Northland Nature: Watching white admiralsLike many other facets of nature this year, the butterfly time was slow to arrive.
Like many other facets of nature this year, the butterfly time was slow to arrive.
Typically, the first ones wake from hibernation in late May or April; but the conditions of those weeks this year made the early risers sleep later. Finally in May, the flutterers came onto the scene.
And during the warming days of June, we began to get a greater diversity in our lawns, gardens, roadsides and fields. Recent warm and clear days have brought out more than a dozen kinds.
Butterflies are extremely influenced by the presence of sunlight and they do not fly either in the early hours or the late evening. Often they sit and bask in the light, raising their body temperatures. And if the days are cloudy and rainy, again we’ll find few, if any, of these colorful insects.
Unlike most of the six-legged critters, they occupy a friendly site in the hearts and minds of most people.
July is nearly always our month of the most butterfly sightings. Not only are the temperatures in the warm to hot range, which they find attractive, but there is also plenty of food available for them. Besides the proper temperatures, ample rainfall allows for a thick growth of roadside plants, most of which grow tall in the summer heat and put forth a variety of colorful flowers.
Soon roadsides will hold the blossoms of milkweeds, fireweeds, joe-pye weeds, evening primroses and early goldenrods. Besides being a delight to see as we pass by either on foot, bike or car, they also serve as excellent food (nectar) sites for butterflies.
Looking at these summer floral displays in July also gets us to see butterflies. It is not unusual to find the oranges of monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries, crescents and checkerspots as well as a couple of diminutive skippers.
Large yellow tiger swallowtails are here too, as are the smaller sulphurs. Some white cabbage butterflies visit the flowers and even brown shows up on these diverse insects. This less-showy group has names such as pearly-eyes, wood satyrs and ringlets.
But during my wanderings, I have noticed that flowers, though often crowded with butterflies, are just one location to find them.
In the last several days, I have been observing some active butterflies at another site, the gravel of a driveway. Though flowers of several kinds were blooming nearby, these particular butterflies, the white admirals, were seldom seen among the colorful petals. Nectar provides moisture and nutrition, but so does the ground.
Here the butterflies unwind their long tongues into the soil to pick up needed minerals. If there are puddles present, they may be here in larger numbers. I have frequently seen such large groupings of white admirals along the edges of roads, paths and trails where they select minerals and moisture.
Other unexpected sources of food for this black and white butterfly include rotted fruits, tree sap and animal droppings.
The white admiral is a medium-sized butterfly with a wingspan of about three inches. Most of the four wings is black, but each has a prominent white stripe dividing the black. The white band is visible from above and below. Red spots adorn the distal edges of the hind wings, also seen above and below.
They are closely related to a southern type, the red-spotted purple that has the similar black and red markings, but no white pattern. Another butterfly, the red admiral, has red-orange bands on dark wings.
I saw the first of the white admirals in the region in late June this year. That date was really not that different from normal. As we enter the summer season, I expect these noticeable butterflies to emerge from their chrysalis and join in the flight of these “flying flowers” of summer.
Like others that take wing now, they mate and feed on whatever sources they can find, but also they seek sites to lay their eggs so that the hatching young, the caterpillars, will be able to find proper food to grow.
Though white admirals as adults are seen on the soil often, they find birches, aspens, willows and cherries — leaf food for the caterpillars — to lay their eggs. And it is among these plants that the caterpillars will overwinter.
But now, these pleasant black-and-white butterflies are a regular and enjoyable addition to the butterfly fauna of July. I’m looking forward to seeing many more.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.