We asked Gabriela Garrison, the Eastern Piedmont Habitat conservation coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, to share some of her favorite butterflies with readers. Here’s what she had to say:
Before venturing into the fascinating world of butterflies, it is important to understand their life cycle. Adult females will lay eggs on a host plant; after several days, a caterpillar will emerge and start eating the leaves of that plant. Insects and native plants have co-evolved for millions of years, so it’s critical to have the appropriate plants available to feed these caterpillars. Many butterflies only have a handful of host plants, so if you do not have that particular species, a butterfly will not lay eggs. After going through several stages of growth, the caterpillar will form a chrysalis. Within one to two weeks, a butterfly will emerge, and the cycle starts once again.
Not only is this a beautiful butterfly, but it also has an amazing migration story. This fall, monarchs in North Carolina will travel thousands of miles to their wintering grounds in central Mexico. Next spring, these same butterflies will start their journey back north. Along the way, there will be several generations of butterflies born on milkweed, the monarch’s host plant. These butterflies will only live a handful of weeks, enough to mate and lay eggs. In late summer/early fall, the last generation will once again start the trek back to Mexico; but how do they know how to get there? This is not the same group of butterflies that journeyed north in the spring! That is one of the puzzling mysteries that scientists may never solve. Mother Nature is full of secrets. This last generation will live up to eight or nine months.
This species is near and dear to my heart because I just hosted a slew of caterpillars on my Desmodium plants, also called showy tick-trefoil. You might think this butterfly is drab compared to the striking monarch. What they lack in appearance is made up in their caterpillar’s personality. When they are newly hatched, they will cut a sliver of leaf to fold over themselves, like a tent. As they get larger, they will use silk to weave larger leaves together, creating a much more impressive leaf shelter. To protect themselves from the many predators that eat caterpillars, they will only feed at night. As a bonus, they can propel their excrement (also called frass) far away from their host plants, presumably to deter predators. Pretty smart for a caterpillar, right?
The caterpillars of long-tailed skippers are leaf rollers like silver-spotted skippers. The butterflies are a beautiful iridescent blue/green color with two tail-like extensions from the hindwings. In North Carolina, we tend to see them in late summer and fall. There are many types of skippers in North Carolina, but these are one of the few that are easily identifiable, so they tend to get more attention. I always get excited when I start seeing these butterflies because I know fall is on the horizon. They have an extensive range — coming all the way from South and Central America! Enjoy them over the next month because they will not stick around once it gets chilly, as they cannot tolerate the cold weather.
Eastern tiger swallowtail
These butterflies are commonly found across the state, but that doesn’t detract from their charismatic beauty. It is also North Carolina’s state butterfly. Unlike the monarch, they have myriad host plants, including black cherry, tulip poplar, and willow trees. These caterpillars are unique because when newly hatched, they are described as resembling bird poop. That’s a great way to keep predators at bay. This is an opportunistic moment to mention that caterpillars are a very popular food item for other animals. If you have songbirds in your yard during the summer, you likely have hungry baby birds. Caterpillars are the primary food source for those babies, so being camouflaged as bird poop is an effective way to stay safe. These butterflies do not migrate, but instead overwinter as a chrysalis. This is a great reason to skip yard work this fall. Chrysalides of many species may resemble dead leaves and fall to the ground in the fall. If you rake your leaves, you are likely to damage and/or kill those chrysalides. So, in the name of butterfly conservation, leave those leaves!
Buckeye butterflies are so named because of the various eye spots on their wings. They are considered one of the brushfooted butterflies because of the brush-like appendages on their front legs. Ranging from mountains to sea, this butterfly has multiple broods throughout the summer and can be found from spring to fall. Unlike the eastern tiger swallowtail, this species usually overwinters as a caterpillar or adult. The caterpillar uses a variety of host plants including several native weeds such as plantain and toadflax. That is a great reason to let some of those native weeds hang out in your garden — you never know who might be hiding out under one of the leaves. The caterpillars are black, orange, and blue with spines, but there is no reason to be alarmed as they are perfectly safe to pick up.
PHOTOS: A closer look at N.C. butterflies
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Dark Morph
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail
Gabriela Garrison has been the Eastern Piedmont Habitat conservation coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission since 2014. She works with developers, consultants, and government agencies to develop ecologically friendly technical guidance and minimize impact to wildlife in a developing landscape. She has a Bachelor of Science in zoology (with a minor in forestry) from N.C. State University and a Master of Science in wildlife science from Virginia Tech. Her love of bees, butterflies and other insects led to the formation of the N.C. Pollinator Conservation Alliance in 2017, a partnership composed of over 25 agencies and organizations dedicated to pollinator and habitat conservation across the state. For more information, visit www.ncpollinatoralliance.org.