Thinking about doing a fall clean-up in your garden? Maybe you are planning to remove the layer of naturally fallen leaves that are beginning to blanket your planting beds?
I hope my encounter with a Red-banded Hairstreak will prompt you to change your plans.
On a recent walk on a woodland trail near my home in central New Jersey, I had just turned around to head back to my car when I noticed a flutter of brownish wings at ground level at the edge of the trail. My first thought was that it was probably a moth, but when I saw the insect in profile, I could tell it was a butterfly. As I looked more closely, I saw the tell-tale markings of a Red-banded Hairstreak. I decided to watch for a while.
She stayed on the ground, walking over obstacles that seemed like they would be a challenge for someone her size, especially when she could choose to fly. While I observed her, she climbed over leaves, rocks, leaf stems and small branches, never once taking to the air. Several times she paused in place for a few seconds. Was she just resting, or maybe getting her bearings? No! She had a purpose in mind.
Red-banded Hairstreak caterpillars eat fallen leaves and other decaying plant matter. This little female was laying eggs on or near the kinds of material that her caterpillars would need to eat when they hatched. She alternated walking for a bit with brief pauses to lay an egg.
After nearly five minutes, she flew off, presumably scouting for another promising location to lay more eggs.
The caterpillars that hatched from her eggs will spend the winter snug in the fallen leaves, waiting for warm spring days to arrive before completing their metamorphosis to become the next generation of Red-banded Hairstreaks.
Since my encounter with the Red-banded Hairstreak in the woods, I’ve seen other individuals in my own shade garden several times. Fortunately for them and for me, I leave the fallen leaves undisturbed in the garden. I recommend you do the same!