Sunday, September 26, 2010

An Armada of Admirals in the Fall Garden

A few days ago I was out in my garden taking photos of the pollinators that use fall asters - the very last of the summer bloomers. I was minding my own business snapping shots of bees and flies, when I caught sight of a Red Admiral butterfly drinking nectar from the tall daisies. I gasped and began madly clicking away. I was entranced by its beauty; the underside of its wings were a phenomenal 60's acid trip of pattern and color.

Slowly, I came to the realization that I was actually taking photos of two different butterflies. There were two! I was blown away.

When I had just gotten used to that idea, I looked up and noticed a third! It's so rare to see one Red Admiral per summer, and here were three! I was so jazzed.

These were crisp, gorgeous butterflies fresh from the chrysalis. But where did they come from? Red Admiral butterflies usually lay their eggs on nettles, but I wracked my brain and couldn't think of any nearby stands of those prickly stingers. So I decided to pull out my "Butterflies of Cascadia", to see what Bob Pyle had to say about Vanessa atalanta. In reading his great description, I learned that yes, admirals (which he calls Red Admirables) use nettles as a host plant for their larvae, but they will also use hops, which are in the same plant family as nettles. Suddenly, a big light bulb went off in my head. I had planted hops more than ten years ago only a few feet from where these adult butterflies were nectaring on asters. I remembered that I had specifically chosen the vine in hopes that Red Admirals would lay their eggs on it, but had completely forgotten in the interval. It only took ten years, but the plan worked!

The next day, I went out to the garden again and darned if there wasn't a fourth admiral on the asters. It was a veritable festival of butterflies.

I don't know if it's because we had such a short summer this year, but those asters have been just crazy with pollinators of all kinds - bumblebees, honeybees, wasps, butterflies, syrphid and tachinid flies. I thought the poor insects might perish with all the September rain we've had, but whenever there's a dry spell, they are out there, frantically taking advantage of this last nectar source of summer. There are so many pollinators that they fight for space on the hundreds of flowers. It's quite amazing.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you want to attract pollinators, you can't go wrong planting fall asters. Given room, they will reseed themselves to become a terrific pollinator draw to any garden. One other really nice thing about asters - they're so tall that you'll be right at eye level to witness one of the greatest shows on earth.

Nancy Partlow
Nancy is our guest writer for this blog. A "silent partner" in our Bees, Birds and Butterflies work, she is a very gifted naturalist and gardener.  Janet & Glen

Resources: The Butterflies of Cascadia by Robert Michael Pyle

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