Luna moth, just hatched. Its tails are not yet completely dry and extended.
The number of plants needed to sustain a butterfly and moth population is astounding. We all know that monarchs need the asclepias family, including milkweed, but many other butterflies also have specific requirements for life. Great spangled fritillaries visit milkweed for nectar too, but the caterpillars, which overwinter and become active in spring, must have violet leaves to eat; if there are none available, they will starve and die. (Not a problem here with native violets everywhere.) Beautiful luna moth caterpillars subsist on tulip tree (lirodendron) leaves. The carrot family is host for giant swallowtail caterpillars. We’ve learned to live with holes in leaves; helping sustain pollinators and beautiful insects is one of the best parts of being a gardener.
Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars
Oak moth caterpillar, camouflaged against the bark of an oak tree.
I know; all caterpillars are not welcome in a garden. A single giant hornworm can nearly consume a tomato plant in one night, causing gardeners to curse loudly and crush it immediately. But not all hornworms eat tomatoes. There are some 70 species, many of which are plant specific, so randomly killing any you see would deprive us of many hawk and hummingbird moths that are so entertaining in the evenings. Introduced species like gypsy moths, bagworms, tent caterpillars, cabbage butterflies and cutworms wreak havoc in gardens, needing to be dealt with if we are to have vegetables to eat. We don’t use insecticides, instead relying on timing, floating row covers, plant collars, and natural predators. One alternative is bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, a natural biological control that is effectively used on larva of many kinds in certain situations. But it does destroy caterpillars, so apply with caution and only if necessary. BT can be found at any garden center. A must read for further information: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05556.html
For nectar, butterflies need cluster type flowers with flat surfaces for landing pads, such as sedums, milkweeds, salvias, verbenas, zinnias, clover, lilacs, et al. They also like a good mud puddle for salt that is necessary in mating, especially if it has rotten bananas, molasses, or sponges soaked in fruit juices and stale beer in it. A wide saucer or birdbath makes a good feeder. They are also attracted to carrion, dung piles, and sweaty people. If you are blessed by butterflies landing on you, they are probably licking up your salt.
Cecropia moth, one of our largesty silkmoths, seems to be declining because of parasitism by a tachinid fly that was introduced to control the gypsy moth, an invasive species from Europe that is devastating North American forests. Another example of many well-intentioned attempts to correct a problem has gone awry. Now, how far must we go to control the tachinid fly? And then, what?
Besides my caterpillar book, my other favorite reference is a small, information-packed Pocket Nature Guide published by Johnson Books; “Painted Ladies of North America”.
With dwindling habitat worldwide and assaults on these insects with ever-growing use of chemicals, and intoduced predators, even the tiniest pollinator garden helps. I’m planting lots more agastache, salvias, herbs and lavender this year.
"May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun
And find your shoulder to light on,
To bring you luck, happiness and riches
Today, tomorrow and beyond."
Joplin Globe column March 29, Speaking of Gardens by Sandy Parrill with extra pictures and text