Since early spring the predominant colors seen bouncing around the flowers in my back yard were black and yellow. There were a few spicebush swallowtails (black), a few of the black form of the female eastern tiger swallowtail, many of the more common yellow eastern tiger swallowtails and tons of pipevine swallowtails.
That all began to change a couple of weeks ago and now the large rusty-orange great spangled fritillary is the most common butterfly nectaring in my backyard. The great spangled fritillary has a wingspan of about 3 inches — similar in size to the swallowtails that preceded it. It is orange above with bold black spots towards the edge of the forewings. The color on the forewings and hindwings melds into a dusky brown near the body of the butterfly creating a dark center that contrasts with the brighter outer wings. Below, the forewing is patterned similar to the top of the forewing but the hindwing has two rows of large whitish-silver spots separated by a cream-colored band.
The most common newcomer to the woodlands over the past couple of weeks is the red spotted purple. This black beauty somewhat resembles the pipevine swallowtails from the top but the wings have no tails. The hindwings shimmer with an iridescent blue at the base and the forewings show a few orange spots near the top edges. It gets its name from the underside of the wings, which have red spots on a bluish-purple background.
I find butterflies as fascinating as my 4-year-old, Isabella, but I don’t possess her uncanny ability to walk up and pluck them from flowers. On a recent trip to the WNC Nature Center in Asheville, Izzy was up to her elbows in butterflies.
The Nature Center is featuring a live butterfly exhibit from now until Sept. 4. There is a 15-foot by 40-foot mesh greenhouse that is full of native butterflies. Kids can put sugar water on their hands and the butterflies will light and lap up the sweet concoction.
The day Izzy was there she got to see a program by Rick Mikula, who People magazine has dubbed North America’s “butterfly evangelist.”
Mikula is no longer there but copies of his book The Family Butterfly Book are available. It is a cool book for parents and children, full of simple projects like making your own butterfly condo and activities like rearing and caring for butterflies. It is also a field guide to 40 species of common butterflies with drawings of the adult, the caterpillar, the chrysalis, a range map and a depiction of the eggs on its host plant.
While the great spangled fritillary is top dog in our yard now, another hatch of pipevine swallowtails is eminent. Every day Izzy plucks a black and orange pipevine caterpillar from a vine near our driveway and brings it in to show how much it has grown then she takes it back and places it back on the pipevine, which is mostly stems and partially eaten leaves at this point. Chrysalises should be appearing any day now.
A trip to the butterfly house at WNC is a great adventure for kids — and the kid in you. Mikula’s book is a fun resource and two percent of profits from the sale of the book go to Monarch Watch.