Butterflies in the Garden - Henry Turner
February 2003

What's flying now (and other observations relevant to butterflies)...

A Fiery Skipper was nectaring on my trailing lantana before Christmas, hanging out for what seemed a long time for a skipper. As I was studying it, suddenly I thought I heard a little voice (even some of my best friends have suggested this possibility for quite a while). It asked...

Why don't we know more about skippers? Perhaps it's because they fly so fast, often darting away before we can examine them. Could we be dismissing them as uninteresting because most appear rather drab? Or do we lump them together as looking so much alike and not worth the trouble for study? I suggest that it's all the above and must confess that, in my case at least, it's been the latter. And I've only begun to study them in earnest since last fall. Well, having fessed up, I would like to introduce you to a fascinating part of the world of butterflies.

It is sometimes suggested that skippers comprise a strange world in between those of moths and butterflies. While Lepidopterists consider them to be butterflies, some people like to think of skippers as being moth-like because of their drab colors, often furry, disproportionately large bodies and small wings, and antennae that differ (though slightly) from butterflies' clubbed antennae. However, like butterflies (and even some moths), they are diurnal rather than nocturnal. Yet, they often spin silken nests in which to pupate - these have been called "flimsy" or "slight" cocoons (you will recall that a moth pupates in a cocoon, a butterfly in a chrysalis). Strange indeed! Yet, isn't it the idiosyncrasy or the surprising difference in nature that fascinates us? Well, skippers are flying idiosyncrasies!

Let's view these tiny butterflies within the big picture (bear with me a moment, please). The scientific order Lepidoptera (scale-winged insects) has two major groups -- butterflies and moths, with moths comprising about 95% of all Lepidoptera (a rather surprising statistic to many butterfly lovers). In turn, butterflies consist of two "superfamilies" - Papilionoidea (let's just say, "true butterflies") and Hesperioidea or skippers. We can refer to three subfamilies of skippers, although we mainly see two of them -- the spread-winged skippers (Pyrginae), and the closed-wing skippers (Hesperiinae). The former usually alight with both wings opened flat. The latter are generally smaller, resembling WW II fighter planes on an aircraft carrier with wings folded upright. In this case it's the forward wings that are held upright and nearly closed, while the hind wings are usually flat in a small triangular shape. The Giant Yucca Skipper commonly represents the third subfamily, the Megathyminae or giant skipper, whose adults are seldom seen.

Look at skippers a little more closely. Their heads and eyes seem disproportionately large for their little furry bodies and wings. Similar to bflies, their antennae are clubbed but each forms a thin hook-like extension (an apiculus) beyond the club. Moreover, their antennae protrude more to the side of their heads rather than forward as do those of bflies. And while one group of bflies such as the Brushfoots have only four of their six legs functional for walking, skippers, like other bflies, walk on all six. Though skippers are commonly thought of in shades of brown and gray, many (primarily the grass skippers) are bright shades of orange. In fact, some tropical skippers - as you would expect - are quite brightly colored. And the proboscises (the coiled-up "straw" through which they draw nourishment) of many skippers are long for their size. This allows them to feed on quite a variety of flowers. And finally, should you see one, the skipper larvae are unmistakable. They lack spiny protuberances (though sometimes have hairs) and, unlike most butterfly larvae, have distinct, usually brownish heads that seem of a different texture and color than that of their bodies. Moreover, the head appears slightly separated from the body by a neck-like constriction, possibly the prothorax. We don't often see the larvae or the pupae as they usually live rolled up in a silk-lined nest or leaf of the host plant.

It's easy to remember the two main kinds of skippers we see in the Cross Timbers by associating them with the shape of their host plants. Spread-winged skippers use broad-leaved plants like oaks, legumes, and mallows for their larval food, whereas the larvae of closed-winged skippers eat various grasses. And many of the grass skippers utilize our socially acceptable weeds, Bermuda and St. Augustine.

Be on the lookout for these spread-winged skippers:
      Silver-spotted Skipper
      Horace's Duskywing
      Hayhurst's Scallopwing
      Funereal Duskywing
      Common Checkered-Skipper
      Juvenal's Duskywing (in the spring)
      Northern Cloudywing

And these are the closed-winged skippers we'll most likely see:
      Fiery Skipper
      Clouded Skipper
      Least Skipper
      Orange Skipperling*
      Southern Skipperling*
      Dun Skipper
      Common Roadside Skipper
      Celia's Roadside Skipper
      Bell's Roadside Skipper
      Ocola Skipper
      Eufala Skipper
      Brazilian Skipper

*Since I knew you would ask, the tiny skipperlings share characteristics of both spread- and closed-winged skippers. They feed on grasses like the latter but open forward and hind wings at the same time like spread-winged skippers. Oh, and here's a twist - their antennae end in clubs more like bflies, lacking the other skippers' hook-like extension. In a buzillion years their fossils may be viewed as a missing link!

I can now easily identify a few skippers on sight, but the others require that I run and fetch my trusty field guide. I suggest this last procedure as you notice your first skippers and urge you to be patient. Sooner or later (it may seem more like later) your skipper will pause long enough and you'll be rewarded and able to identify it. Of course the best time to study them is earlier in the morning while they are still warming up, preparing to fly.

I saw my first Cloudywing Skippers (both the Northern and the Southern - these are spread-winged) on a field trip last spring to the LBJ Grasslands. This is a great place to visit in April if you want to discover some less commonly seen butterflies. That same trip gave me my first look at two superbly beautiful though small butterflies, the Falcate Orangetip and an Olympia Marble. And I first encountered the Brazilian Skipper among a huge stand of cannas (its host plant) at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens. I love Ajilvsgi's comment (see "Book List") about Brazilian Skipper larvae: "When a number of caterpillars are feeding, their nighttime chomping can be heard for some distance." Sort of reminds me of master naturalists on a lunch break during a daylong outing.

What's been flying lately:

With temperatures the first week of January in the 60's and 70's, Dale Clark reported the following species spotted in the Dallas area:

Pipevine Swallowtail
Orange Sulphur
Dainty Sulphur
Great Purple Hairstreak
Gulf Fritillary
Variegated Fritillary
Question Mark
Goatweed Leafwing

On the evening of January 16 we expected an overnight low of 21 to 25. Earlier that day I counted half-dozen Gulf Fritillary caterpillars on one of my passion vines. Tenderhearted Henry wanted to clip the section of vine they were on and bring them indoors for the evening. Rank amateur (emphasis on amateur, please) naturalist Henry said, "No, you ninny! Leave them alone and let's find out if they can survive these low temps." Well, after two successive nights of low 20's then with the temps back in the high 60's the afternoon of January 20th, I revisited the passion vines. My goodness, the mighty Gulf Fritillary caterpillars, some tiny, early instars and some nearly large enough to pupate, were moving and munching. They truly have the larval equivalent of antifreeze in their bods to survive two such frigid nights! Evidently the Gulf Fritillary larvae and overwintering adults survive a few really hard freezes quite well. However, if we have an extended period with hard freezes, the adults (and possibly the larvae) will succumb to the cold and die. Then, like so many of the species that don't overwinter here, they repopulate our area each summer by flying up from areas south of here.

January 21, somewhere in the 60's. About 10:30 this morning an orange blur streaked by me in the backyard. It lit on the beebrush or whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima) to soak up some sun for a while. An hour later I found it preoccupied nectaring on lavender lantana (L. montevidensis). It stayed there until it worked every single blossom. A solitary male Gulf Fritillary.

By the way, I neglected in January to mention a native perennial of value as a nectar plant. I planted native beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) in the fall of '01 but it didn't get large enough to flower much, so I wasn't able to evaluate it yet. However, Shirley Craig has a nice native stand of it in dappled shade on her place and she said the bflies worked the daylights out of it last summer. The beebalm cultivars are touted as nectar plants by nurseries (WARNING: nurseries often tell you that ALL flowering plants are great butterfly attractors), but I think Shirley's native probably has them beat. Also, butterflies' nectaring is a far more complex subject than we might expect - particularly in our gardens compared with native settings. I greatly appreciate hearing about your experiences with butterflies and their nectar plants, for there is a lot that we can learn and share with one another.

He/She was back. So too was the Texas Crescent.

Books to read:

Here are the most useful guides I know of to help you plan and develop your own butterfly garden or meadow or to learn more about our butterflies. Remember that both the Tarrant County Butterfly Society (see "More Info") and the Dallas County Lepidopterists' Society (see link below) meet monthly and often have field trips in which you are quite welcome to participate.

Butterfly Gardening for the South by Geyata Ajilvsgi. 1990. Taylor Publishing Company.
This remains one of the most useful resources for anyone wishing to begin gardening to attract butterflies. It has a heavy emphasis on Texas, and differentiates among the butterflies commonly found in each part of the state and discusses most of the useful native plants for each area. It also includes a chapter on photographing butterflies.

Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. 1996. University of Texas Press.
O.K This has nothing to do with the Cross Timbers, you say. Well, that's so except that the photographs and the lengthy discussion of each species make this book a gem. What's more, there are some super photos of many of those larvae you see and wish that you could identify! (Photos of butterfly larvae are hard to find. Another decent collection can be found in Donald and Lillian Stokes' The Butterfly Book, pp. 34-5. See also the Dallas County web site listed below.)

Butterflies through Binoculars: The West by Jeffrey Glassberg. 2001. Oxford University Press.
If you want one handbook to carry in the field, get this book. Good photos and careful description of each species with precise notes as to the differences between similar species. Also contains maps showing areas in which each species is commonly found as well as indication of the number of broods usually in that area. He also indicates the general habitat of species and common larval plants used.

Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern. 2001. Random House.
A thoroughly documented account of the monarch migration -- a history of the various theories about it, all cast within the narrative of a personal journey. A very good read.

Native Texas Plants by Sally Wasowski and Andy Wasowski. 1997. Gulf Publishing Company.
Buried within this superb discussion of native plants are suggested plants for attracting butterflies ("Wildlife Garden Plan", pp.116-121). Discussion of individual plants will often mention their relative value to butterfly gardening (e.g., "Wafer ash is an important tree for butterfly gardeners.")

Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife by Noreen Dalmude and Kelly Conrad Bender. 1999. Texas Parks and Wildlife Press.
A focused discussion of gardening for butterflies (pp. 93 ff.), followed by a good list of not only the host plants but also the nectar plants preferred by some of the more common butterflies in Texas.

Sites to visit: -- excellent site of Dale Clark, local lepidopterist. -- have a question about monarchs? -- answers to a trillion questions about monarchs. Most important, each spring they compile an updated map based on current sightings so that you can follow the migration of the monarchs north. They also map the journey south. -- the North American Butterfly Association; much info. -- some practical help on butterflies and gardening to attract them. -- garden guidelines by Charlene Rowell of Heard Museum and Tina Dombrowski of Texas Discovery Gardens. -- list of some useful host and nectar plants.

For more information, you may contact:

Tarrant County Butterfly Society (817) 923-8474

Joann Karges or (817) 923-8474

Henry Turner or (817) 922-9484

Cross Timbers Chapter, Texas Master Naturalist, Inc.   9601 Fossil Ridge Rd.   Fort Worth TX 76135

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