Red Admiral butterflies everywhere

While we’re waiting for Monarch butterflies to leave their roosts in Mexico and make their way through South Texas, let’s take a moment to appreciate Red Admirals, a striking butterfly that often kicks off the season in late winter and early spring.

Red Admiral on tree

Classic Red Admiral pose: resting on a tree limb. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, have black wings with a white stripe and a distinctive red epaulet when their wings are open; with wings closed, they sport a mottled look like their close cousin, the Painted Lady.

Red Admirals are unusual in that they prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar. Perhaps their preference for sap, made accessible to them thanks to woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers poking holes in trees, explains their penchant for hanging out on the edges of woods.

Red Admiral wings closed

With wings closed, Red Admirals sport a mottled coloration similar to Painted ladies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They seem to be everywhere lately–lilting on the understory of brush, resting in tree limbs, puddling on damp ground or sunning on warm rocks. In Texas, Red Admirals show up early in the butterfly season. They host on pellitory and members of the nettles family. In the caterpillar stage, they appear blackish-grey with white flecks and harmless spikes.  Their chrysalis looks like a twisted, gold-dusted dead leaf.

“Territorial males like to patrol and perch in the late summer afternoon, darting rapidly after anything to investigate possible females,” said Todd Stout, owner of Raising Butterflies and a past president of the Utah Lepidopterists’ Society.

Adults overwinter and migrate much like their Painted Lady cousins and have even been spotted migrating with Painted Ladies during hatches of the latter, said Stout.  Check out Stout’s thorough account of the Red Admiral life cycle from egg to butterfly on his Raising Butterflies website.

Red admiral chrysalis

Red Admiral chrysalis looks like a dead leaf with gold flecks. Photo by Todd Stout, Raising Butterflies.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.

“Unmistakeable and unforgettable,” reads the description of Red Admirals in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. “The Red Admiral will alight on a person’s shoulder day after day in a garden.” Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Connie Hodsdon, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, once told me that none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden is as friendly as Red Admirals.

Hodsdon relayed that she once was talking with a friend and pointed to a Red Admiral in her butterfly garden.  “It landed on my finger,” said Hodsdon, who has been breeding butterflies for research, education and celebrations for more than a decade.

“When I reached for it with my other hand, it flew off.  Thinking that what had just happened was a fluke, I put my finger out again and the butterfly came back and landed.  This time, I just walked it back to the flight house and it rode on my finger all the way. ”

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Hodsdon added that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

If you think you might enjoy raising Red Admirals at home, check out the free tutorials on how to do so made available by the International Butterfly Breeders Association, a trade and educational organization for hobbyist and commercial butterfly breeders.

Part I:  https://vimeo.com/120015044
Part II: https://vimeo.com/120123630

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“Friendly” Red Admirals Slurp Sap in San Antonio, Bode Well for 2012 Butterfly Numbers

My friend Veronica Prida called to let me know that the beautiful Red Admiral butterflies we’ve often admired in her Alamo Heights front yard were clustering on the trunk of her yet-to-bud Burr Oak tree.    The lovely black-and-white creatures, distinguished by a red epaulet, gathered on the tree bark, slurping up tree sap as if it were some high octane smoothie.

Red Admiral Slurping Sap on Burr Oak tree

Red Admiral slurping sap on Burr Oak tree–photo by Veronica Prida

How did they get to it?   A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a small woodpecker that passes through town each spring, made it easy by drilling the holes, allowing the sap to ooze out.  Nature’s teamwork is a marvel.

Mary Kennedy of Boerne shared a similar story.  Kennedy frequently finds herself at Cibolo Nature Center as a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.  She relayed via email that plum and oak trees there were covered in Red Admirals, Mourning Cloaks and Painted Lady butterflies nectaring on sap.  The Sapsucker (yes, it’s a real name of a real bird) made the butterflies’ meal possible.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, photo courtesy dcnr.state.al.us

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, photo courtesy dcnr.state.al.us

Those of us who pay attention to butterflies have noticed Red Admirals before, but not like this.  Not in these numbers.   Our consensus:   this year will be BIG for butterflies.   Unlike the spring and summer of 2011 when lack of rainfall and pervasive wildfires discouraged all butterflies and the plants that sustain them, conditions this year couldn’t be better for a huge butterfly showing.

Austin and San Antonio have experienced double and triple their normal February rainfall this year (see chart below from the National Weather Service).   Wildflowers are just starting their stupendous showing.  And if the numbers of Red Admirals are any indication, it will be a butterfly year of record.

 

 

Via the Nation Weather Service                                    FEBRUARY 2012 WAS THE FOURTH WETTEST FEBRUARY IN SAN ANTONIO SINCE1871...AND THE 9TH WETTEST AT AUSTIN BERGSTROM SINCE 1943.
AT DEL RIO FEBRUARY 2012 TIED WITH FEBRUARY 1932 FOR THE 26TH
WETTEST FEBRUARY SINCE 1906.  AT AUSTIN MABRY FEBRUARY 2012
WAS THE 40TH WETTEST FEBRUARY SINCE 1856.

THE TABLE BELOW LISTS RAINFALL FOR FEBRUARY 2012 AND COMPARES
THIS TO THE LATEST 30 YEAR FEBRUARY NORMAL AND FEBRUARY RECORD
RAINFALL.

LOCATION          FEBRUARY 2012    1981-2010     FEBRUARY RECORD
                    RAINFALL        NORMAL          RAINFALL

AUSTIN BERGSTROM...3.86 INCHES        2.37      7.34 FEBRUARY 1958
AUSTIN MABRY.......3.04 INCHES        2.02      9.41 FEBRUARY 1903
DEL RIO............1.20 INCHES        0.88      7.82 FEBRUARY 1949
SAN ANTONIO........5.63 INCHES        1.79      7.88 FEBRUARY 1903

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and other “nymph” butterflies are among the most common on the planet.  Closely related to Painted Ladies, which are often used in science classes to teach metamorphosis, Red Admirals prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.   Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Commercial butterfly breeder Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, says none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden are as friendly as Red Admirals.

“Last year I saw the first Red Admiral of the season, was talking with a friend and pointed to the butterfly.  It landed on my finger,” says Hodson, who has been breeding butterflies for research, education and celebrations for more than a decade.  “When I reached for it with my other hand, it flew off.  Thinking that what had just happened was a fluke, I put my finger out again and the butterfly came back and landed.  This time, I just walked it back to the flight house and it rode on my finger all the way. ”  Hodson adds that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

“That Sapsucker thing goes way back, evolutionarily speaking,” says Austin entomologist Mike Quinn.  Quinn explains that these types of butterflies reside in wooded, shady areas with fewer flowers resulting in less nectar for butterfly food.  ‘These butterflies have adapted to forested understories and to eating sap.”   Preumeably, Burr Oak sap has a high sugar content, much like maple syrup.

We might have to try that on our pancakes sometime.

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