White Snakeroot, and a Bit of a Paradox

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) provides food for late summer and fall visitors, primarily small critters.  Its button-like clusters of tiny tubular flowers offer nectar to a variety of potential pollinators, and flower buds and leaves provide food for other insect diners.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

In my shade garden in central New Jersey, Bumble Bees and Small Carpenter Bees (Ceratina species) drink happily from the flowers.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Small Carpenter Bee (Ceratina species)

On a late September Sunday at Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts, I watched while Bumble Bees and Honey Bees took advantage of White Snakeroot’s abundant nectar.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Bumble Bee (Bombus species)

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

In a sunny woods-edge location at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania, several butterfly species found needed nourishment in the nectar  White Snakeroot flowers offered.

Painted Ladies and Sachem helped themselves to White Snakeroot’s sustaining beverage. These butterflies have been around much of the summer and fall, drinking from the flowers in bloom, moving from one species to the next as the season changed.

Painted Lady butterfly drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Sachem drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

I was excited to see a Fiery Skipper, a butterfly that is rare in Pennsylvania, but a common resident in the southern United States. Fiery Skippers are among the butterfly species that regularly attempt to push the envelope of their range by emigrating to the north. White Snakeroot’s refreshing nectar rewarded this individual for its exploration efforts.

Fiery Skipper drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

Meanwhile, a Monarch fueled up for a flight in the opposite direction, heading south towards its winter territory in Mexico.

Monarch drinking nectar from White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

If these potential pollinators do the job for which White Snakeroot has enticed them to visit its flowers, pollination occurs, and a type of fruit, called an achene, develops. The achene looks like a seed with a tiny hair-like parasol attached, designed to be dispersed by the wind to a favorable place for another White Snakeroot plant to germinate and grow.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), ready to disperse its fruit

At Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, an insect that looked a bit like a stink bug turned out to be the opposite – Harmostes fraterulus, one of the scentless plant bugs. Pennsylvania is thought to be the northern edge of Harmostes fraterulus’s range. Scentless plant bugs are a group of true bugs that lack glands to produce an unpleasant smell, quite unlike stink bugs who are named for their ability to do this. Harmostes fraterulus feeds on the flowers of several Aster (Asteraceae) family members, of which White Snakeroot is one.

Harmostes fraterulus on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

It’s interesting that this small insect is able to eat parts of White Snakeroot, since this plant contains potent toxins evolved to prevent herbivores from consuming it. These toxins are so effective that they can be fatal to mammals.  As you might guess, deer do not eat this plant.  If cows graze on a sufficient amount of White Snakeroot, the milk they produce is toxic to humans.  In the nineteenth century, many people became sick or even died as a result of drinking this tainted milk, most famously, Abraham Lincoln’s mother.

While this plant’s chemical defenses are potent enough to sicken or even kill large mammals, some tiny insects have successfully adapted to use this plant as their food source (host plant). A type of small fly species, a midge named Schizomyia eupatoriflorae, specializes on White Snakeroot buds.  The larvae of this midge live inside the plant tissue, prompting the plant to produce a rounded gall that the developing midge uses for both food and shelter until it is ready to emerge as an adult.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with galls caused by the plant’s reaction to being used by a midge, Schizomyia eupatoriflorae

Flowers often have a lower concentration of a plant’s chemical defenses than do the other plant parts such as leaves and stems. But there are even insects who have evolved to specialize on White Snakeroot’s leaves.  The one of which I most often see evidence is a leaf miner, Liriomyza eupatoriella, a type of fly. The larvae of Liriomyza eupatoriella develop between the outer layers of the leaf, feeding on the tissues inside.

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) with leaf mines caused by a leaf mining fly, Liriomyza eupatoriella

Mammals have plenty of other food alternatives (at least for now) without having to evolve a tolerance for White Snakeroot’s toxins. But tiny insects may gain an advantage if they can specialize on food that few others can consume (and live to tell the tale!), especially a relatively common food source like White Snakeroot.

Despite its toxicity, several Native American tribes found medicinal uses for White Snakeroot, often using the root, but other plant parts as well. Some sources say that a poultice to treat snakebites was made from the root, resulting in the common name, White Snakeroot.

White Snakeroot is a plant of woods and woods edges. It prefers light shade but can tolerate partial sun, with moist to slightly dry soils.  In Canada it is native in Ontario and Quebec provinces and the Northwest Territories, and in the United States from Maine to eastern North Dakota, south to Texas and the Florida panhandle, although it is much less widespread in the southeastern U.S.

American Goldfinch, taking refuge on White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

 

Resources

Brock, Jim P.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.  2003.

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

Coffey, Timothy. The History and Folklore of North American Wildflowers.  1993.

Eaton, Eric R.; Kauffman, Ken. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.  2007.

Eiseman, Charley; Charney, Noah. Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates. 2010.

Foster, Steven; Duke, James A. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America.  2000.

Rhoads, Ann Fowler; Block, Timothy A. The Plants of Pennsylvania.  2007

Illinois Wildflowers

USDA NRCS Plant Database

Harmostes fraterulus:

Maryland Biodiversity Project

Wheeler, A. G. Jr.; Miller, Gary L. Harmostes Fraterculus (HEMIPTERA: RHOPALIDAE): Field History, Laboratory Rearing, and Descriptions of Immature Stages. 1983.

Wheeler, A. G. Jr.  Harmostes reflexulus (Say) (Hemiptera: Rhopalidae): New Western U.S. Host Records, Analysis of Host-Plant Range, and Notes on Seasonality.  2013.

 

 

 

 

Rewards of a Butterfly Count

Common Buckeye

Why participate in a butterfly count? Well for one thing, you’ll be contributing to a citizen science project that gathers data to help assess how well butterfly species are doing over time.  Are numbers for each species in a given area declining, increasing, staying the same?  Are new species appearing in a location, are any disappearing?

Citizen science is my excuse, but it’s not my reason. I do it because it’s fun.

In mid-July, I participated in a count at Silver Lake Nature Center in Bristol, Pennsylvania. There were six of us.  We started looking for butterflies even before we entered the natural areas, searching carefully while walking across a lawn.  We were rewarded with sightings of Sachem, Peck’s Skippers, Eastern-tailed Blues, Common Buckeyes, Wild-Indigo Duskywings and Horace’s Duskywings.

Wild Indigo Duskywing on White Clover

Horace's Duskywing on White Clover

Horace’s Duskywing on White Clover

Eastern-tailed Blue

Are you wondering what attracted butterflies to the lawn, and why we even thought to look for them there?

It’s not every lawn that would be so productive. We were able to find butterflies in this lawn because it isn’t treated with pesticides or herbicides.  Most of the butterflies we saw were basking on blades of grass or drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens), a Pea (Fabaceae) family member.  If herbicides were used, the clover wouldn’t be there to feed butterflies, bees and other pollinators.  No crab grass would be available for Sachem and some other butterfly species to use as food for their caterpillars.  Pesticides would kill the butterflies directly.  Another bonus from having White Clover in the lawn is that it acts as a natural fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil in a manner and quantity that can be used effectively by the other plants living there. It actually helps the grass to be healthier.  Even better, there is no excess chemical fertilizer to run off into streams, rivers and other waterways.  Years ago, white clover was included in grass seed mixes for this very purpose, until fashions changed, calling for a monoculture lawn with no clover, dandelions or violets.  Maintaining this uniform green carpet requires regular applications of herbicides to kill everything but grass, and synthetic fertilizer, to keep the grass growing.  The result is an expensive and toxic lawn maintenance regimen, devoid of butterflies, but welcoming to Japanese Beetles. As the fashion trend turns back, lawns become a safer, less toxic place to play for pets, children and even adults.

We worked our way across the lawn to the powerline cut through Delhass Woods. A male Widow Skimmer dragonfly stood guard in the grasses as we approached the entrance.

Male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

This is a much ricer habitat for butterflies, a sunny area filled with diverse plants that provide food for butterflies in the form of nectar, and food for their caterpillars in the form of the leaves of plants on which they specialize.  Plants in the Pea family, including Red Clover (Trifolium pretense), Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), and Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), were a big draw for butterflies.

Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria)

Not only do the flowers offer nectar, but Wild Indigo Duskywings, Wood Nymphs, Clouded Sulphurs, Orange Sulphurs and other butterflies use these plants as food for their caterpillars.  All of these species were present in good numbers, along with Common Buckeyes, Peck’s Skippers, and Sachem.

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Common Buckeye with Crown Vetch

Sachem on grape leaf

Pecks Skipper on Red Clover

Clouded Sulphur on Crown Vetch

We saw Wood Nymphs and Spicebush Swallowtails, but they didn’t pose for me this year. Last year they were pre-occupied enough with other activities to be more cooperative.

Spicebush Swallowtail drinking nectar from Turks-cap Lily

Wood Nymphs, mating

Surrounded by such a varied and rich habitat, an open area with woods on either side and a pond nearby, we couldn’t help but occasionally be distracted by birds and other critters, and some plants I don’t often see.

Maryland Meadow Beauty (Rhexia mariana)

Golden Hedge Hyssop (Gratiola aurea)

A Halloween Pennant dragonfly monitored our progress as we finished up our search of the powerline cut.

Female Halloween Pennant dragonfly

After a break, we moved on to the woods, marshes, and gardens. Cabbage Whites were everywhere.  Cabbage Whites aren’t native to North America, and can be a problem for farmers.  Their caterpillars feed on some plants in the mustard or cabbage (Brassicaceae) family. If you have ever found a small green caterpillar in your broccoli or kale (I have), it was probably a Cabbage White.  They have done so well in North America that they are often the species with the highest numbers for a count, as they were this day.  They ignored us while they mated in the woods.

Cabbages Whites mating

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, Silver-spotter Skippers, Red Admirals and Sachem all enjoyed the nectar Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) provided in the marshy areas.  Sachem also enjoyed the garden.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Sachem

A week later I did another butterfly count at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve near New Hope, Pennsylvania. We had our best year since 2013, seeing twice as many butterflies as we did in 2014-2016.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Joe-pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum)

Some highlights were Juniper Hairstreaks, a small but beautiful butterfly that is considered ‘locally common’ because it is usually only found near its caterpillar food plant, Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Juniper Hairstreak on Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum)

We saw our highest number of Monarchs in the 6 years we have participated in the count.

Monarch butterfly resting on Yarrow

It was really exciting for me to see so many Sleepy Oranges, a southern species that returned to this Pennsylvania location after a nearly four-year absence.

Sleepy Orange drinking nectar from False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

So why do a butterfly count? You’ll get to see beautiful butterflies and other critters interacting with gorgeous plants, and you’ll share the day with people who are enjoying themselves as much as you are, all while contributing to a citizen science effort that monitors the health of butterflies.  And you’ll have fun.

Gray Hairstreak on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

To find a butterfly count near you, check with the North American Butterfly Association.

Related Posts

What Do Juniper Hairstreaks and Cedar Waxwings Have in Common?

Sleepy Orange Butterflies are Back

Sleepy Orange Butterflies Overwintering in Pennsylvania

Combating Japanese Beetles

Butterflies Eat Their Peas

 

 

Reasons to Love Winter

Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

Have you been ready for spring since about January 2?  Wondering how you’ll ever get through the remaining weeks of winter?  The best way I know is to get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer.  When there’s enough snow, cross country skiing or snowshoeing are both good ways to keep warm enough to enjoy exploring the beauty of your surroundings.  Or go for a walk in a nearby park, natural area, or your own garden.

Thirteenth Lake, Garnet Hill Lodge, North Creek,  New York

Thirteenth Lake, Garnet Hill Lodge, North Creek, New York

View from a ski trail: Haul Road, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

View from a ski trail: Haul Road, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Cross Country skier in the woods, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Cross Country skier in the woods, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

While you’re out you’ll almost certainly spot animal tracks.

Raccoon tracks, Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania

Raccoon tracks, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania

Fox tracks

Fox tracks

Grouse tracks, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Grouse tracks, Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot the critter that made the tracks.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

You may see evidence of insects or spiders attempting to survive the winter in one form or another.

Braconid wasp cocoon bundle

Braconid wasp cocoon bundle

Well-camoflaged spider on Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), facing south to catch the sun's warmth

Well-camoflaged spider on Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum), facing south to catch the sun’s warmth

Mystery cocoon made from a leaf and silk.  Could it be a moth?  A spider?

Mystery cocoon made from a leaf and silk. Could it be a moth? A spider?

Or you may find evidence that some insects have instead become food for birds. In the photo below, the holes in the tree were made by a Pileated Woodpecker, the result of excavating for a meal of carpenter ants or other insects.

Holes excavated by Pileated Woodpecker

Holes excavated by Pileated Woodpecker

With the leaves mostly off the trees, the spotlight is on the beauty of bark

Pealing birch bark

Pealing birch bark

and the mosses,

Moss on tree bark

Moss on tree bark

lichens,

Lichens

Lichens

and mushrooms that decorate tree trunks and branches.

Common Split Gill mushrooms, commonly found on dead branches, help decompose the wood

Common Split Gill mushrooms, commonly found on dead branches, help decompose the wood

Winter buds are a promise of spring to come, showing subtle color and offering a way to identify trees in winter.

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds and leaf scar

Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis) buds and leaf scar

Basswood (Tilia americana) bud

Basswood (Tilia americana) bud

Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) bud and leaf scar

Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) bud and leaf scar

Winter fruits can be as beautiful as the flowers that produced them.

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis)

Elephant's foot (Elephantopus carolinianus)

Elephant’s foot (Elephantopus carolinianus)

Birds, including some that you may only see in winter, eat some of the fruits.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

The low angle of winter light flatters the landscape.

View from Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

View from Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

Stowe, Vermont

These are just a few of the reasons to love winter as much as the other seasons.  Go out and explore while you can!

Related Posts

A Winter Garden Can be a Wildlife Habitat

Wonders of a Winter Walk – The Marsh

The Mist, the Meadow, and a Mystery

Backyard Birds, Snowstorm Number ??

Romance in the Meadow – Baltimore Checkerspots

Warning!  Before you read any further, I should warn you that some of the content of this post is for mature audiences only.

On May 18 I joined a group from the American Entomological Society to do an insect survey at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. As we fanned out across the meadow, one of the participants found dozens of caterpillars feeding on plants in the wet part of the meadow.

Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

They turned out to be Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) caterpillars eating the leaves of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra).

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Baltimore Checkerspots are reported to use a few different species of plants as food for their caterpillars, particularly in their later growth stages.  But their preferred food plant is Turtlehead. This plant contains iridoid glycoside chemicals which enhance the caterpillars’ growth and makes them distasteful to birds. Both the caterpillars and the resulting adult butterflies benefit from this protection, and their bright black, white, and orange coloration act as a warning to advertise their toxicity to potential predators. It helps to fend off attempts to eat them.

Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Baltimore Checkerspot caterpillars on Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)

Given the early date, the caterpillars were almost certainly individuals that had spent the winter there in the meadow.

On June 16, almost a month after the initial caterpillar sighting, I saw two adult Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies for the first time, not far from where we saw the caterpillars.

Baltimore Checkerspot

Baltimore Checkerspot

Baltimore Checkerspot

Baltimore Checkerspot

A week later, there were at least 10 individuals in the same general vicinity. They spent most of their time perching fairly low to the ground, either basking or advertising for a potential mate. Most flights were short and fairly low.

Baltimore Checkerspot

Baltimore Checkerspot

Occasionally I saw a butterfly drinking nectar from Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) or White Clover (Trifolium repens).

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Baltimore Checkerspot drinking nectar from White Clover (Trifolium repens)

Ok, this is where things start to get a little racy.

Eventually I spotted a pair of butterflies deep in the meadow foliage, mating.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

They gradually moved higher on the sedge to which they were clinging, changing positions, taking turns being on top. They were intent on their goal.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Several times another butterfly, I’m guessing a male, tried to break up the happy couple.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

They indicated their disinterest to him by flapping their wings.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

When he persisted, they steadfastly ignored the intruder.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating, with interloper

It was an hour and fifteen minutes between the first and last photos I took of this mating pair. They were already engaged when I encountered them, and they were still at it when I finally had to leave. (!)

They were not the only couple that managed to meet up. I did spot another example of splendor in the grass a bit further along the trail.

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

Baltimore Checkerspots, mating

When I went back to check the Turtlehead where the initial caterpillar sighting took place, there were several females laying eggs (ovipositing). Looks like the Preserve will see another generation of Baltimore Checkerspots.

Baltimore Checkerspots, laying eggs (ovipositing)

Baltimore Checkerspots, laying eggs (ovipositing)

Resources

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

Glassberg, Jeffrey. Butterflies through Binoculars A Field Guide to Butterflies in the Boston-New York-Washington Region. 1993.

Scott, James A. The Butterflies of North America. 1986.

Butterflies of Massachusetts

Warbler Migration is in Progress!

Monday was a beautiful spring day, perfect for birding at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. The weather was sunny but cool, and probably as a result, the birds weren’t active until a bit later than we expected.

Yellow-rumped Warblers were the first and most plentiful of the migrants we spotted. They were traveling in a pack, as they usually do.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The rump after which this bird is named

The rump after which this bird is named

We saw Hermit Thrushes and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and heard, but didn’t see, a Black-throated Blue Warbler. A Pileated Woodpecker put in an appearance, too.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

As mid-day approached, bird activity increased. A Palm Warbler posed for us.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

The bird returned to the business of foraging for food, snatching and whacking its caterpillar prey against the branch, then quickly gulping it down.  Yum!

Palm Warbler with lunch, a caterpillar

Palm Warbler with lunch, a caterpillar

Black-and-white Warblers appeared, and a Blue-headed Vireo was busy hunting for lunch, moving from branch to branch, tree to tree. A Black-throated Green Warbler peered out from the shelter of a Hemlock tree.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Then he returned to his search for food.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

With wind and rain predicted for the next few days, there could be some interesting fall-outs of migrants. There aren’t many leaves on the trees yet, so viewing opportunities are maximized. Could be a good birding weekend ahead!