Sunday, October 30, 2011

Aromatic Aster - The Most Popular Plant in the Fall (Butterfly Edition)

Two frosts now, but my aromatic asters are still going strong. (I LOVE native plants!!!)

I've been taking photos of many of the insects that have been visiting these asters over the last couple weeks. I'd love to say that this is a true cross-section of all insects that have been using the asters, but I've definitely been attracted to the prettier ones, had more luck photographing some of the less wary ones, and generally not paid much attention to the tiny ones. So, all in all, it's a pretty biased sample. That said, here goes.... (Speaking of "pretty ones," I thought that I'd start with the butterflies I've seen.)

I figured that I couldn't go wrong starting with everybody's favorite butterfly, the monarch. I haven't seen huge numbers of monarchs at any one time on the asters, but I've seen them come through, one at a time, almost daily. I even saw one as late as Friday! (Most of the monarchs came through a month ago now, though.)

As I mentioned a few days ago in an earlier post, I've also seen a new-to-me butterfly on the asters this fall, the western pygmy-blue. I've just seen the one individual on one day, although I've kept my eyes open for others every day since then. (A perfect example of the concept that, "the more you get outside and look, the more you'll see.")

Most folks will probably recognize this butterfly too - the painted lady. In past years, I've had up to a dozen or more painted ladies feeding at any one time on the aromatic asters. This fall their numbers seem to be much lower. There's almost always one in the garden, but I've never seen more than 2 at one time. On the plus side, I've been seeing lots of honey bees! (Note the honeybee, almost side by side with the painted lady in this photo.)

According to A Photographic Field Guide to the Butterflies in the Kansas City Region, a new field guide that I'm finding very useful, the painted lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world!

Another showy butterfly that I've enjoyed seeing regularly on the asters this fall is the common buckeye. Like the painted lady, buckeyes are a butterfly species that moves in and out of our area, generally moving northward in the spring and southward in the fall. In fact, they are unable to successfully overwinter in this area, so any we see here in south central Kansas are considered immigrants rather than residents.

Something else I find interesting about common buckeyes is that the underside of the wings is colored differently in fall individuals than in the spring individuals! The fall individuals, like the one shown here, have a distinct reddish tinge to the underside of the hind wing, while earlier individuals show almost no red tint at all.

In fact, different coloring in the spring and fall individuals of butterfly species turns out to be relatively common. The dainty sulfur, which I'm seeing more frequently this fall than ever before, is another of the seasonally patterned species and is the smallest of the sulfurs we'll see in this area. The darker color on the underside of its wings (dusty greenish-brown compared to bright yellow) allows fall individuals to absorb heat from the sunlight more efficiently than those that live earlier in the summer. Dainty sulfurs, too, are immigrant butterflies here; they are unable to successfully overwinter in our area.

I haven't seen any hairstreaks on my aromatic asters at home, but on my mother's in west Wichita, I found this gray hairstreak busily feeding away. These resident butterflies are generalists, even in the larval stages, and are thus very widely distributed across North America.

The upper surface of a hairstreak is very different looking from the underside, a not uncommon butterfly characteristic. In this case, to tell male from female, you have to see the upper surface of the abdomen, which has orange in a male and is gray in a female. This individual, therefore, appears to be female.

This pearl crescent is another generalist that is fairly widely distributed across the country. A resident butterfly, these guys actually overwinter in caterpillar form! (It amazes me that a caterpillar could survive the winters here.)

The last butterfly in my aster lineup this fall is the orange sulfur. This female is in flight and is therefore rather blurry, but you can still see her spotted "cloudy" wing margins and orangish yellow coloring. (The coloring on the male of this species actually has a UV component, which helps the females choose the right male compared to the similar, non-UV-reflecting clouded sulfur. We, of course, can't see that!)

As a further note about this last photo, the awkwardness of butterflies photographed in flight always seems odd to me, compared with their gracefulness and beauty when seen with the "naked" eye. Seen in stop-motion, flight actually looks like quite a chore for them.

The butterflies are actually a relatively minor component of the insect population flitting from flower to flower among the asters this fall, but they certainly capture my eye. Next on my aster-visitor recording session will be the pollinator workhorses, the bees.


Melanie said...

I even saw a painted lady this morning!! We are sure enjoying the mild fall!! Some of the less hardy plants did succomb to the frosting. .but I am amazed at how many of the flowers are still blooming well!! I find butterflies a little difficult to ID yet. .but we are getting there!!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Congrats on the painted lady!

I completely agree about butterfly identification being surprisingly tough. I've got a couple good guides that I refer to, and taking photos really helps me too. I just recently picked up the Photographic Guide that I refered to in this post. It's great. I've also been using the Kaufmann butterfly guide a lot too. It's always fun to have a new challenge!

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

Your post was a great list of butterflies in the area. The buckeye is beautiful. Nothing common there. I'd love to see one of those in my garden. I saw a painted lady yesterday but the monarchs have moved on from here.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks, Sherlock! I'm a newbie when it comes to doing much butterfly identification, but I'm enjoying the challenge.

And, I have to say again, thank goodness for digital cameras! It's so much more fun to photograph them and then do the I.D. work than to try to identify them in the field...or, worse, have to catch, kill and pin them before identifying them.

Melanie said...

I have to agree. .I have been snapping photos and then looking through my book. .I don't remember which one I have. .may be Kaufmann's. .it is specific to our area. It certainly helps. .cause lots of those little guys sure look alot the same when you start looking at lots of photos!! And thanks for your very sweet comment on my blog. .I'm really not that awesome. .but we sure do like Halloween. .and the parties!! My kids always gripe about why WE have to host it every year. .but then they are always glad that we do. .not too many people are crazy enough to desire to host something like that! And it sure does make everyone's day. .totally worth the day's work to get it together! Hope you enjoy some rain tomorrow. .we are up to 90% chance of precip here. .we sure need it!

Gaia Gardener: said...

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for rain, but after this summer (in fact, this entire last year) it's hard to remain hopeful. We're officially at 60% chance during the day and 80% chance tonight. Good luck to you! I sure hope you get some rain too.