Among the most famous migrations on Earth is the amazing journey millions of monarch butterflies from all parts of the U.S. make to a tiny winter sanctuary in Mexico every fall. But they’re not the only butterflies that migrate. Grumpy was granted the privilege of observing this first-hard during a recent holiday of sand, surf, and suds on the Florida Gulf coast.
They might as well as named the shoreline “Gulf Fritillary Highway.” From sunrise to sundown, a steady stream of these bright orange insects (Agraulis vanillae, not be confused with the odious Milli Vanilli) fluttered down the water’s edge headed east. Hundreds passed by every hour on a journey that would take them across the Florida panhandle, then south to their frost-free wintering grounds on the lower Florida peninsula.
Gulf fritillaries share several traits with the monarch. The most obvious one is the orange color of adults, which marks them as unpalatable to many predators. Indeed, I spotted a seagull pluck a Gulf fritillary from the air and then quickly drop it to the waves. This poor bug’s death was not in vain, as the seagull will never pull that stunt again. A second similarity is that while adults sip nectar from a wide range of flowers, their caterpillars confine themselves to a single group of plants. For monarchs, it’s milkweeds (Asclepias sp.). For Gulf fritillaries, it’s passionvines (Passiflora sp.). This insistence makes both vulnerable, like bamboo-chomping pandas. If their food source disappears, so do they.
Besides Gulf fritillaries, I noticed many other migrating butterflies snacking on my flowers here in north-central Alabama, before continuing on to their winter homes. Here is a sampling. How many of these have you spied?
The cloudless sulfur butterfly (Phoebis sennae) is probably the most frequent visitor to Grumpy’s garden in late summer or fall. The one above wisely sought out some red spider lilies (Lycoris radiata) that had popped up just for it. Cloudless sulfur caterpillars dine mainly on plants in the Senna family, but fortunately for them many of these plants are weedy, so there’s no shortage.
Known for its erratic flight pattern and predilection for landing on people and injecting a flesh-eating poison (just kidding), the beautiful red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) makes its summer home in most of the eastern U.S. and winters in south Texas, Mexico, and Central America. Although adults will sip nectar from goldenrod, milkweed, asters, and butterfly bush, they also feast on tree sap, rotting fruit, and bird droppings (Yum! Only the best!). Caterpillars eat all kinds of nettles (Urtica sp.), but again, these are noxious weeds in copious supply.
Easily identified by the prominent eyespots on its wings, the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) is the state insect of Michigan, where it is revered as a symbol of hope and righteousness. Adults sip nectar primarily from daisy-type flowers like asters and chicory. Caterpillars chow down on snapdragons and plantains.
Painted ladies (Vanessa cardui) are more than working girls. They’re also the most widespread of North American butterflies with a territory that encompasses nearly all of the U.S. and Canada south of the Arctic. They inhabit Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa too. This is due to the fact that neither adults or caterpillars are picky eaters and adapt to a wide range of habitats. In North America, painted ladies migrate to south Texas and Mexico to escape winter’s cold. In spring, they fly north to continue the cycle.