In my region of central North Carolina, it has been a very sparse year for butterflies and moths. The local lepidopterists (folks who study this group of insects) suspect that an especially severely cold winter followed by a wet early spring may be responsible for the dearth of this insect group. This is not just bad news for those of us who enjoy watching colorful butterflies drift in clouds from flower to flower. It is very bad news for the ecosystem, because myriad species of animals — most especially nesting birds — rely exclusively on the larvae of this group (caterpillars) to feed their young. Caterpillars are the perfect baby bird food — packed with protein and other key ingredients that insure that chicks grow quickly to fledgling stage, where they become less vulnerable to predators. In fact, caterpillars are the only food parent birds of familiar species such as Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren can use; their chicks require the specific nutrients in those proportions to grow and fledge.
The well-known classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson warned the world about what happens when insects disappear from ecosystems. The banning of DDT saved our birds that time. A more recent classic, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, details specifically which species of insect rely on which species of native plants. The list is long and alarming — at least to me — because many species of insects rely exclusively on only one species of plant to feed their larvae. If that plant species is unavailable, the insects that rely on it cannot complete their life cycles. If the host plant species becomes widely unavailable (as species of Ash trees are becoming now, due to devastation by the non-native Emerald Ash Borer), insects that rely on those species will disappear.
I was delighted to spot this fresh-looking Juniper Hairstreak dining on Swamp Milkweed in my pollinator garden yesterday. This small butterfly is often overlooked, because of its soft green color, but it is relatively common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina because its larval food plant — Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also relatively common. On my five acres, we are lucky to have a number of 40-foot mature specimens. They provide shelter for birds and other creatures, their bluish “berries” (actually cones) are beloved by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, and their sturdy shade and deep green color make this evergreen species well-suited for any landscape. If sited where air flow can stagnate, a colorful fungus that uses this species as an alternate host can appear, but I solved this issue in my yard simply by limbing up the trees to permit better air circulation.
References tell me that male Juniper Hairstreaks linger on branch tips of their host tree until a female is attracted. Females lay single eggs on the tips of branches, which eventually hatch to become very well-camouflaged caterpillars similar to the one in this link. I’ve never seen one on my trees, but then again, I’ve never gone looking for them either.
But the presence of this fresh-looking specimen on my Swamp Milkweed yesterday tells me that my Red Cedars have been playing host to green caterpillars that have likely been helping to feed the three broods of Eastern Bluebirds reared by the ambitious parents that nested on my property this year.
In a world so filled with darkness these days, the appearance of this petite green butterfly gives me at least small hope for my planet’s future.
#1 by Donna Deal on July 12, 2018 - 7:08 pm
I love that you know your butterflies too! I am learning. Fantastic photos, and I learned a lot!
#2 by piedmontgardener on July 12, 2018 - 7:23 pm
Thanks, Donna! I own most of the Audubon guidebooks for wildlife, including the one for North American butterflies. I like them because they organize their photos by color, so you can flip through to the right color section and then narrow down your search. For NC-specific information, I like the Butterflies of North Carolina Web site: http://www.dpr.ncparks.gov/nbnc/index.html
#3 by Donna Deal on July 12, 2018 - 7:09 pm
What camera did you use? I’m amazed at the detail.
#4 by piedmontgardener on July 12, 2018 - 7:24 pm
Thanks again, Donna! My camera is an old-but-reliable Canon Rebel SL1.
#5 by tonytomeo on July 14, 2018 - 4:21 pm
Eastern red cedar is so common within much of the native range that it is a disliked by many who must contend with it. Because the prairies do not burn like they used to, Eastern red cedar is overwhelming rangeland. I was pleased to obtain just a few specimens from Oklahoma because they are not native here.
#6 by Betsy Bombick on July 15, 2018 - 7:44 pm
Thank you so much for posting this. We live in Winston-Salem and have been adding native and pollinator plants…and this year have seen only two butterflies so far. This sets it in context albeit a depressing one. No butterflies on Joe pie weed or the zinnias….sigh.
#7 by piedmontgardener on July 16, 2018 - 1:45 pm
Welcome, Betsy! It’s my understanding that your part of NC has been quite dry, which certainly isn’t helping our butterfly problem. However, I have promising news. Since I wrote this last post, more and more butterflies have been visiting my flowers. Normally by now, I’d have two dozen swallowtails dancing on the Joe Pye Weeds; I’ve only got 5 or 6, but that is more than I had just a few days ago. And I saw my first Common Buckeye yesterday, along with a big uptick in several different skipper species. My spouse spotted a Luna Moth while mowing yesterday — the first we’ve seen this year. And I have several recently formed chrysalises of Black Swallowtails tucked in a few spots.
So I think the late-summer uptick in butterflies and moths that was predicted by experts is occurring. With rain forecast for most of our state tomorrow, I am hopeful that even more of these pollinators will make an appearance. My advice to you is to keep planting pollinator plants, especially native ones. And avoid using pesticides as much as you can; their impact on native plants and animals is proving to be far more detrimental than the Big-Chem companies would have us believe.
Thanks for stopping by!