It seems to be a good year at the farm for butterflies. Little yellow Sulphurs are everywhere. I have seen several Monarchs. The past few years, Monarchs were becoming rare sightings. Perhaps the nationwide attention and emphasis by private individuals on planting milkweed has helped this species. Another butterfly that sometimes feeds on milkweed is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui.) This insect has orange wings with black and white markings. There are four eye spots on the outsides of the bottom wings.
We have a good supply of Painted Ladies this year. Here at the farm the caterpillars feed on thistle, mallow, milkweed and aster, among other plants. They are not such specialized feeders as the Monarch, perhaps helping their numbers to stay more plentiful. The Painted Lady larva need to finish munching on the fall asters soon, turn into butterflies and head south. The very mild weather we have been experiencing the past week, with near-record warmth, will not continue. The butterflies migrate all the way to Mexico to over-winter. They need to get started before the frosts come to Maine.
Already our tree leaves are turning color and beginning to drop. There has been no frost yet, but the decreasing light has triggered the trees’ autumn show. As long as the heat continues, the zinnas will bloom in abundance in my vegetable garden. When frosts hits, they die immediately. Painted Lady butterflies seem particularly fond of zinna nectar. I often find several of these insects on the flowers at one time.
Sunday the temperatures soared to near 90F, yesterday we hit 86F at the farm and today promises more of the same. This is idyllic weather for the two week period that comprises the life span of the adult Painted Lady butterfly. As they begin their trip south, the insects will continue to feed, mate, lay eggs and die. The progeny will progress toward warm Mexican winter homes, sustaining the Painted Lady population for another year.