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Butterflies of the Piedmont
 
 
You can read more of Dorothy’s work and see her wonderful photographs at Field and Swamp.
 
There are a little over 80 documented species of butterflies in the North Carolina Piedmont region, about half the total number in the entire state of North Carolina.   These species are contained in two superfamilies, the “true” butterflies (Papilionoidea) and the skippers (Hesperoidea).   The members of the other 33 superfamilies comprising the Lepidoptera order are moths.   Most or all of the moth superfamilies each contains only one family; the same holds for skippers.   But one skipper family (Hesperiidae) is divided into five subfamilies, two of which are familiar to those of us in the Piedmont: the grass skippers (Hesperiinae) and the spread-winged skippers (Pyrginae). "True" butterflies tend to rest with their wings pressed together behind their backs; spread-wing skippers tend to rest with their wings mostly open.   Grass skippers can move their forewings independently of their hind wings and, while trying to attract members of the sex, separate these wings so that both sides of their forewings and the dorsal (upper) sides of their wings are visible from some angle. All "true" butterflies and skippers have clubbed antennae, which moths do not, and are diurnal rather than nocturnal, a characteristic which they have in common with some moths.
 
So the long and short of it is that “true” butterfly species are much more closely related to one another than those of moths are to one another. In fact, moth species are generally no more closely related to one another than they are to any “true” butterfly species, as far as we know. 
 
What may be more familiar information is that Papilionidea contains six families, with one (the Metalmarks) being relatively uncommon in North Carolina.   The others are 1) the familiar Swallowtails, the largest butterflies, 2) the tiny Gossamer-winged Butterflies (also known as blues, azures, and hairstreaks), 3) the medium-sized Whites, Sulphurs and Yellows, and 4) the most varied and, in my humble opinion, the fanciest butterflies: the Brushfoots, so named because their front pair of feet are tiny.   Most people in the Piedmont have made note of swallowtails, while most have probably completely overlooked the Gossamer-winged Butterflies.
 
Butterflies are perhaps the most-studied insects in America, at least by hobbyists, but not because of their environmental impact.   There are many orders of insects that contain much more important (but rarely noticed) pollinators, such as the Flower Flies (family Syrphidae in the order Diptera) and solitary bees (several bee families including the Andrenidae within the Hymenoptera order).   These high-powered pollinators are very small, often less than a quarter of an inch, but they are very numerous.   Relatively few butterfly species (most notably the Cabbage White) are significant threats to crops; one butterfly species (the Harvester) has a carnivorous caterpillar that is too uncommon to have much of an impact.
 
Yet butterflies do play an important role in some aspects of environmental research. Caterpillars tend to be very choosy about the leaves of which plants they eat, perhaps the reason we often see butterflies frantically flying past numerous flowers over large distances, especially in the early spring. Because of this, butterflies serve as easily visible markers for different plant populations, including plants with major environmental significance. On the other hand, an important key to locating rare butterflies seems to be knowledge of where certain rare plants grow and when they flower.  
 
Not all butterflies visit flowers, although they use a long, skinny tube called a proboscis to draw suck nutrients from a number of sources. Some butterflies that live mainly in the woods, the Nymphs and Satyrs, such as the Common Wood Nymph, the Northern Pearly Eye, the Gemmed Satyr and the very common but often overlooked Carolina Satyr depend largely on minerals taken from the soil and from animal feces. The Anglewings, such as the Question Marks and Eastern Commas also follow this pattern, but several Question Marks did visit my butterfly bush one summer, so they apparently keep an open mind! Butterflies of many species, most notably tiger swallowtails, engage in “puddling,” an activity in which butterflies gather at a shallow body of water to satisfy their thirst. 
 
The members of most butterfly species apparently migrate north from the Deep South in the spring and return in the fall, laying eggs on the way. Their offspring also participate in the migration, sometimes that year, and sometimes reproduce that year. If such butterflies produce grandchildren in the same year, we say their species produces three broods.   If they produce children but not grandchildren, then there are just two broods. This produces some interesting patterns of sightings, with butterfly counts following a predictable pattern of waxing and waning in a particular place within a year.   The Piedmont is in the middle of the migration path, so we see three surges in the populations of some butterfly species during the warmer part of the year.
 
Some butterflies that we see in North Carolina are members of species that are tolerant of cold and don’t have to go all the way to the Deep South to survive; although they migrate to find food, these migrations don’t follow the easily defined patterns of less cold-tolerant butterflies because they originate in so many different places. Two Brushfoot species, the Question Marks and Mourning Cloaks, are the most obvious examples in the Piedmont, sometimes popping up during warm spells in February or even earlier if they are disturbed. They overwinter, remaining under dead leaves in a state of diapause, a state in which their metabolic rate greatly slows and they don’t need to eat. It’s somewhat like hibernation in bears.
 
Monarchs are the best-known migrating butterflies. They stand out because their eastern migration path, between Mexico and New England, is unusually narrow. There is a place on the Appalachian Trail where countless Monarchs have been sighted at a fairly predictable time every year. Although a very large number of Monarchs make it all the way to Mexico every year, some (although apparently very few) spend the winter somewhere in North Carolina. Most of us in the Piedmont can see a large number of Monarchs during a relatively small period of time in the fall of every year. In contrast, the smaller Viceroy, a Monarch mimicker, sticks around the Piedmont during the summer and has dark bands across its hind wings. The Viceroy is a member of a different sub-family than the Monarch is.
 
Sleepy Oranges deserve a special mention because of their unusual wing-coloring patterns. Depending on the time of year or possibly climatic conditions when an adult emerges, its hind wings can range (surprisingly gradually) from being bright yellow with a big dark brown dash in the middle to being all light brown. I’ve noted deviations from the usual pattern after major hurricanes, when summer-form Sleepy Oranges show up in early fall. There’s also an orange middle stage in which the dash looks more like a dimple. So if you keep track of the Sleepy Orange wing patterns for each time of year in your region, you might be able to tell the age of an individual Sleepy Orange without tagging it. There hasn’t been any research in this area, but I think there ought to be. They usually overwinter farther south, but sometimes in the spring you can see a “winter-form” Sleepy Orange with torn-up brown hind wings that may have spent the winter up here.
 
Butterflies don’t have a particular life-span the way we do. Although they spend a fairly consistent period of time, generally several weeks, as caterpillars and chrysalises, as adults they generally live until they mate, lay eggs, or are killed by predators or accidents.   Monarch adults often live several months, during which they migrate hundreds of miles. At the other extreme are summer butterflies which mate immediately; I seem to remember one story about a male butterfly that waited for a female to hatch out of a chrysalis and then mated with her. Males die soon after mating, while females continue on for some time to lay eggs. In DurhamCounty, over a short period last October, I noted many female Eastern Tailed Blues but no males.
 
There are basically two ways of getting to know butterflies. One is traveling around to a variety of habitats. Some of the more obvious ones in our state are state and national parks, national wildlife refuges, national forests, natural areas, nature preserves, nature reserves, and public gardens. But rare butterflies are more often located in places very few people go to, often private property. Deciduous forests, meadows, pine barrens, and wetlands share many species of common butterflies but rare butterflies are usually found in only one type of habitat, typically at one kind of plant.
 
The other way to get to know butterflies is to put together a butterfly garden, which is the best way to observe the entire butterfly life cycle in this region dominated by tall trees. Butterfly bushes attract a lot of butterflies, but they don’t start blooming until June.   Lantanas, which are tropical plants that don’t make it through the winter, are also very popular. Butterfly milkweed is attractive to the smaller butterflies, such as Hairstreaks.   Parsley draws swallowtails. But this is just scratching the surface. Some common-sense rules: pick flowers that bloom at different times of the year and make sure their flowers have a variety of sizes and shapes.   It’s easy to find butterfly books that tell you what the larval food plants of the different butterfly species are. Figuring out what size and shape of flower and plant a particular butterfly species can get nectar from (while finding a place to stand) takes a little more work, though, but is worth it because some butterflies visit many different types of flowers.
 
I wish I could say more about butterfly behavior, but (as is decidedly not the case with birds), this gets very little formal study. Most of it seems very straightforward and mainly motivated by hunger, fear and reproductive drives, but every now and then you see something puzzling. Recently on a stroll on a park, I saw a Carolina Satyr attacking a Six-spotted Green Tiger Beetle; the butterfly kept diving at it, knocking it around very aggressively, while the poor beetle looked increasingly confused and helpless. What was Rudyard Kipling really thinking about when he wrote the “The Butterfly that Stamped” in his Just So Stories
 
© 2006 Dorothy E. Pugh
 
Again, you can read more of Dorothy’s work and see her wonderful photographs at Field and Swamp.
 


Back Porch Art by Mark Ferencik 1998