August is butterfly month in Connecticut.
Butterflies have been here for many weeks now, but the star of the show, the monarch butterfly, arrived only a week or two ago.
Before the monarch arrived we had plenty to entertain us in the garden with the black and the yellow swallowtail butterflies, the fluttery, white cabbage butterfly, the spotted fritillaries and some of the smaller moth-like butterflies, as well as the fascinating and often mistakenly identified hummingbird moth.
Working alongside this group are the various working-bee groups, dragon flies and assorted other flying creatures.
In fact, there’s a whole underworld of activity in the garden right now as these species gear up and expend all their energies for their rebirth and renewal. Hundreds of species of insects are frantically taking on a year’s worth of work in the few months they have in Connecticut before the frost hits.
As an integral part of the environment, butterflies and bees pollinate flowers that will provide nectar for the next generation. And, when the caterpillars emerge from their cocoons in the spring, these small, soft packets of high nutrition provide food for songbirds, particularly nestlings.
Science has yet to definitively decide on the distinction between butterflies and moths.
They are both part of an evolutionarily-related group of insects, called lepidoptera, that share many characteristics, including wings covered with scales.
I always thought that you could distinguish moths and butterflies with the way they held their wings at rest - either outstretched or upright. Not necessarily true since there are many exceptions to this rule.
Butterflies have slender antennae with club-like protrusions on the ends while moths have feathery antennae? Nope, exceptions to that rule, too.
Most butterflies are brightly colored and active during the day, while moths tend to have drab brown colors and are active at night. Of course, there are exceptions to that, too.
Although butterflies are plant eaters, if caterpillars are eating your plants it’s a good bet that they are not butterflies so its OK to attract these beautiful, active creatures to your garden.
Here are some flowers to plant for next spring that will attract butterflies (as well as humming birds):
- Annuals – allysum, cosmos, zinnia and verbena.
- Perennials: aster, butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, corepopsis, Joe Pye Weed, bee balm, phlox, sedum, yarrow, globe thistle, mint, liatris and echinacae.
Plan your garden now for next spring’s show.
Pass on the butterfly houses sold in many gift shops and garden enters. Although attractive additions to the garden, apparently butterflies don’t use them.
Unfortunately, our beautiful monarch population is dwindling. Monarchs, who live approximately nine months as opposed to the one month life cycle for other butterflies, migrate great distances when the weather cools. Monarchs from central North America spend the winter in roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, or possibly in Florida, covering great distances en mass -- science is still not quite sure.
Science may still be out on the actual migratory patterns of the monarch, but one thing is for sure and that is the monarch’s habitat is slowly disappearing. A recent study indicated that as a result of the loss of milkweed and habitat the monarch butterfly numbers have been reduced in half.
Milkweed is the plant that plays host to the monarch's eggs and larva. Without it, monarchs cannot complete their life cycle. Due to the increased usage of genetically-modified crops more than 100 million acres of farmland are now milkweed free.
In addition, deforestation in Mexico has caused the loss of the monarch’s wintering regions.
For further info on how you can help restore milkweed and provide and protect monarch “waystations” in your own backyard go to www.monarchwatch.org.
Butterflies are an integral part of the environment and a colorful sign of a healthy backyard. A butterfly garden provides an environmentally friendly habitat for these beautiful, active creatures as well as other environmentally important wildlife.
With more than 117 different butterfly species here in Connecticut to color our backyards, turn off the TV, pull up a chair, sit back and enjoy the free show.