April showers bring May flowers … and butterflies

Story and Photo by Amanda Ferguson Sears

As we head into spring, we can look forward to flowers blooming, leaves unfurling, and butterflies fluttering.

The monarch butterfly is probably the most talked about butterfly, because of its beauty, but also due to its habitat destruction. There has been a major push in recent years to establish way stations, which are pollinator gardens that include specific plants. Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are the main “ingredient” of these gardens, as this is the only food monarch caterpillars can eat.

We often complain about too many bugs here in Kentucky, but we are certainly blessed when it comes to butterflies and their moth cousins!

The story of the monarch is beautiful, from its migration to Mexico to its development in its jewel-like chrysalis. But there are other butterflies that grace the gardens of Kentucky. We need to make sure our homes and gardens are hospitable to them as well. There are more than 140 species of butterflies that can be found in Kentucky. There are also approximately 2,200 moth species. When you think of a moth, you probably think of a little brown winged bug. But moths can be just as spectacular as butterflies.

The swallowtail butterfly species can be identified by their wings. Each hind wing has a “tail,” that look similar to the long pointed tails of the swallow bird family, thus the name. The caterpillars of this species have several interesting ways of keeping predators away. Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars look somewhat like small snakes. Swallowtails have a slow, somewhat seemingly lazy way of flying compared to other butterflies.

Sulfurs and whites are bright orange, yellow, or white and often have black markings. The butterflies in this group are small to medium sized and can be difficult to tell apart. Some of these are among the first butterflies to emerge in the spring. They are fast flyers and may be hard to catch! Unfortunately, this group does contain pests. The imported cabbage worm is the larval form of the cabbage butterfly. It can be destructive to plants in the mustard family, such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale. 

The fritillaries are a small group of butterflies in the Nymphalidae family (the largest family of butterflies). They are also known as “brush-footed butterflies.” Their wings are brownish orange with wavy black lines. Many popular butterflies belong to this group, including the viceroy, the official butterfly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The caterpillars of this group feed on wild violets (Viola spp.).

The sphinx moth is particularly noteable. You may have heard them referred to as hawk moths or hummingbird moths. Sphinx moths have a heavy, football-shaped body and somewhat narrow wings. Unlike most moths, they are good fliers. In fact, the hummingbird moth has the ability to hover. Most caterpillars of this group are large and smooth. The tobacco hornworm, which is often found in the garden feeding on tomato plants, is a sphinx moth caterpillar. Sphinx moth caterpillars can be found all over Kentucky. However, since they are nocturnal, they are rarely seen.

We often complain about too many bugs here in Kentucky, but we are certainly blessed when it comes to butterflies and their moth cousins!

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