The Nature Writers of Texas

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Red Admiral, Our Winter Butterfly
by Ro Wauer

Fall has passed us by, and now is that time of year when those of us into butterflies must wait for several weeks before a few springtime species appear at some of our earliest blooming plants. However, there is one notable exception. Unless our days stay near freezing or below, we can expect to see a few red admirals. These lovely creatures are readily identified by their mid-size, somewhat smaller than a monarch, dark brown to black wings with a red band across each forewing and a broad reddish band on the trailing margin on each hindwing. The underside is subtly beautiful with mottled black and browns with a bit of blue evident on the forewing.

Red admirals are most closely related to the ladies, the painted, American and West Coast (rarely) ladies. They all are of the genus Vanessa, and all are immigrants to South Texas, usually appearing in late summer or fall. Most pass through our area, but a few red admirals almost always stay behind. It therefore is often thought of as our “wintertime” butterfly. However, it actually is one of the most widespread of all butterflies, ranging throughout the United States and the southern half of Canada. It even occurs throughout Mexico and most of Central America as well as the Greater Antilles.

Adult red admirals feed on fruit, sap, dung, and flower nectar. And in recent days one of my red admirals has been taking sugar water from one of my hummingbird feeders. It is large enough and with a long enough proboscis that allows it to reach the sweet liquid, apparently a substitute for nectar. They seem to be one of the most active butterflies during early mornings, even when temperatures are below 60 degree, the general temperature when we can expect most butterflies to become active.

Behavior of red admirals is similar to many of the anglewings, a general group of butterflies that, besides the ladies, includes question marks, mourning cloaks, and buckeyes. They all are fast fliers and hard to follow, but yet they suddenly will alight on a flower, leaf or substrate, walk about a second or two, than perch with folded wings. They will sit with open wings during the cooler morning hours, allowing the sun to warm their bodies. At times during cooler periods they may sit with one wing half open to reflect the warm sunshine onto their bodies.

All of the admirals are sometimes referred to as the “thistle” butterflies because, although they nectar at a wide range of flowers, they seem to have a fondness for thistles. The larval foodplants, species on which females lay eggs, include nettles, false nettles, and pellitory, all species of the nettle family. In most areas in North America they produce two broods annually, and adults and caterpillars are able to hibernate in winter. In our area, those same individuals often fly about when the temperatures permit activity.

Any day in winter when one or a few red admirals are active is a good wintertime butterfly day.

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