstreaks.
In my area, Black Swallowtails were not as common due to the activities of certain predatory wasps. A friend had twelve caterpillars on her dill and fennel she bought for the express purpose of watching the caterpillars develop. Eleven were eaten by the wasp or paralyzed and taken away for the wasp larvae to eat. Only one lived to make a chrysalis, and that was because a protective mesh was put around the fennel plant to keep the wasp out.
Giant swallowtails appeared for the third year in a row, at least in the northern parts of the state. These tropical butterflies wander up here and were not known to overwinter here. But several people were reporting a third year of spotting the larva in their gardens, so perhaps they may become residents as the weather permits. Look for larva on gas plants, rue, and skimmia, as well as on citrus plants put outside for the summer. This butterfly is the largest swallowtail in North America, so caterpillars are equally large and can defoliate plants. In the south where citrus is grown commercially, the larva is considered a pest.
Last year I found a population of Baltimore butterfly larva in leaf shelters constructed for overwintering. In late spring the caterpillars were everywhere in the field in various stages of forming chrysalises. These butterflies are uncommon, but may be found locally in wet meadows where the larval host plants are found. Turtlehead and English plantain are common host plants of these caterpillars. A couple of weeks later, this field abounded in the Baltimore butterflies. This field is a property managed by the CT. DEEP and the manager is careful to mow around the caterpillars when they are “ nesting”. Look for these butterflies in June.
Tiger Swallowtails and Spicebush Swallowtails emerge about the time their respective larval host plants start to leaf out. Tigers prefer small trees- especially black cherry, tulip tree and magnolia, while spicebush and sassafras are the host plants for the Spicebush caterpillars.
This year there was an abundance of two hairstreaks at the golf course where I work. In the mornings and early afternoons I had to remove them from fairways and greens to avoid mowing them over. These were the Banded Hairstreak and the Hickory Hairstreak, the former common and the latter uncommon. Both larval stages may be found where oaks are abundant and flight is from June – August. This year they were around for at least two months, probably as they eclosed gradually depending on temperatures where the chrysalis was formed.
Common Buckeyes, Red- banded Hairstreaks and Fiery Skippers, vagrants that were noted in Connecticut in good numbers in 2012 have been few and far between since then. Places where I could usually find them over the years were unproductive in searches this year.
A site where wood lilies are abundant always provides an opportunity to observe a number of butterflies that like these flowers. Native to our forests, wood lilies grow even where forests have been cleared, and there are local areas where they can be found. The butterflies that use them as a food source and a perching or patrolling spot ( males ) include: Spicebush Swallowtails, Coral and Gray Hairstreaks, American coppers and many skippers. If a male is using the flowers as a patrol site, if you scare it away it usually will return or pick a flower not too far away. It is to note that the Spicebush Swallowtail is one of the few butterflies that can squeeze into a lily flower to obtain nectar and then back out with no harm done.
As the year winds down, there are still some butterflies flying around, especially migrating species such as Cabbage whites, Sulphurs, Monarchs and Painted Ladies. Question marks and Commas are seen in flight as late as October and Mourning Cloaks can be seen in flight both in spring and late summer or even winter. Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults and may fly during the winter on warm, sunny days. As a note to monarchs, this year there were more reported sightings than last year, so perhaps populations may be rebounding somewhat. MonarchWatch.org is a good site for anyone interested in this butterfly.
As a final note, it is always a pleasant surprise to see a butterfly of any kind to those of us who delight in them. The caterpillars are also fascinating and I have raised many since childhood. I have kept records for years on where and when I find specific butterflies and their caterpillars and the value of this information is well worth the time spent on all the hiking, leaf turning and documenting involved. And the best part is that each year is different,
Pamm Cooper All photos copyright 2014 by Pamm Cooper