Happy Friday, Bug Fans!!! We hope you’re having a great Friday. Well, it looks like spring is finally here! We’re all so tired of winter, that we’re looking for any excuse to enjoy some time outside. For those of us who like butterflies, we’ll start seeing them in the next couple of weeks. So for this week’s edition of Friday Flyers, we thought we’d introduce you to the early spring butterflies. They may not be the most beautiful butterflies in the world, but you have to give them a lot of credit for being tough! Today we’re going to tell you which ones you’ll see first, and we hope you’ll have a better appreciation of them when you do see them.
Northern Illinois is a pretty tough neighborhood for butterflies in the winter. In fact, there are three main strategies that butterflies have for coping with our snowy sub-zero winters. First, they could just leave town like many of our friends with second homes in Florida. In other words, some butterflies migrate to warmer climates for the winter. The most famous of these migratory butterflies is the North American Monarch butterfly. Every autumn, they fly from as far north as Canada to as far south as Mexico, just to avoid our weather. It takes tremendous endurance to make the trip. But as far as winter is concerned, Monarchs are just wimps!!!
The second strategy to cope with winters is to hibernate in one of the juvenile stages. Different species of butterflies have evolved the ability to become dormant either as eggs, caterpillars, or cocoons. There’s not much protection for them in any of these stages, but at least they have not developed fragile wings to protect. In most cases the juvenile stages are “sealed in” with some kind of protective covering like silk, or leaves, or even tunnels in the ground.
This brings us to the true champions of hibernation…the butterflies that emerged in autumn. They only get a short time as adults before they have to endure our harsh winters, without having completed their main task of finding mates and starting the next generation. These butterflies are very special. Their main objective in autumn is to feed enough to store up some energy, and then find a place to hide. They must find a place that is dry, out of the bitter cold wind and snow, and out of reach of the hungry animals that would use them for a winter snack. These butterflies are defenseless in winter, frozen solid, and unconscious. But there is an upside to this bleak existence. When the first signs of spring occur, like temperatures in the mid-fifties and longer daylight hours, these butterflies are ready for action!!! The early head start they get by already being adults, gives them first territorial claims, first mating opportunities, and the longest breeding season for their offspring. It’s a solid survival strategy that works very well for them.
Today we have assembled two composite photos of the earliest butterflies on the wing here in Northern Illinois. The first group includes three Nymphalid butterflies. The Mourning Cloak is black to brown with a cream to white border and a row of blue spots. It is a strong fast flyer and is invariably the first butterfly you will see. The Red Admiral is a black butterfly with bold red bands and white spots. These guys are not afraid of humans, and in the summer they love to bask in the sun. They will even land on you if you let them!!! The Question Mark butterfly is orangey-brown with brown markings. It gets its name from the silvery-white “question mark” on its underside. These three butterflies are mostly woodland butterflies, but all of them can commonly be seen in open areas.
The second composite shows three species from the Pieriid family. The yellow butterfly with the black border is appropriately called the Yellow Sulphur. This photo is the male, with the female having a broader border and yellow spots. The white butterfly is the Cabbage Butterfly. It is the most common butterfly in our area, and in some years they seem to be everywhere you look. Their caterpillars do eat cabbage leaves, but they actually eat a wide variety of plants which is why they are everywhere. The orange butterfly is the Alfalfa Butterfly sometimes called the Orange Sulphur. The pictured specimen is a female, which also comes in a white form with the same markings. Both the Yellow Sulphur and the Alfalfa Butterfly caterpillars eat clover, which is why you see them in fields and on roadsides. All six of these butterflies should be on the wing within the next three weeks.
We hope you will start looking for these butterflies on the next warm spring day. We’ve already seen and photographed Mourning Cloaks this week. These butterflies are small, but they are subtly beautiful. And you can not only observe them now, but you’ll find them late into the autumn. Once you get familiar with them close up, you’re sure to develop a new appreciation for them, and for the tough life they have to endure so that we can enjoy seeing them each year. See you on the trail!!!
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We hope you enjoyed this week’s edition of Friday Flyers. We love sharing our interest in butterflies and insects with you. Please enjoy the photos we have posted with this week’s edition, and be sure to see all the previous pictures in our Friday Flyers album. Remember to “like” our Wonders Of Nature page, and be sure to pass it along to all your Facebook Friends. We hope you’ll visit our Wonders Of Nature department soon, and we look forward to seeing you.