Even Butterflies Are Affected by Our Dry Weather
by Ro Wauer
Butterfly numbers in South Texas this year are only a small percentage of what they are during years of normal rainfall. I am finding fewer species as well as fewer individuals. Watering and maintaining a good variety of flowering plants helps to attract whatever species might be passing by, but the dry conditions have affected even the most common species.
One can still expect a few species with fair certainty. The largest of these are two swallowtails: the pipevine swallowtail is blackish with shiny blue on the trailing half of the hindwing, and the giant swallowtail is black with broad diagonal and marginal yellow bands. Another large and fairly common species still found in numbers is the gulf fritillary. It is bright orange with long wings with scattered black dots above, and the underside has numerous black-rimmed silvery blotches. All three of these can hardly be missed or misidentified.
There are at least three sulphurs to be found in gardens and along our roadways, orange and large orange sulphurs and little yellow. All three usually perch with wings folded. Orange sulphur is dollar-size, yellow with a small, round, red-rimmed silver central spot and small black marginal spots on the hindwing. The somewhat larger large orange sulphur is all orange-yellow with a blackish band that runs from the tip to the center of the hindwing. And little yellow is just that, a very small, all-yellow butterfly that shows scattered black dots, including a pair of black dots at the base of the hindwing. The lemon yellow little yellow, oftentimes quite numerous, is an active butterfly that rarely stops to feed on flower nectar.
And then there are the two widespread checkered-skippers, common and tropical checkered-skippers. These two active, black-and-white little spread-winged skippers spend much of their time flying here and there, but they do stop often to sip nectar from various flowers. And two additional butterflies can be commonplace in shady areas: dusky-blue groundstreak and Carolina satyr. The little groundstreak is one of the hairstreaks with a black tail spot with an orange cap, and it spends much of its time on the ground. Carolina satyr also remains low to the ground, and can easily be identified by its large and small eyespots on the underside, and its flits about near the ground, seemingly bouncing from one spot to the next.
Although a careful observer is likely to find an additional 15 to 20 species at this time this year by visited a number of natural sites, gardens and yards designed to attract butterflies are by far the most productive sites. A variety of flowering plants and moist conditions is usually the key. I find that some of the old standbys, such as lantanas, pentas, and Mexican heather, are some of the better butterfly attractants. And as the season progresses, several of the other nursery plants will begin to flower. Of those, I find that duranta, butterfly bushes, Mexican bush sage, firebush, and verbena are the best. And later in the fall, crucita is the very best of the butterfly magnets.
Of course, not all butterflies utilize flowering plants. Tree sap attracts several butterfly species, such as question mark, leafwings, some satyrs, and emperors. Many of these also utilize overripe fruit. Overripe bananas, watermelon, cantaloupes, and mangoes are some of the best attractants. And there is a beer-based mixture that can be made that does a marvelous job. I have had great success with the following recipe: 2 cans of beer, 10 to 12 over-ripe bananas, and one-half pound of brown sugar. I blend all of these together in a blender, and then pour the mixture into a bottle and place in the sun (with the lid loose) for several hours to give it a nice odor. The resultant goop can be dripped onto a feeding tray or painted (with a paintbrush) on any surface. Butterflies often respond within minutes.
It is best to add a little bit of the goop to the same feeding site daily, preferable each morning. Surrounding butterflies usually will come to the feeding site with regularity. Some will stay for some time while others come and go. And a variety of species, especially admirals, leafwings and emperors, can be expected. A couple years ago, I recorded a gray cracker on my feeder, sipping goop. It was the first record of that tropical species north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
Some folks find that this mess works very well for both butterflies and moths. With so few flowering plants outside of our yards this year, it will take additional means to attract butterflies. Good luck!