Monday, February 15, 2010

Butterflies in Winter

Last February on an unseasonably warm day, I was startled to see an orange butterfly fluttering by me.  I watched it seemed to settle on the branch of a tree, but couldn't find it.  One month later while unsuccessfully trying to burn our glade, another one floated by.  Mike Skinner, from the Missouri Department of Conservation, identified it as a Goatweed butterfly, Anaea andria Scudder.
I probably missed it the first time by looking for its brighter orange upper wing surface.  When it folds its wings, the visible undersides look just like a dry leaf, thus its other name, Goatweed Leafwing.Mike explained that it was commonly seen on warm winter days.  To quote him from a January News-Leader article, "Species such as the Mourning Cloak and Goat Weed butterfly spend the winter as adults underneath loose tree bark.  Being cold-blooded, they actually reflect what the outside temperature is.  In fact, on really warm days in winter or early Spring, you can sometimes see them out for a spell."  These and the Mourning Cloaks and anglewings (Commas and Questionmarks) all overwinter as adults.

Goatweeds frequently will light on tree and shrub branches and do not get nourishment from flowers.  Unlike many other butterflies, they tend to play dead when captured.  Their larvae mimic twigs and attach fecal material to their back with their silk, probably to discourage predators.  More on this butterfly can be found at Butterflies and Moths of North America.
 Now that spring is just around the corner (yeah, right)- it is time to start thinking about butterflies.  The Butterfly House created by Bill Roston and Friends of the Garden will be opening again in late spring at Close Memorial Park on Scenic.  In addition to the Butterfly Festival July 24th and 25th, the house will be open weekdays at scheduled times.  Stocked with only native Missouri butterflies, it gives the public a chance to see all four stages of selected butterflies and moths living on native plants.

Why talk about this in February?  The Butterfly House will be open more hours this year to accommodate visitors to the Gardens throughout the season.  We need volunteers to serve as docents in the house.  Training sessions will begin in April and will include identification of common butterflies and caterpillars and their life cycles.  There are guides and pictures in the house to help, so you don't have to be an entomologist or even know a butterfly from a moth to serve as a docent.

If you would enjoy seeing children's eyes light up as they see a butterfly land on a leaf to deposit eggs or watch a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, this opportunity is for you.  Email me at to get on the list. 

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