Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Spotting the Zebra Longwing Butterfly IN OUR NORTH GEORGIA GARDEN

The Zebra Longwing butterfly (Heliconius charitonia) is not a butterfly I associate with north Georgia; however, I do know it from the many butterfly houses I have visited, so I was surprised to spot one in our garden one afternoon in late September. It was fluttering back and forth between the Maryland goldenaster and 'hot lips' salvia. Its constant movement made photographing it with my phone unsuccessful so I ran indoors to retrieve another camera. Unfortunately, by the time I reappeared the zebra longwing had disappeared, and so did my chance of getting a documented photo.

I considered it a one-off sighting that would just have to be saved in the memory bank. Then on a sunny day in mid-October, my husband came rushing indoors exclaiming that he had seen a black and yellow stripped butterfly in the kitchen garden and inquired if I knew what it was, because he'd never seen this one before. This time I rushed outside with camera in hand, and sure enough, there were two zebra longwing butterflies visiting some late blooming zinnias.

These unmistakable butterflies with their long narrow wings and black and yellow stripes definitely catch one's eye. Common to Central America and Mexico, found throughout Florida and parts of Texas, and occasionally pushed into southern Georgia and Alabama, this butterfly rarely wanders this far north, simply because it can't survive the cold. My theory is that these butterflies were displaced by Tropical Storm Irma that blew through our area in mid-September traveling up from Florida. Hurricanes can dislocate butterflies outside their normal range and there is lots of documentation on how such storms have hindered butterfly migrations; the impact on monarchs being the most widely recorded.

Of course, now that this butterfly was in our own backyard, my curious mind wanted to know more about our new [temporary] visitor. So I delved into research mode, and what a fascinating butterfly this is.

Unlike most other butterfly species, that live for only a few weeks in their adult stage, the zebra longwing butterfly can live and lay eggs for up to eight months. Why? Well, it turns out that these butterflies have a special skill that allows them to eat pollen!

Whereas, most butterflies drink nectar through their long proboscis, longwings secrete an enzyme in their saliva which enables them to break down pollen that sticks to their proboscis, and then suck it up with the nectar. While nectar is mostly sugar, pollen is rich in proteins and amino acids that provide extra nutrients and energy to these butterflies. This special diet allows them to live longer, but also very dependent on flowers, making them especially good pollinators. Eating pollen has other benefits too. It serves as a defense mechanism as butterflies that eat pollen are thought to be more distasteful to predators and more brightly colored (warning sign). Pollen feeding is also correlated to better overall fitness and longevity.

If you live in the home range of this butterfly and want them to reside in your garden it is vital to provide an abundance of nectar rich flowers. Unlike most Lepidoptera species that determine a suitable site based on the host plants provided, the zebra longwing is attracted to the flowers offered. Some of their favorite flowers include milkweed, lantana, shepherd's needle, tall verbena, salvia, pentas and firebush. They share the same host plant with the variegated and gulf fritillary butterflies, passion vine (passiflora incarnata, p. lutea, p. suberosa).

Another unique behavior this butterfly practices is pupal-mating. This is when males search the host plant for female pupae and then camp out patiently waiting for the female to emerge so that mating can occur before the female is completely eclosed. She will immediately begin laying eggs and can lay up to 1,000 eggs at a time.

Most butterfly species usually derive all their eggs from the efforts of the caterpillar during the larval stage when the caterpillar collects amino acids from the host plant; for longwings this is only counts for 20%. The other 80% of egg production comes from the amino acids collected from pollen during the adult stage. This is why flowers are so critical to this butterfly. Longwings are clever and learn the locations of pollen plans and establish foraging routes accordingly. Studies show that if a plant which they frequent is removed, the zebra longwing will continue to return to that location in search of those flowers.

Yet another interesting characteristic of this species is the social order they establish when roosting. They are known for returning to the same place each night. The oldest butterflies choose the best places and are known to gently nudge the younger butterflies to get them going in the morning.

Our two visiting zebra longwing butterflies flew gracefully through our garden for a few weeks and I savored every moment. It's unlikely we'll see more in the near future or that these two neotropical butterflies will survive our cold temperature that is making its debut this weekend. This happenstance gave us a rare glimpse into the life of these fascinating butterflies.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Boltonia asteroides

If you're looking for a robust, fall bloomer that is a pollinator magnet, then plant this showy perennial. Boltonia asteroides unveiled its first tiny blooms in mid-September and by early October it was a mass of blooms.

Common names include white doll's daisy, false aster, and false chamomile. This plant is where you can find the biggest variety of pollinators in our garden come early fall. From a pollinator's perspective, pollen and nectar are easy to access on the flower heads, making for an easy meal. I love that I can walk out my front door and see a sea of tiny daisy like flowers alive with bees, butterflies and various other insects.

Let's take a closer look at whose visiting.

Painted Lady butterflies, whose numbers seem to be at a record high this fall, feast on the nectar. These are particularly shy butterflies for every time I walk by or get in close to photograph them they flutter up and away, only to land further out of my eye's (camera's) reach.

Skipper butterflies are about the same size as the flower heads and adore the blooms. If it weren't for their bright coloring they'd blend into the crowd.

fiery skipper

Another small butterfly, the red-banded hairstreak can also be found frequently visiting during the warmer times of day.

Red-banded hairstreak butterfly

Several diurnal moths call on the blooms. Scape moths, a diurnal moth, that based on my observation in our garden, are particularly attracted to small white blooms, rattlesnake master being one of their summer favorites.

Scape Moth
Ailanthus webworm moth

Various flies who seek nectar, prefer the open packed flowers Boltonia asteroides provides. They are especially attracted to white and yellow blooms.

European honey bees frantically move from bloom to bloom. It sounds like a very lively hive when I walk by this native beauty as they busily collect pollen on their hind legs. One of my neighbor's must have a bee hive nearby and I am happy to provide a fall nectar source for them.

Various native bees are also busy at work. The easily accessible nectar is especially good for the smaller bees. Bumble bees are the largest bees frequenting the flowers.

Several wasps species can also bee found hanging around. Not especially efficient pollinators because they lack hairy bodies but they have high-energy needs and must refuel frequently.

Red paper wasp

Potter's wasp

With all the pollinators parading around the flowers, it's not surprising to see several spiders set up to catch a meal. They always seem to know just were to hang their web, don't they?

I caught this garden [writing] spider taking a break from her web one early morning.Usually I see her hanging in the center of her web patiently waiting.

It wasn't long after I took this photo that she captured her first bee of the day and quickly wrapped it in a silk cocoon.

This plant is clearly one for the pollinators. It grows about 3 to 5 feet tall, so be sure you have proper space when planting. Honestly, I didn't realize it would get as big and bushy as it has, and from a landscape perspective I probably planted it in the wrong spot. This vigorous grower does make a great border plant and also naturalizes well, so it would look right at home in a cottage or native plant garden or meadow situation.

The daisy-like flowers are less than an inch wide but are in such mass it makes a very showy statement, even from a far. According to books, it prefers full sun (or partial shade) and wet to moist conditions. However, in our garden it currently grows in full sun on the south facing side of our home. I wouldn't describe the soil as moist and I haven't provided any supplemental water during our dry, hot fall and it has performed outstandingly.

It's critical to continue to support pollinators well into the fall and this is a great all around plant for just that. I have really enjoyed finding all the insects that are using this native perennial.

I'm joining Gail over at Clay and Limestone for her monthly Wildflower Wednesday meme. Be sure to check out all the other great wildflowers from around the globe. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

New Find: Joro Spider

Late this summer we discovered a spider that we had never seen before. As is always the case when we find a 'new to us' creature in our garden we dive into research mode and try to figure out what we have. This time we came up empty.

I reached out to one of my favorite ID sites, Bug Guide, to assist in identifying this spider. They did not disappoint. In a few hours we had our answer. We have a Nephila clavata, also known as the Joro spider.  According to Japanese Mythology, this spider is a deceptive shape-shifter (you can read the story at but I prefer the Korean translation, which means Asian 'Fortune-Teller'.

This is a golden orb weaver that is similar in size to our common black and yellow garden spider (Argiope aurantia); however, the Joro spider is native to East Asia (Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan). How did this lady find her way to our garden? More research was required to unearth her story.

Left: Argiope aurantia (female),    Right: Nephila clavata (female)

According to a 2014 study (*) by Georgia Museum of Natural History at UGA, several Joro specimens were collected in three Northeast Georgia counties (Barrow, Madison and Jackson). These were the first confirmed Nephila clavata in North America and scientists think they arrived as stowaways on cargo ships. Obviously, we are not close to a port but we are located along I-85, a major commercial transportation corridor. It is believed that shipments traveling through our area contained egg sacs, which hatched spiderlings upon arrival. The study sited Braselton Park (in Braselton, GA) as one of the collection locations, where they found a female spider with two male spiders attending her web. This park is about 10 miles away from us and located near a thriving warehouse and distribution district, which deals with overseas freight.

The Joro spider is pretty spectacular looking. The top of the female's abdomen has a wavy black and yellow pattern while the underside is an amazing black and yellow maze with distinct red blotches. The black and yellow striped legs are also prominent. Our spider has gotten rather large over the past two months, approximately 4" wide [including its leg span]. 

top view of abdomen with grayish-black and yellow stripes.

The web of this spider is impressive too. She's set up at our woodland edge between two understory trees and large shrubs spanning a space of at least 5 feet. The web is built in three layers, uncharacteristic of orb spiders. The multilayered structure includes a large orb in the center with an additional front and back layer with irregular threads. The photo below doesn't do it justice, but the golden silk glistens when the morning sun hits the web.

Our spider's web is filled with insects, leaves, and other debris so fortunately it is hard to miss. We definitely wouldn't want to mistakenly walk into this sticky web. When prey is caught in the web the Joro spider immediately bites her victim inserting a potent venom. [Note: The venom is not strong enough to harm a human unless one has an allergic reaction. If bit by a Joro spider, humans typically experience pain, redness and blistering that disappears within 24 hours.]

Male spiders lurk in the outskirts of the web and are significantly smaller and and light brown in color. I have searched assiduously but have been unable to locate a male. Mating season occurs in October, which produces a single egg sac containing 400-500 eggs. The silk cocoon is attached to the bark of trees, on leaves or other human structures. Adults die in the winter leaving the next generation to hatch in spring.

This Asian spider has a North American relative, Nephila clavipes or golden silk spider, which is common in the southeast. The impact this exotic spider will have on our local ecosystem is unknown at this point. Interestingly, there are about 60 species of non-native spiders, mostly originating from Europe and Asia, thriving in North America thanks to international trade. According to Hoebek "there is no indication that the Joro spider will be invasive to the extent that it would be disruptive or economically costly". I wonder how this spider will interact with our native spiders. Will it displace any of our garden spiders or other native spiders? 

It is probable that the Joro spider has established itself in other areas of Georgia and across the country. Apparently this spider can withstand pretty cold temperatures (so be on the lookout northern friends). If you suspect you've discovered a Joro spider contact Hoebeke at rhoebeke@uga.ed. The initial discovery of this spider in our area was because of local residence, which demonstrates just how important citizen scientists are.

(*) study cited Hoebeke ER, Huffmaster W, Freeman BJ. (2015) Nephila clavata L Koch, the Joro Spider of East Asia, newly recorded from North America (Araneae: Nephilidae) PeerJ 3:e763

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wildflower Wednesday: Helianthus porteri

September is our transition from summer into fall here in Northeast Georgia, and with the cooler morning temperatures and cheery afternoons, gardening is most pleasant, making it my favorite garden season. Some summer flowers are still hanging on but as they fade fall flowers step in with gorgeous color.

Bright yellow blooms are definitely a trend in our autumn garden and this beauty, Stone Mountain Daisy (Helianthus porteri) is a stunner.

Also known as Confederate Daisy, this wildflower grows in granite outcrops within a 60 mile radius of our most infamous granite outcrop, Stone Mountain. This glorious flower is in bloom this month and is celebrated at the Yellow Daisy Festival, held every September at Stone Mountain, an arts & crafts event that just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

typical granite outcrop habitat (Thompson Mill Arboretum) where Helianthus porteri grows

Discovered in 1846, this reseeding annual will grow anywhere on Piedmont granite outcrops, where there is sufficient soil (not much!) and water. Peaking out from rock crevices and small cracks, providing an explosion of color, this daisy dances in delight. 

Bees and small butterflies are often found visiting, drinking nectar from the blooms. The flower heads are 1-2" wide and have 7-8 yellow ray flowers and a central disk of tiny, yellow flowers. After pollination, seeds will set later in the fall and germinate as early as February.

In our garden we planted it at the edge of our driveway, welcoming all those who drive by. Surrounded by a few boulders and in direct sunlight, it feels right at home.

street view toward our driveway
This annual even stood up spectacularly when Tropical Storm Irma hit our area. This photo was taken a few days after the storm, during our garden clean-up.

Helianthus porteri, is only found growing in four southeastern states (Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina) but this spectacular Georgia wildflower is worth sharing. I'm joining Clay and Limestone, for Wildflower Wednesday, a once a month celebration of our native flora.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Orb Weaver Spiders

Spiders. You either love them or hate them. I happen to be in the 'love' camp and it's a good thing because we have LOTS of spiders in our garden.

In late summer and early fall the orb weaver spiders have reached maturity and are on show with their masterfully designed webs hanging from all forms of plant life and structures. In fact its hard not to run into a spider web when trekking around our garden. Mating season is in full gear and these females need nourishment.

Black & Yellow Argiope (female)

Orb weaver spiders build the classic web of concentric circles and spokes, which radiate outward from the center with anchor points. This genius design allows them to capture anything as small as a mosquito to as large as a butterfly. Other common meals include flies, thrips, mites, moths, beetles, wasps and bees. Evident by their diverse diet, they are not picky eaters and can have ferocious appetites. Their work helps keep insect populations in check and are a friend to this organic gardener.

Orb weaver spiders have poor vision and use vibration to know when they have captured prey. Watching a spider at work is incredibly fascinating. I happened to witness a butterfly mistakenly fly into a web and observed the spider quickly restrain its prey by wrapping it in silk. This is done so that the web will not be destroyed by the movement of prey trying to escape the sticky webbing.

Here is the series of shots I took over a period of a few minutes.

Spotted orb weaver (female)

Once the prey is crushed the spider will consume the liquids in the insect's body. Below is another spotted orb weaver, found hanging across our back driveway, this time with a gulf fritillary butterfly.

Spotted orb weaver (female)
I accidentally disturbed her web as I walked by and she instinctively began to pull up her meal to a secure location in the oak tree branches she was using as her anchor. This species usually takes down its web each day by eating it, recycling the proteins contained in the web, and creates a fresh web in the evening.

Unlike most orb weavers that have a bulbous abdomen, the Arrowhead is distinctive with its big yellow arrowhead shaped body and marking. This smaller spider, at half an inch long, is also unusual because it hangs with its head facing up, where most spiders hang head down.

Arrowhead orb weaver

The arrowhead spider prefers to build its web in forests and shadier areas of the garden and is notorious for building webs across paths at eye level.

Spiders are peaceful dwellers in the garden. It's unfortunate that so many have an irrational fear of these beneficial creatures.

disclaimer: as an avid butterfly gardener it does make my heart sad when I see them captured; however, we have created a habitat garden and I have made peace with the fact that all insects have to eat. It's all part of a functioning, balanced ecosystem.