Butterfly Families

| June/July 2004

by Claire Hagen Dole Illustrations by Steve Buchanan

Have you ever stopped in the midst of your garden chores to watch a bright yellow swallowtail as it lands on a coneflower? If you approach slowly, you may be surprised at how close you can get to a feeding butterfly. With a hand lens, gaze at its compound eye, its overlapping wing scales and its long proboscis, uncoiled like a soda straw to sip nectar. Keep that hand lens at the ready. You’ll discover a fascinating world within your butterfly garden: Watch a female butterfly as she lays eggs on the undersides of leaves, and marvel at the development of tiny caterpillars within the eggs during the next few days. Keep an eye out for gobbling caterpillars pausing to shed their too-tight skins, and jewellike chrysalides dangling from branches as the insects inside transform into dazzling adult butterflies.

Like all living organisms, butterflies are classified within the Linnaean system. Thus, a painted lady (Vanessa cardui) belongs in the kingdom Animalia, phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Lepidoptera, family Nymphalidae, genus Vanessa and species cardui. Butterflies and moths make up the order Lepidoptera, which means “scaly wings.” There are nine times as many moths as butterflies, a remarkable fact considering that scientists have classified almost 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide. Most inhabit the tropics; about 700 species can be found in North America, north of Mexico. In addition, many tropical vagrants are spotted occasionally in Florida and the Southwest.

What determines a butterfly’s placement within one family? It may share family characteristics such as wing structure, behavior or caterpillar host plants. For example, butterflies in the large family Nymphalidae are called brushfoots because they all have short, brushy forelegs. They also tend to be strong, fast fliers.

A good regional guidebook, with geographic range maps and a caterpillar host plant index, is invaluable (see “More Butterfly Information,” Page 67, for a few recommendations). Your own observations on behavior, such as wing posture while basking, will aid in identification and bring greater pleasure to your butterfly watching, too. Here’s an overview of butterfly families to look for in your garden:

Whites and Sulphurs

These medium-size butterflies with wingspans from 1 to 3 inches can be found in gardens, fields and disturbed areas. Whites, which may have greenish marbling on the undersides of their wings, lay eggs on mustards (Brassica). They are strong fliers but do not wander. The cabbage white is the most common white, and its caterpillar is a common pest of cabbage and broccoli plants. Sulphurs, named for their yellow coloration, may disperse in large numbers in the fall — perhaps as a response to a sudden population boom. Both male and female sulphurs are avid puddlers (sipping minerals from wet soil; see tip No. 7, Page 66). Their caterpillars feed on legumes such as alfalfas (Medicago) and clovers (Trifolium).

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