Looking just a little more closely

I’ve been photographing botanical subjects for over ten years now, but this is the first year where I’ve had my camera in hand virtually every day, examining the minute changes in the landscape. One of the direct benefits of such constant observation is the new plants and critters that I’ve experienced.

As I was looking back through my photos from this summer, there were a few butterflies and months that I’d never seen before, so I thought I’d do a bit of digging to find out more about them.

I first observed the Buckeye (Junonia coenia) butterfly this past week at the U of I Plant Sciences Laboratory. Several of the species were feeding on Eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed) flowers. They seemed to be a very skittish butterfly, never sitting on one flower for very long.

Unlike other butterflies I’ve photographed, the Buckeyes rarely showed the color on their top wings, quickly folding their wings to reveal their buff colored undersides. Even folded, you can see the “eye” markings on the wings that likely serve as a decoy for predators. 

According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, Buckeye caterpillars feed on plants in the snapdragon, plantain and acanthus families. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen one of these caterpillars, but from their orange and blue markings, I’m surprised Illinois hasn’t adopted them as their official school caterpillar. Perhaps the Buckeye name is a turnoff.

The second new butterfly is a Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) that I found collecting nectar on a Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’ (Shasta Daisy) this past week. It’s wings are a beautiful buff grey with orange markings along the margin. The decoy markings reminded me slightly of those of a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), but not as pronounced. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the caterpillar hosts include members of the mallow family (including the cotton we are growing this year). Although it’s been found in my county of residence before, it looks to be relatively uncommon in Illinois.

The last of this summer’s new finds (so far) is the Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva punctella) that I photographed in central Illinois in late June as well as near Chicago in late July. The moth, which folds its wings up when at rest, feeds on the nectar of a variety of flowers. It gets its name from the host tree (Alianthus, or Tree of Heaven) on which its larvae feed.

These insects — all unknown to me before this summer — have been three of the wonderful new revelations to me since I’ve started looking at gardens just a little more closely.

Published by Christopher Tidrick

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