Beneficial of the Week 5

If the last several posts on helpful garden residents have piqued your interest, you are now ready to stride confidently into your garden (yes, even in winter) to find and identify the wonderful creatures that await you!

Here are some great resources to help you in your search for more diverse and intriguing friends

[Even though the links are Amazonian, it’s better to support your local bookshop by shopping locally.]

Here is a wonderful article from the latest Washington Butterfly Association newsletter. It reveals the reasons for best practices that keep our gardens diverse and safe for all life stages of insects. (Photos of the butterfly adult, caterpillar, egg and pupa at this link to the November newsletter)

See if you can tell why:

  • We tolerate some chewing damage (or, how caterpillars grow up to be butterflies)
  • Total fall cleanup is not conducive to biodiversity (hint: overwintering habitat)
  • It’s important to examine plants and soil closely to divine who is there and what they are up to

Species Profile: Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus)

by Dave Nunnallee

Brown elfin on host plant. Photo credit: Las Pilitas Nursery (good source for plants)

Elfins belong to the subfamily of butterflies called hairstreaks, which are placed in the worldwide family Lycaenidae … Many of the hairstreaks bear hairlike extensions at the rear of their hindwings, however the elfins have no such tails, instead bearing a “tornus”. This is a small rounded extension to the wing … Elfins are small, unobtrusive butterflies, colored in camouflaged browns and grays. All four of our elfins fly early in the spring, the Brown Elfin appearing as early as mid-March but with records through July at higher elevations.

Callophrys augustinus occurs throughout most of Canada, a bit of Alaska, and extending down both coasts of the US, to northernmost Mexico in the far West and to Georgia in the far East. While absent from most of the American Midwest and from the Gulf Coast states this is America’s most widespread Elfin. Widespread in Washington, but absent from the Columbia Basin and generally from the higher west slopes of the Cascades, also absent from the NW part of the Olympic Peninsula.

In the spring adults lay their eggs on flower buds of the host plants; single eggs were observed being oviposited on salal at the base of the least developed bud at the tip of a flower cluster. On hatching the larvae feed first on the buds, then on flowers and finally on young fruits in succession as the host plant develops.

The caterpillar is small, slug-like in appearance, attractively bright green with a yellow-green dorsal stripe and oblique lateral stripes and dashes. Brown Elfin larvae feed by extending their long necks down into a bud or fruit and then hollowing it out; an early instar may move its entire body into such a feeding hole. A number of food plants are eaten including Salal, huckleberry, Bearberry (Kinnikinnick), Ceanothus, Azalea, Arbutus and Labrador Tea. Pupation occurs in leaf litter near the base of the host plant and the pupa overwinters, ready to emerge early in the spring.

On eclosing in the spring Brown Elfins fly low and close to their host plants, in forest openings, power line rights-of-way, Christmas tree plantations and along forest roadsides. The males perch in conspicuous places and fly out to challenge any passing butterfly.

Females are much less conspicuous, flying quietly from flower to flower to nectar, or carefully inspecting buds or new blossoms before depositing a single egg, then moving on to another plant. Females will not oviposit if there is already an egg on the plant. Eggs can be found by watching the female’s habits, then by checking nearby host plants with careful attention to the favored oviposition sites.

All elfins perch with their wings together over their back, so dorsal wing surfaces can be observed only in the hand or in flight. The Brown Elfin is marked with plain, 2-tone brown or reddish-brown colors, and fresh individuals often have a pleasant purplish cast. Callophrys augustinus can be differentiated from our other three species of elfins by its two-tone brown ventral hindwing; our other three species all have whitish or hoary markings to varying degrees, or strong zigzag lines in one species.

©Washington Butterfly Association G’num newsletter 2012

If you look up the unfamiliar nomenclature in one of the above field guides, it will help you remember the terms.

Lastly, please consider a subscription to the North American Butterfly Association through the link above – the Seattle chapter has some of the foremost experts in the nation and the world on butterflies and other topics (they literally wrote the books), and they come to the meetings every month!

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