Columns, In the Garden

Red Admirals are on the Move

courtesy photo
The Red Admiral butterfly is usually seen in Vermont at the beginning of May.

HARDWICK – Have you seen this butterfly? The Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta), because of it’s 50 or so larval host plants in the nettle family (Urticaceae), is found worldwide, and is one of our most abundant butterfly species in the U.S. They are fast flyers, moving rapidly out of the South in the spring, on a good year making it up to Vermont as early as the first of May.

A number of butterfly species migrate to some degree, pushing their range. None do it as spectacularly as the Monarch, which leaves the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico, in March, flying 3,000 miles into and throughout the U.S., where it lays eggs and repopulates. Three or four generations later, Monarch butterflies migrate back to the same trees in Mexico, in late August, September and October.

There is a history of strong Red Admiral movement. The last banner year was 2012. It’s unclear what causes these sudden peak numbers of butterflies. According to Laura Timms of the Natural Heritage Management, “Fall or winter droughts or cold snaps that kill off predators and parasites could be a reason for their population growth, especially combined with an early spring that produces lots of host plants.”

courtesy photo
Plants in the nettle family serve as hosts to Red Admiral larva.

Recently, as temperatures rose into the 60s and 70s, I spotted several females flitting from one wide leaved nettle plant to the next, laying eggs. Many of the caterpillars are sure to feed our nesting birds, and there will be plenty of survivors, morphing into chrysalids in a few weeks, then emerging as adult butterflies by June or July. The butterflies will be hungry. If the lilacs are still blooming, they’ll be on the lilacs. They like wildflowers such as tufted vetch, clover, dandelion, hawkweed, and goldenrod. In our gardens, they’ll come to zinnias, purple coneflower, bee balm, thistle and other flowers.

If and when they show up, I’ll make sure to have plenty of food in the garden.

Jerry Schneider of Hardwick, also known as the Butterfly Guy, shares information on butterflies and pollinators in workshops he gives throughout the United States.

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