Adult Monarch Butterfly feeding off of milkweed.
August is a good time to keep an eye out for butterflies. By planting native plants in your yard like coneflowers, spicebush, yarrow and milkweed, you can attract a number of species. This is because butterflies have multistage life cycles in which their larval stage (the caterpillar) is dependent on a particular set of host species on which to feed.
The butterfly’s life cycle includes: going from egg; to larvae (the caterpillar); to chrysalis (the pupal stage-in which a complete rearrangement of organs and body parts occurs through metamorphosis); to adult (butterfly). Host plants are vital for ensuring butterfly populations persist. These plants are used by adults to lay their eggs and the caterpillars then feed exclusively off these plants. Host plants are native plant species that the butterfly species have evolved with and which the caterpillars primarily feed off of. By planting these native host plant species you will have higher success attracting butterflies. Some butterfly species' caterpillars will feed on non-native species such as Queen Anne’s Lace and Dill but these plant species are generally closely related to the butterfly’s native host plant so the butterflies do not seem to mind too much.
You can still attract butterflies to your yard even without native species, as the adult butterfly spends most its time searching for nectar. One of my favorite flowers to plant are zinnias and butterflies seem to like them pretty well too. Zinnias are not native to Missouri but are native to the southwest US through South America.
Monarch Caterpillar feeding off of common milkweed. See the caterpillar poop or frass! (Fun fact! Frass is the technical term for caterpillar poop)
Many butterfly species will migrate to wintering sites when it gets too cold. The most famous migratory butterfly is the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), the only species of butterfly to migrate over 2500 miles to reach their wintering grounds. Concern about Monarch population declines has led some people to raise monarch butterflies in captivity, but a recent study finds that these butterflies might not be able to migrate; suggesting that conservation efforts should be in habitat conservation (both in the winter and summer range). https://www.npr.org/2019/06/24/735389108/monarch-butterflies-born-in-captivity-have-trouble-migrating-south-study-says
If you are interested in helping monarch, grow native milkweeds – their host plants, and look into citizen science programs. MonarchWatch (https://www.monarchwatch.org/) allows you to catch, tag and release Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. With the data they collect MonarchWatch is able to keep track of population changes. I participated a few times and even got a certificate telling me that one of my tagged butterflies was found in Mexico!
What about the butterflies that do not migrate? How does the species continue to persist?
Spicebush (Papilio troilus) and Black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterflies will overwinter in their chrysalis stage. The caterpillars, after getting their fill of their host plant, can then be found crawling on the ground looking for a good place to bury before it gets too cold. They bury under leaf litter where they will pupate (form a chrysalis) and stay like that until spring. Once spring returns, metamorphosis occurs and the adult form emerges from the chrysalis and looks for a place to climb and hang upside down. Once they reach a safe location, they may not look much like an adult butterfly because their wings are all folded and crinkled. They then pump fluid through their wings making them rigid and ready for flight. Because many butterfly species overwinter and bury under leaf litter, you might not want to worry about removing all the fall leaves in your yard. Biodiversity ...making your life easier!
Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) feeding off of a coneflower.
Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) just chillin'...or maybe plotting to take over the world.
July is TECHNICALLY over but I got these photos and video in July, so I will make this the July post.
I will be talking a bit about a few insects that I have found in my backyard. Summer is the height of insect activity.
The theme for this post is cool insect communication interactions.
Communication? Insects interact? What?
So, I have a really tall sunflower growing in my front yard, it is huge, over 8 feet tall. Scurrying across the underside of its ginormous leaves are these large ants. The ants as you see in the picture are walking amongst smaller insects that cover the underside of the leaf. These ants are tending the treehoppers (the smaller insects which belong to the family Membracidae). The ants are basically farming or ranching the treehoppers for the honeydew that the treehoppers exude. The treehoppers feed off of the juices found in the plant. They then excrete honeydew which is sugary waste water that the insects do not need, but the ants find rather tasty. So the ants tend to these treehoppers, providing protection for the treehoppers against predators while also getting a tasty, energy laden snack for themselves. A similar association or relationship is also found between ants and aphids.
Treehoppers are known for communicating amongst themselves using vibrational signals. They vibrate their abdomen against the leaf or stem of a plant and this signal is transmitted though the plant to a receiver (another treehopper or animal). In this manner they can communicate to their offspring if predators are nearby or signal in search of a mate. They can even communicate to the tending ants if a predator is attacking them. The ants can then chase away the predator. Given that the treehoppers and the ants benefit in this interaction, we call this a mutualism as both partners in the interaction benefit.
Talking about communication and signals, this youtube video I posted (youtu.be/vqJHyrVd9W4) is of a conehead katydid calling for a mate. These are common throughout the Midwest US. This specific one is the Nebraska conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus nebracensis). Their calls can be heard all night along grassy roadside ditches and in field or …in this case...backyards.
Conehead katydids like other katydid species (family Tettigoniidae) make their calls by rubbing their wings together. Crickets (family Grillidae) also call or chirp by rubbing their wings together. Similar to crickets and katydids are grasshoppers. Most commonly seen are the short-horned grashoppers (Family Accrididae), which are generally more robust in appearance then crickets or katydids and have shorter antennae. They call by either rubbing their wings or wings and hindlegs together. You will often see these during the day jumping and flying close to the ground. You might hear them first as their wings make noise when flying and some have brightly colored wings.
Many conehead katydids have a continuous call, one long uninterrupted buzz, but the Nebraska conehead has a discontinuous call, with short phrases interspersed with silence. Males in a chorus of this species will synchronize their calls with their neighbors.
The calls of these katydids are really just another type of vibrational signal, except that we can hear them, so they are called acoustic signals.
If you are interested in learning about more insect calls check out this awesome site: http://songsofinsects.com/
It is the work of two amazing naturalists.