Spring Azures

Spring Azures spent the winter as pupa, cozy in their chrysalises, poised to take the final step to adulthood when spring conditions were right, with longer days and warmer temperatures. Their fluttering flight showing flashes of azure began lighting up woodlands and gardens earlier than usual this year, when unseasonably warm March temperatures encouraged them to complete their metamorphosis and emerge as early as the last week of March.

Spring Azure butterfly

Spring Azure butterfly

Nectar was scarce in those early days of emergence, especially when weather whiplash sent the temperatures in the opposite direction, dropping below normal. During the lean times, Spring Azures got their nourishment from a variety of mineral sources, including mud puddles, rocks, leaves, and even bird droppings.

Spring Azure getting nutrients from bird droppings

Spring Azure getting nutrients from bird droppings

As temperatures soared again, nectar supplies became plentiful.

Spring Azure dringing nectar from Wild Plum (Prunus americanus) blossoms

Spring Azure dringing nectar from Wild Plum (Prunus americanus) blossoms

Now their priority is reproduction – making sure their species has a future. After mating, female Spring Azures look for plants appropriate for egg-laying, plants whose leaves their caterpillars can eat and on which they will thrive.  Spring Azures evolved to use the newly emerging leaves, flowers and buds of a variety of woody plants as their caterpillars’ food, including viburnums, dogwoods (Cornus species), and New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus). For the past week, I’ve watched Spring Azures flitting from plant to plant, and from leaf to bud of Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), taking only seconds to lay each egg.

Spring Azure laying an egg on Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) flower buds

Spring Azure laying an egg on Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) flower buds

The eggs will hatch and caterpillars will emerge, nibbling on the newly developing leaves and buds. Not all of the caterpillars will complete metamorphosis to fly as butterflies, however.  Caterpillars are very vulnerable to predators, including other insects, spiders and birds.  Caterpillars are an essential source of food for birds, especially when they are feeding their young.  It may take thousands of caterpillars to feed a hungry clutch of growing birds.

Hungry young Tufted Titmouse looking for food

Hungry young Tufted Titmouse looking for food

Normally, ants would be among the insects that would love to eat a tasty caterpillar treat. Even when fully grown Azure caterpillars are small, the perfect snack size for an industrious ant on the hunt.  To protect themselves, Azure butterflies have developed a way to enlist the ants to protect them rather than eat them.  Azures produce delicious honeydew that ants love.  The ants guard the Azure caterpillars, palpating them to trigger the honeydew payment.

Ant guarding/palpating an Azure caterpillar for honeydew. They're on New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).

Ant guarding/palpating an Azure caterpillar for honeydew. They’re on New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus).

Ants will work for the highest bidder, and in this case they help some of those caterpillars live to become butterflies.

Spring Azure butterfly on Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

Spring Azure butterfly on Maple-leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

 

Related Posts

‘Will Work for Food’ – Extra-floral Nectaries

Maple-leaf Viburnum

Gray Dogwood for Butterlies, Bees and Birds

Resources

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Cech, Rick; Tudor, Guy. Butterflies of the East Coast.  2005.

 

9 thoughts on “Spring Azures

  1. Thank you! I have never watched a butterfly lay an egg. It is on my bucket list now! Thanks for sharing your magnificent journey. Patricia Merkel

    • Just watch for the tip of their abdomen to curl forward and touch a leaf, bud, or flower. Some species lay just one in a particular spot, other species lay many together. Keep watching!

  2. Pingback: Who Uses Black Cohosh? | The Natural Web

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s