GARDEN FOR MARCH 22, 2008
Can you tell a moth from a
butterfly? There are a few rules, but as usual,
1. Butterflies fly during the day, moths at night.
2. So we usually think there are more butterflies than moths-not true. There are many more moth species (175,000 to 45, 000).
3. Another difference is the antennae of the butterfly which is long, slender, and quite often has a knob on the end, while the moth antenna are quite usually “fuzzy”. The skippers (3,000) are not very big, usually not very pretty, and so named because of the way they fly, and have hooks on the ends of the antenna.
4. When resting, butterflies fold their wings up over their head, while moths hold theirs out like airplane wings.
Especially in the fall, we see the “wooly bears” that always seem to be going somewhere. Only about 2 inches long with a black fuzzy stripe around both head and tail end and a brown band in the middle. I am sure you have heard we can tell if we will have a hard winter by studying those stripes. Taint so!!! The older ones who have had plenty of moisture have smaller mid-bands. They are the larvae of the Tiger Moth family and they are going “somewhere”. They are looking for a safe place to spend the winter under a rock or a log where they form their cocoon. The larvae feed on a number of plants without doing a great deal of harm.
The butterfly that most people know about is the Monarch, because of its ability to fly to Mexico to spend the winter and then return the next spring. One generation doesn’t make both trips. There are usually several generations but they all seem to know where they are going. They lay single eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf, scattering them on several plants. If you watch the egg you can see the black head of the caterpillar growing which soon eats its shell and starts eating only on a species of milkweed. They are handsome “worms” with bright yellow, black, and white stripes going around. There are a number of species of milkweed that will grow in our yards in Lincoln.
The adult butterflies drink nectar from a number of plants such as Asters, red clover, cosmos, zinnias, daisies, and lantana. In September I have counted as many as 75 on my Autumn Joy Sedum resting during a cool evening on their way to Mexico. They can not fly until they have warmed up in the morning. Lantana plants are started in the spring in full sun. They are perennials in the South. Lantanas don’t bloom until after our hot season starts as they grow very slowly when cool. About 3 feet tall and almost as wide, I like to have at least 6 or 8 plants to have enough blooms for many visits with patches of cosmos and zinnia nearby. All of these are full sun plants that the “flying flowers” also prefer, with wind protection as much as possible.
The earliest butterfly I generally see, but not every year, is a tiny (1 inch) blue butterfly. Quite often they are just listed as “blues” and a late spring storm can destroy an entire colony. They lay their eggs on plants of the clover group, vetches, and alfalfa. The adults prefer the immature flower buds while the caterpillars eat the buds and any developing seeds. They have an ally in ants as they produce honey dew secreted from their abdomens. In exchange for the “dew”, the ants try to protect their cows. There will not be great numbers in town from lack of food plants, so I try to keep clover in the lawn. The adults survive on nectars and puddling. Some species of the blues have become extinct from lack of habitat. Special areas have been set aside in California to try to preserve Xerces blue and the Karner blue in New York. They survive winter as either larvae or pupae. What fun in early spring to hunt for the tiny blue flashes!!!
Another butterfly, the Red Admiral (2 inches) appears in small numbers in my yard, probably because it likes to be near tree areas and likes nettle or hop for food for its larvae. Most of us prefer not to have nettle in the yard, however. The maps in my Butterfly books show the Red Admiral in the United States and going well up into Canada. The adults like nectar from Cosmos, Coneflowers, Butterfly Bush, Milkvetch, and Indian Blanket (Gallardia) as well as fermented fruit or tree sap. So when you make your “butterfly puddle” put a rock or brick on the top as a landing spot and a piece of decaying fruit with a little manure in it for them, to feed on. They also like to rest on the bark of a tree. When the wings are outspread there are red bands coming down from the top edges as well as a red band across the bottom of each wing. The larvae are black with spines and like to roll up a leaf around them as they eat. The adults like salt so if you are sweating, they may land for a drink!!! They fly south for winter and then their children migrate again.
Plant your butterfly garden with annuals, such as petunias in groups that bloom at different times during the season. Then add a puddle, wind breaks, and never, never spray insecticides, especially on the caterpillars.