Northland Nature: Fritillaries flit through summer
Retired teacher Larry Weber, a Barnum resident, is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him via Katie Rohman at email@example.com.
Butterflies have been with us for months, from March on. With the longer and warmer days of early spring, the hibernating anglewing butterflies emerge and take wing, often on clear, mild, March days. Typically, the first to be seen are the dark mourning cloaks, but other hibernators, like tortoise-shells and commas, are quick to rise, too. With few flowers at this time, they frequently go to dripping sap.
From early May on, we see a variety of butterflies that come out of chrysalis (similar to cocoon) as adults and fly, going to the spring flowers. This pace picks up in June. And though there have been a variety and good populations of these colorful insects all summer, I believe that July stands out as being the month of butterflies.
During walks at this time, we can see tiny azures (blues), coppers and skippers of several kinds all active among the roadside botany of July. Here, too, are the mid-sized whites, sulphurs and painted ladies feeding with small, orange-black crescents and checkerspots. Red-striped red admirals and white-striped white admirals may be seen basking and taking minerals on the soil. The larger monarchs and tiger swallowtails are taking nectar and laying eggs on specific plants.
We tend to think of butterflies as being colorful, and while most are, some species active now are brown, almost black. While tan common ringlets visit flowers in the open, brown little wood satyrs and northern pearly-eyes stay in the woods. Not likely to go to flowers here, they feed on decaying fruits and droppings. And darkest of all, the mid-sized common wood nymph appears at the edges of forests and fields.
But maybe the most diverse group in species and habitats are the fritillaries. These checkered butterflies carry patterns of orange and black on their upper wings. Some have similar markings on the undersides, while others hold large, bright spots.
Much of their diversity can be seen in their sizes. Wingspans range from small (1.5 inches) to middle (2.5 inches) to large (3.5 inches). Their black and orange colors make them easy to see regardless of the chosen habitat: fields, roadsides, marshes, swamps, bogs and open woods.
Among the large ones in the area are the great-spangled and Aphrodite fritillaries. Both can regularly be seen on the July flowers such as milkweed and dogbane. Each one has orange-black above with large bright spots below. (When photographing butterflies, it is best to show both the upper and lower wings.)
Mid-sized Atlantis and silver-bordered fritillaries are common. They share a size and dark bands along the edges of the upper wings. They frequent various flowers, but are often on dogbanes. The small members include meadow and bog fritillaries that usually live up to their names of where to see them.
No matter where they live, fritillaries show their checkered pattern of orange and black wings and can be rather easy to see. Flying in the open and in the daylight, they readily take nectar from a variety of flowers; basking here, too, is what is expected of butterflies.
But fritillaries show two stages of their life cycle that differ from others. Caterpillars feed mostly on violets — spring wildflowers of the forests — and they do so at night. And overwintering is not as eggs, chrysalis, hibernating or migrating (all done by some butterflies), but as caterpillars.
Apparently, the unique lifestyle of their youth has been successful and we now see the adult fritillaries as they flit through summer.