It’s still pretty cold outside for most insects, but it’s always nice to be able to recognize signs of spring.
Gulf fritillaries (Agraulis vanillae) are cheery orange butterflies whose appearance marks the changing seasons. These butterflies overwinter in the southern states and South America, returning to more northern territories as temperatures rise.
Affectionately known as gulf frits, these garden visitors usually appear in early April, flitting erratically from flower to flower in search of nectar and mates. Eggs are most commonly laid on types of passionflower (Passiflora). When those eggs hatch, caterpillars begin feeding on the leaves of the host plant. Heavy infestations can cause defoliation, but this is rare.
Gulf frits are medium-sized butterflies with bright orange wings and black markings. They have a 3” wingspan and the forewings are elongated, with three black-rimmed white spots on the top side. The underside is brown with elongated silvery spots.
Eggs are yellow and laid singly on or near passionflower plants. Larvae are bizarre looking. Caterpillars start out bright orange and covered with black barbed spikes. Those colors slowly change as it grows. The pupa looks like someone wadded up a tiny brown paper lunch sack. The truth is, they need all the protection they can get.
The life of a gulf frit is fraught with danger. Scrub jays and other insect-eating birds snatch them from the air. Lady beetles, spiders, and wasps eat their eggs. Parasitoids and wasps attack caterpillars and chrysalids. European paper wasps and praying mantids eat their share. If you are able to get a close look at a gulf fritillary, you will often see that their wings are ragged and torn from these dangerous encounters.
Gulf frits are not entirely helpless, however. These gentle souls have chemical warfare on their side. When predators get too close, gulf frits release foul-smelling pheromones to discourage attack. They have another pheromone they use to attract mates, but I have to assume that it smells good to other gulf fritillaries.
Smell isn’t the only aspect of gulf frit courtship. All too often we forget that in the tiny world of insects, life can be highly complex and fascinating. When a male gulf frit spots an alluring female, he lands next to her, at a 45° angle, and places his head affectionately against hers. Then he claps his wings open and shut in a something called a wing clap display until she is receptive. Males also give their mates chemical and nutrient treats, called nuptial gifts, that improve her health for better egg-laying.
To attract and provide for gulf frits, add varieties of passionflower and lantana to your butterfly garden or landscape this spring.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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