A Cloudless Sulphur butterfly visits a sunflower in a vacant lot near a big box store.
Who doesn’t love a pretty quartet of wings? The flashy appearance of the Monarch butterfly’s brilliant orange and black wings is so perfect for Autumn. And those white polka dots on black? Very stylish and classic. (The design also signals to birds — don’t eat me, I’m toxic!)
Black Swallowtail butterflies are gorgeous, too. Black, yellow, iridescent blue. The perfect color combination. And those fabulous swallowtails! Definitely au courant. I’m like a fashion photographer coaxing these beauties to show their best side as I chase them all over the neighborhood with my camera. (Click on the photos for a larger view.)
I’ve almost overlooked the less spectacular Cloudless Sulphur butterflies. They’re understated, even plain. They don’t have fancy swallowtails. These small to medium-sized yellow and white sulphur butterflies can look like flower petals or leaves fluttering from a tree, which gives them an advantage in eluding birds that might want to eat them as they hunt for nectar, mates or a place to lay eggs.
I saw this Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar hanging out at the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. A ten-year-old boy told me it was in the "J" phase as it prepares to pupate.
The males are a clear yellow above and yellow or mottled with reddish brown below. The female is lemon-yellow to golden or white on both surfaces. Both have mottling, which makes them look more like “moth-eaten” leaves.
Last summer was the first time I really noticed a Cloudless Sulfur butterfly. Certainly, I’ve seen them, but they aren’t showy. The little yellow butterfly flitted in almost under my radar. I saw one moving from blossom to blossom in my impatiens bed. It unfurled its long proboscis into the narrow throat of each impatiens bloom.
Cloudless Sulphur caterpillar starting to pupate in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.
As the seed pods formed, I realized, hey, I was there at their conception. I’m sort of their Godmother Nature. I’d plant these seeds instead of buying impatiens, thereby saving money and also bringing the cycle full circle.
When the pods seemed mature, I carefully gathered them. The pod explodes when it’s touched. That’s why they’re called impatiens — they’re impatient to get moving and germinating.
But more about my impatiens project later — this is the Clouded Sulphur’s story. Yet, you can’t separate pollination from butterflies and other pollinators. According to the Pollinator Partnership, almost 80 percent of the food we eat requires a pollinator. A large number of these are insects such as bees and butterflies.
As more land is paved and more acreage tilled for crops, there are fewer places for pollinators to live. About 30 percent of the Monarch butterfly’s summer breeding area is in croplands, where milkweeds — essential for Monarchs to eat — used to thrive, according to Monarch Watch. Herbicides in crop fields have killed off a lot of the milkweed. Monarch Watch helps people plant milkweed in their gardens for the caterpillars to eat. They also suggest nectar and host plants that many butterflies and their caterpillars will like.
Herbicides and frequent mowing along roadsides also have reduced habitat for wildlife. The Kansas Department of Transportation
has reduced mowing along several of its highways to restore the prairie and move away from brome grass, which is poor habitat. I enjoyed some of this restored roadside prairie on recent trips in the Flint Hills of Kansas. What would the neighbors say if we restored our yard to prairie? It’s a thought. Wild blue indigo, the orange flowers of the butterfly weed and scores of other flowers among the grass are a beautiful sight.
Cloudless Sulfur Butterfly and an insect rival compete for space on a sunflower. A "for sale" sign on the lot means all of the insects may soon be out of a home.
The restored roadside habitat also fosters a higher diversity of native bees that are essential for pollination, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch. “There are dozens and dozens of species of bees, most of them small and not obvious to people,” Taylor says.
“Create a culture of appreciation for diversity,” Taylor suggests. “Change the vegetation in your garden to plants that foster pollinators.”
Kristy G. of South Carolina inspired me to find out more about butterfly metamorphosis when she wrote about a swarm of Black Swallowtail butterflies that had devoured her parsley. She wanted to know how she could follow their progress from caterpillar to adult. More about that in a later post.
A Cloudless Sulfur butterfly chrysalis looks like a leaf in the greenhouse at Monarch Watch on the campus at the University of Kansas.