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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Butterflies and the Nettle Patch

 The reduction in butterfly sightings has been disturbing. Pesticides, herbicides, loss of their natural habitat, air and water pollution all contribute to the survival threats against these flying flowers.

Rather than feel helpless and hopeless amidst the vast problems with environmental issues, we can turn what land we have into habitat havens.                                                                                           

When you plan your flowerbeds and landscaping, try to be aware of not only how pretty are your flowers, bushes and trees, but in how environmentally beneficial they will be. Try to plant native species for your area to supply both caterpillar food sources as well as the nectar plants for the adult caterpillars. For a successful butterfly garden you have to remember to provide food sources for both the caterpillars as well as the adults. Though the butterfly bush can be a butterfly magnet, these plants are not natives, and are now discouraged for butterfly garden plantings because they can become invasive.

Stinging nettles can be a valuable food source for not only our butterflies and moths but for us as well. Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica), a herbaceous perennial found almost worldwide is an undervalued and misunderstood plant. Many of us discovered this plant the hard way and probably cursed its very existence. Brushing up against stinging nettles results in a sting you won't soon forget. The leaves and stems are covered with brittle, hollow, silky hairs that contain three chemicals, a histimine that irritates skin, acetylcholine which causes the burning feeling and serotonin. But once one learns the plant's value and proper ways of handling it, it can become a medicinal and vegetable dish favorite. 

Nettles prefer rich, somewhat moist soil in part shade to full sun. They can be found in garden beds as well as part of the understory beneath deciduous trees like maples. They are perennials which means they die back in autumn and return in the spring. They spread through their rhizomatous roots, therefore depending where they are located you may have to keep their spread under control with either your weed trimmer or lawn mower. You don't want them growing where there is the constant risk of people brushing against their stings.

Early in the spring, when the plants are young and tender, wear gloves and cut the plants for a very nutritious boost to your diet. Nettles cannot be eaten raw, but are delicious when cooked like spinach or made into a tea. Wonderful boost for a weakened immune system, the chronically ill, and those who feel tired all the time.

 By the time summer rolls around, the nettle plants are going into flower and become too tough to be enjoyable. Some people cut them back so they regrow new tender stalks, but if not interested in that, let them alone and they'll be a welcome, important food source for the large number of caterpillars on their way to becoming our beautiful butterflies.

Lepidoptera or, in other words, butterflies and moths, is one of the most popular insect orders.
The name Lepidoptera, derived from the Greek words "lepido" for scale and "ptera" for wings, refers to the flattened hairs (scales) that cover the body and wings of most adults.

The order Lepidoptera is divided into groups. One of these groups is the group we call butterflies and all the other groups are called moths. There are over 100,000 moth species. To tell the difference between butterflies and moths, just remember a few basic facts:
Most all adult butterflies fly during the daytime and the majority of moths are only out at night (that is a generalization being there are some types of moths out during the day).
Butterflies fly much more gracefully than moths. This is because moths have a structure called the frenulum, that hooks the forewing to the hindwing. The result of that is the flight pattern is stiff and jerky. Butterflies don't have the frenulum, therefore fly with more graceful movements.
Another difference is with the antennas. Think of golf clubs to remember the look of butterfly antennas. There is a long shaft with a little club on the end. Moth antennas are either fuzzy filaments tapering to a point or have crossbars, like little TV antennas.

There are six families of butterflies found in the United States.
Each family has characteristics to help you recognize their name.
These butterflies are large, have tails and are not the color orange. An exception to that rule are the parnassians who don't have tails.Very familiar is the Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail and Spicebush.

Whites and Yellows
Almost all members of this family are either white or yellow with black markings. Always on the move, they don't hang out on the same nectar source for very long. Perhaps you are familiar with the pesky white cabbageworm fluttering around your garden vegetables.
These are small, delicate butterflies with fluted hind wings. Blues, coppers and hairstreaks are in this family.

Similar to the gossamer-wings, these New World butterflies aren't very common and can be recognized by their green eyes.

This family contains many of our best-known butterflies, such as the Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks, Viceroys, Fritillaries, Buckeyes, Crescents, Coma, Peacocks, Snout, Satyrs, Admirals, Emperors, Tortoiseshells and Painted Ladies. Characteristic is their front legs are reduced in size. This is due the front pair of legs ( which are much smaller than the other two pairs and so not used for walking ) being covered in tufts of hair like scales. Most color combinations are brownish, orange and black.

Seen are likely to be a spread-wing skipper or a grass-skipper. The antennal club is hooked at the tip.  The Silverspotted skipper, a spread-wing, is a common species. The Checkered skipper is also common. These species are often difficult to tell apart.

On a side note, people often confuse swallowtail caterpillars and monarch caterpillars. First clue is that monarch caterpillars will be found on milkweed and swallowtail caterpillars are found on plants like not only nettles but fennel and dill. Here is a good post about their differences.

 Butterflies of the nettle patch are usually members of the Brushfoot family (Nymphalidae). The caterpillars depend on nettles for their growth in order to transform into the beautiful creatures we certainly don't want to see disappear. Below are a few you may see in your nettle patch.


Hoary Comma
Red Admiral




White Peacock


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