When you come to visit our Butterflies and Blossoms exhibit, one of the first things you’ll notice is that we don’t have every type of butterfly at every time of year. Different butterfly and moth species hatch during different seasons!
Among the first species to emerge at the Butterflies and Blossoms exhibit this spring is one called the question mark (Polygonia interrogationus). Its common name comes from a small, white design (a curved line and a dot) on the brown-colored underside of its wings.
The marking can only be seen when the wings are held in an upright position, such as when these butterflies are feeding. Favorite food species include milkweeds and asters but, when these are unavailable, question marks will also feed on fermenting fruits or carrion (rotting meat). Here at the Zoo, we offer them a menu of apple, orange and banana slices. The more spoiled the fruit, the better they seem to like it.
Joining the question marks are the painted ladies (Vanessa virginiensis), relatives of which can be found throughout most of the world. The native species can be distinguished by two eyespots on the ventral surface (underside) of their wings. After mating, painted ladies lay their eggs on the leaves of thistle, mallow and hollyhock, upon which the caterpillars then feed. Favorite foods of the adult butterflies include thistle, asters, milkweed and privet.
If the red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis) had been named the “orange-spotted blue” instead, I doubt that anyone would have objected. This butterfly’s colors are striking. Adults lay their eggs on the leaves of many different trees and shrubs – wild cherry, aspen, poplar, oaks, birch and willow among them – providing a varied diet for the caterpillars that hatch. Adult butterflies, by contrast, prefer to feed on tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, animal dung and the flower nectar of shrubs like spirea, privet and viburnum.
Cabbage whites (Pieris rapae) are among the first butterflies to appear come springtime and the last to depart in the autumn. They are native to Europe, Africa and North Asia, but have been introduced to North America. As the common name might suggest, the larvae of these butterflies have an affinity for plants of the mustard family, including cabbage, kale, broccoli, radish and horseradish, which puts this species in the category of garden pest. The nectar of dandelions, clover, asters and mint serves as food for the adults.
See if you can find these lovely insects the next time you visit the zoo, or even in your own backyard!