In previous episodes we met the most iconic orange and black butterfly, the monarch, and learned of its perils in the United States and Mexico. This week we visit two other orange and black butterflies common in our metropolitan landscapes as summer closes and autumn arrives. Long ago I willingly surrendered the battle to maintain a lawn as a monoculture of exotic grasses like fescue or zoysia and as a result, floristically speaking, my yard has become quite diverse. I’m not sure exactly what elements of nature conspired, but violets have rapidly become the preeminent ground cover in shady spots and landscape beds around my home. While weeding, I noticed significant nibbles and bites at the margins of the omnipresent violets and upon closer inspection discovered several glorious larvae of the variegated fritillary grazing on the leaves.
Variegated fritillary caterpillars enjoy pansies and other members of the violet family in my flowerbeds and lawn.
These tiny caterpillars are the spawn of small orange and black butterflies, variegated fritillaries, which first appeared in my landscape more than a month ago. They will be regular visitors to open sunny areas such as fields, pastures, and along the edges of roads where females consume pollen and nectar from butterfly weed, milkweed, dogbane, and red clover. When they are ready to lay eggs, females seek nutritious plants such as maypops, mayapple, purslane, stonecrop, plantains, and moonseed on which to lay eggs. My landscape isn’t rich in these larval food sources but my flower beds and shady lawn abound in violets, which are another fine food for variegated fritillary caterpillars.
The caterpillars are gorgeous, bedecked in bright bands of orange and white. The body is festooned with stout black spines. In addition to consuming my volunteer violets, I discovered several fritillary caterpillars devouring the petals of my pansies. My initial surprise was dispelled after a quick internet search revealed pansies as a card carrying member of the violet clan. Variegated fritillaries will be resident and complete several generations over the course of the summer here in Maryland. They are one of the last butterflies active in the landscape and will frequent my yard until the waning days of autumn. As the days grow shorter and the nighttimes chillier, the last of the variegated fritillaries will head south for warmer overwintering grounds or face a chilly death if real winter returns in 2016.
A somewhat larger but equally gorgeous orange and black butterfly common in our landscapes and gardens is the great spangled fritillary. Unlike its migratory counterpart, this brush-footed butterfly is a resident from the warm climes of New Mexico to the chilly realms of southern Canada. Eggs laid by adults on members of the violet family hatch into larvae that feed briefly before braving the rigors of winter. In spring, survivors resume feeding and complete development during the following growing season. Adults nectar on a wide variety of summer and autumn bloomers including milkweeds, thistles, and ironweed. Like monarchs, the orange and black coloration of these butterflies is believed to serve as a warning to predators that these are not a tasty meal.
Great spangled fritillaries nectar on many meadow plants including thistles.
As you visit the meadows and weed your gardens, spend a moment to enjoy these other orange and black beauties in the glorious autumn season.