The Milbs Are Back

Most years mourning cloak butterflies signal spring’s arrival. This year it’s Milbert’s tortoiseshells.

The first one appeared a few days ago, while snow was still the predominant ground cover. The next day there were two. Warm temps and sunshine took a big whack out of the snow piles, just what the Milbs needed.

These ones were born last August and spent the winter sheltered beneath loose bark or in hollow logs. Their body fluids contain alcohols and glycerols — like antifreeze for your car — which keeps them from freezing when temperatures plummet and food isn’t available.

These winter-hardy butterflies lay their eggs on stinging nettles, the exclusive food of their caterpillars. We have a patch of nettles alongside one corner of our deck — I’ll watch for them there in the coming weeks.

Milbert’s tortoiseshell   Aglais milberti

No Rabble This Summer

Last summer Atlantis fritillaries descended on my patch of chives in an orange and black cloud. An amazing sight.

This year? A grand total of two, only one of which I managed to photograph.

This is an odd summer for butterflies — last year they seemed to be everywhere. Now I’m lucky if I see one a day. Anyone else noticing changes?

Atlantis fritillary   Speyeria atlantis

Mystery Solved

In an earlier post I pondered what lay within a silky tent strung between segments of chicken wire. A butterfly larva? Or as one reader opined, perhaps a paralyzed caterpillar, soon to be devoured by a spider?

While I wasn’t looking, the caterpillar — which was very much alive and not on anyone’s menu — continued to spin its magic and metamorphosed into a shiny cocoon.

Aye, Aye, Sir

This white admiral ne’er went to sea nor smelled salt air. A landlubber from tail to antenna tip.

Still, as I watch, I glimpse possibilities: It bobs in the light, tacking fro and to, as though under sail.

One made so bold as to land near my boot where even a gentle nudge could break a wing.

Aspen, poplar and willow kept the larvae fed. Now, as adults, they look for sap, rotting fruit and dung. (I’d prefer flowers. Just saying.)

The wingspans on these were on the short side, about 5 cm (about 2 in). Apparently they reach twice that, about 10 cm (4 in). What a flurry of colour that would be.

These butterflies have seen rough weather. The glossy purple-black of new-fledged adults is scratched and worn, a wing tip is missing, and the gorgeous blue dashes and red spots are fading.

Character. That gets us all through tough times.

White admiral   Limenitis arthemis

Watch Where You Go

A western wood lily and I shared a river bank yesterday. Me, dangling boots over the edge. She, tipped up to the sun.

After a moment I realized we weren’t alone. A northern pearl crescent had joined us. But it misjudged the descent. Instead of landing on the lily, it landed in the lily. Oops.

I watched it circle the bottom, wings flapping but unable to open in tight quarters.

Finally it poked its head between the base of two petals. With more energetic huffing and puffing (or so I imagined), the rest of the body popped out like a wine cork and it fluttered off.

High drama in the afternoon.

Northern pearl crescent butterfly   Phyciodes morpheus
Western wood lily   Lilium philadelphicum

A Rabble of Wings

What do you call a group of butterflies? Depends who you ask. It could be a flutter. A kaleidoscope. A swarm. A rabble.

I like rabble — at least for what descended on my chives the other day.

Bumblebees had been over the flowers days earlier. I  assumed they’d cleaned out the cupboard. Apparently not.

Twelve to 15 fritillaries with their long probosci (aka feeding tubes) found a sweet spot, one the bumblebees couldn’t reach.

Coming and going. Wings a-flutter. Bumping into each other. Hosing up the nectar.

Yup. Definitely a rabble.

Atlantis fritillary   Speyeria atlantis

Stealth Mode

The wings of this large bright butterfly made it hard to hide — until it turned sideways to my camera and seemed to disappear.

Many butterflies are so similar I despair of identifying them. But not the swallowtails: Them are easy (-ier).

The here-not-here butterfly is a Canadian tiger swallowtail.

“Tiger” refers to the striking black and yellow stripes. The “tails” are extensions of the hind wings. They narrow down the name-that-butterfly search right away.

One theory has it that the tails form a target for birds. Judging by the pinch marks on the sides of the wings — and the untouched “tails” — I’d guess the bird who attacked hadn’t read that memo.

Note the wear on the wings.

Canadian tiger swallowtail   Papilio canadensis


Butterflies are as hard for me to photograph as bumblebees.

My camera has only one lens so getting tight is a must. The problem? When you are small and weigh less than a whisper, looming shadows spell trouble. You leave. Sigh.

So I changed tactics, heading out at either end of the day in search of late risers or early-to-bedders.

Persistence paid off.

IMG_5505 Northern Pearl Crescent

Northern Pearl Crescent Butterfly   Phyciodes morpheus

The Green Comma

A green comma? Since when does punctuation come in colours?

When it’s a green comma butterfly.

But I didn’t see any green on this beauty, just yellow and black dots.

The comma-shaped marks — one on each side — are only visible when the wings are closed.

And the “comma” isn’t green. It’s white. “Green” refers to separate spots running along the wings.

Green comma? Go figure.

Green comma butterfly   Polygonia faunus