Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Best Thing About Butterflies

To me, the best thing about butterflies is that they get up at a decent hour.  Usually early morning is the best time to hike if you’re looking for wildlife.  Take birds for example: they’re liveliest right around dawn. I know a lot of dedicated birders who think nothing of getting out the door at five am or earlier (on their day off, no less). I, however, am not a morning person-- and that’s putting it mildly.  It takes a couple hours of groggy consciousness and several cups of coffee before I’m safe to venture outside of the house. So I have a hard time chasing wildlife at oh-dark-thirty. But butterflies are after my own heart: they’re most active when the sun’s already been up a few hours.  Hooray!

When I discovered that butterflies keep a reasonable schedule I fell in love.  I have been photographing them for a couple years now.  The common image of butterflies is graceful bits of color drifting from flower to flower.  But it turns out that’s not the entire truth: some butterflies don’t actually drink flower nectar at all! They get their nutrients from things like mud, dung (yep, really), oozing tree sap, overripe fruit and even rotting carrion. So much for the delicate “I eat nothing but flowers” image!  Here’s a group of mud-puddling Eastern Tiger Swallowtails I found at Lake Frank, in Rock Creek Regional Park:

Even nectivorous butterflies like the Swallowtails also visit other sources for minerals.  I’ve read that males in particular need to visit mud seeps in order to replenish certain nutrients that they lose during sex.  So were these butterflies all post-coital studs, or maybe young bachelors anticipating hot dates? It's fun to imagine so, even though I know I’m anthropomorphizing just a tad.

Another convenience of butterfly watching that’s particularly nice on hot summer days is that you don’t even have to leave the shade to find them. I visited Huntley Meadows recently and found this bright Eastern Comma in the cool woods:

Commas are named for a white curlicue on the underside of their hindwings that looks like the punctuation mark.  Here you can barely make out the silvery-white C shape-- look to the right of the rearmost leg, halfway between the body and the edge of the wing:

I also found a Northern Pearly-eye a few yards further down the trail:

Both the Comma and the Pearly-eye are non-nectaring species. They were probably looking for some tasty mud along the trail. Sometimes you could be lucky enough to have a butterfly decide you make a good breakfast!  Many butterflies will land on your skin in search of your salty sweat. A naturalist’s trick that I have not yet mastered is to wipe a bit of sweat onto your fingertip to coax a butterfly onto your hand.  It never works when I do it deliberately, but sometimes a butterfly will surprise me. I had a Hackberry Emperor land on my pants leg once during a very warm hike at Sky Meadows State Park. Here you can even see its proboscis extended:

And one more butterfly from Lake Frank, a little Zabulon Skipper. Check out the cool way it’s holding its wings:

Grass skippers like the Zab often pose in this jet plane position, with their hindwings held more-or-less perpendicular to their forewings.  I don’t know why they do this-- maybe it communicates something to other grass skippers, since only species in the subfamily Hesperiinae do this. Grass skippers aren’t very big, at most an inch long, but they’re pretty common.  You can probably find them in your own garden or even on your lawn, or try a nearby park.  The jet plane posture is really something, and they’ll often pose obligingly for photographs. I’ve found grass skippers throughout Maryland and Virginia, and the maps in my Kaufman butterfly guide imply any location in the continental US will be in the range of at least one grass skipper.

Parks from this entry:

Check them out!


  1. Cool butterfly photos. I was interested in the difference in the mouth parts of a nectaring and non-nectaring butterfly, it's hard to find a close-up.

    1. Hi Hannah, last year I replied that I thought the mouthparts weren't much different between nectaring and non-nectaring butterflies. However, it turns out I was wrong! I wrote a new post about the updated information, including links to papers that have actual microscopic close-ups of the different mouthparts. If you're still out there, I hope this helps!

  2. Hi Hannah, sorry it's been a looong time since your question. Since I'm trying to get back into blogging, though, I thought I'd check in again. To be honest, I don't think there is a difference in mouth parts of butterfly species that eat nectar vs. non-nectar food sources. Most if not all of the butterflies in my area sometimes consume non-nectar sources like minerals from mud, tree sap, even dung or rotting carrion. That includes ones who get most of their food from nectar. So I would guess (although I haven't examined this under a microscope or anything) that both groups of butterflies have same mouthparts. I will ask some of my other butterfly friends and colleagues, and let you know what I find out.


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