Fol­low the swal­low­tail

Maryland Independent - - Sports - Jamie Drake

If you’ve driven on any of the coun­try roads in South­ern Mary­land re­cently, you might have no­ticed the abun­dance of swal­low­tail but­ter­flies in our area.

They lazily cross the road, not very ef­fi­ciently zig-zag­ging back and forth in some kind of dance only they can hear the mu­sic to and that must cer­tainly have a spas­tic beat.

I try not to hit any kind of an­i­mal with my car, but­ter­flies in­cluded, but my eyes are get­ting older and I don’t see them right away any­more. Some­times it’s un­avoid­able when they make a last-sec­ond un­pre­dictable turn into my car’s path. I’ll hit the brakes, which is one more good rea­son not to tail­gate. My kids keep a tally of how many but­ter­flies we see on the school run each af­ter­noon.

But what’s bet­ter than keep­ing a tally from a car is see­ing but­ter­flies up close. They aren’t skit­tish and of­ten­times will glide right past your nose with­out a care in the world. If you live in a place with open spa­ces and some na­tive veg­e­ta­tion, there’s a good chance you can see a few flit­ting about if you go for an af­ter­noon stroll around your neigh­bor­hood. A shaded path through the woods is an­other place to look for them, as well as any­where there is wa­ter. They are equally at home in lots of dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments and can be found in just about ev­ery nook and cranny of South­ern Mary­land.

Think­ing of but­ter­flies usu­ally con­jures up a men­tal pic­ture of fairies, flow­ers, whimsy and mirth. Be­cause of this, they are pop­u­lar crea­tures at my house. On more than one oc­ca­sion the cos­tume of choice for Hal­loween has been a but­ter­fly; the only fancy cake pan I own is in a but­ter­fly shape. But but­ter­flies are in­sects, and there­fore they have some in­ter­est­ing eat­ing habits that don’t quite fit in with their en­chant­ing im­age.

Have you been to any of the lo­cal beaches lately? You prob­a­bly saw a but­ter­fly or two flit­ting about and per­haps land­ing on the sand. But­ter­flies aren’t beach bums who like to sun­bathe and lis­ten to the waves lap the shore. No, they are do­ing what lep­i­dopter­ists (but­ter­fly sci­en­tists) call “pud­dling” — sip­ping up mois­ture that con­tains nu­tri­ents they can’t get from nec­tar alone. That’s why you might also see but­ter­flies vis­it­ing mud pud­dles af­ter rain­storms and — not so dain­tily — cow pies, road­kill or com­post piles.

This is a great time of year to look for but­ter­flies. I guar­an­tee you’ll see some swal­low­tails if you find some sum­mer­sweet shrubs in bloom. Sum­mer­sweet is a shrub that’s na­tive to Mary­land and is en­joyed by many kinds of in­sects and birds. Swal­low­tails just can’t re­sist it.

As the name im­plies, it gives off a very sweet-smelling fra­grance when it blooms in late sum­mer, while most other flow­er­ing plants are pe­ter­ing out from the heat and dry­ness. Sum­mer­sweet will bloom even if it’s grow­ing in full shade and

is hap­pi­est in moist soil near swampy ar­eas and by ponds.

Just re­cently I was sur­prised by how many of these shrubs were bloom­ing along the trail at St. Mary’s Lake. There were but­ter­flies ga­lore and nu­mer­ous bees vis­it­ing the flow­ers and col­lect­ing nec­tar. It was quite the show. I saw one ze­bra swal­low­tail, dozens of the East­ern tiger va­ri­ety and a few of the pipevine kind.

There are many dif­fer­ent species of swal­low­tails in Mary­land, eight to be ex­act. The East­ern tiger swal­low­tail is yel­low and black and hard to miss. It’s ubiq­ui­tous in South­ern Mary­land in the later sum­mer months. There are also three dark swal­low­tail species ex­tremely com­mon in our state. They aren’t the flashiest of but­ter­flies, but they make up for that with their size be­cause they are quite large and very no­tice­able.

It can be dif­fi­cult to tell the darker swal­low­tail species apart un­less you have a well­trained eye or a cam­era to cap­ture its im­age to ex­am­ine in de­tail be­cause a mov­ing but­ter­fly is a hard tar­get to study. But telling them apart gets even more com­pli­cated since some but­ter­flies use mimicry to dis­guise them­selves as an­other — un­palat­able — kind.

One of the darker swal­low­tail species, the pipevine swal­low­tail, eats from a plant that makes them taste ter­ri­ble. So some fe­male East­ern tiger swal­low­tails have ap­pro­pri­ated this look and aren’t the usual yel­low and black color but are dark in­stead.

East­ern tiger swal­low­tails make a tasty meal for in­sect-eat­ing birds and frogs, but the fe­males who are dark have fig­ured out a bril­liant way to stay safe from preda­tors. Swal­low­tail cater­pil­lars also have an un­canny re­sem­blance to bird drop­pings, which keep them safe in that stage too.

Plant­ing na­tive flow­ers, shrubs and trees is not only the best way to at­tract but­ter­flies to your yard, it’s also ben­e­fi­cial for other kinds of wildlife that live there, like birds. Many plants touted as but­ter­fly-at­tract­ing, such as the but­ter­fly bush, pro­vide only nec­tar and aren’t a re­source for but­ter­flies dur­ing their lar­val stage. In fact, no North Amer­i­can cater­pil­lars will eat the leaves of the but­ter­fly bush. Us­ing na­tive plants in your land­scape sup­ports but­ter­flies in all stages of their lives.

And, be­cause they are of­ten so ex­quis­ite, it’s easy to for­get that but­ter­flies are ac­tu­ally in­sects. So us­ing pes­ti­cide on the plants in your yard will indiscriminately wipe out all the bugs, but­ter­flies and other im­por­tant pol­li­na­tors in­cluded. For the health and well-be­ing of the ecosys­tem, fig­ure out an­other way to com­bat the ants and stinkbugs or learn to co­ex­ist.

This time of year I can sit on my back deck and watch swal­low­tails glide high and low across my yard all af­ter­noon. If you are get­ting to know the but­ter­flies that live near you, an ac­cor­dion-style lam­i­nated guide can be real handy. They are avail­able with just the but­ter­flies in this spe­cific re­gion, which is nice be­cause you don’t have to waste time hunt­ing through pho­tos of the more than 750 species of but­ter­flies that live in North Amer­ica.

You can find them for sale on­line and at lots of mu­se­ums and na­ture cen­ter gift shops for less than $10. They’re small enough to tuck into a back­pack or stroller bas­ket and are wa­ter­proof, which is nice when you ac­ci­den­tally leave your copy on the back deck in a sum­mer thun­der­storm.

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