By Eric Duran
When people think of fall, they think of changing colors, falling leaves, pumpkins and sweater weather — but they don’t normally think of butterflies. Yet along the Gulf Coast and throughout much of the south autumn is a wonderful time to watch butterflies.
With fall wildflowers are blooming, migratory species from up north fly down to join us in the south. Late emerging butterflies are coming out of their chrysalides. So with warmer weather lasts longer in this part of the country, we’re taking this opportunity to introduce you to some species who visit our neighborhoods in the balmy fall.
The Queen butterfly looks very much like a Monarch, but the orange coloring is much darker and they have fewer black stripes. Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs on milkweed, on which their caterpillars feed. Like Monarchs, they are poisonous, a result of the toxins accumulated by the caterpillar when feeding on toxic milkweed. Unlike Monarchs, Queens do not go through dramatic multi-generational long distance migration.
In the U.S., Queens tends to live mostly in the South, and they migrate in a more regional manner, if at all. Their populations seem to go in cycles. In some years we see many of them around the area, and other years, we may see few or none at all. They prefer open areas, and in our gardens, they seem to love Goldenrod and Blue Mistflower.
If you see a big yellow butterfly in your yard, most likely it’s a Cloudless Sulphur. These conspicuous butterflies like forest edges, gardens and other open areas. I mention this, because some butterflies like the cover of the forest.
The most noticeable fall butterfly migration is that of the Cloudless Sulphur, which moves into our area from the northern parts of its range in large numbers. Their caterpillars feed on plants in the genus Cassia, in the pea/bean family Fabaceae. The adults frequently visit Turk’s-cap.
The Common Buckeye is a very distinct butterfly, easily identified from the eyespots on the wings. This is another migrating butterfly that shows up here in great numbers during the fall, as well as in spring and summer — just like the other two butterflies. The caterpillars feed on a variety of host plants, like cudweed, wild plantain, false foxglove, and wild petunia. They are attracted to plants that have certain compounds that when eaten by the caterpillars make them unpalatable to predators. We notice them visiting Texas Lantana and Blue Mistflower here in the park.
We can offer a gracious welcome to our Lepidopteran friends by planting native plants in our gardens to provide host plants for caterpillars and fall-blooming flowers — such as those mentioned in the article — as nectar sources.
If you’d like to find out more about butterflies or butterfly gardening, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or register for one of our outdoor programs at naturediscoverycenter.org.
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center, NatureDiscoveryCenter.org, 7112 Newcastle Dr., Bellaire, 713-667-6550.