Insect Update: First Butterflies And Protecting Garden Plants From Pests

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

Larry Meiller finds out which butterflies are already making an appearance in Wisconsin. Plus, how to protect plants now against garden pests.

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  • Even After Just A Few Warm Days, Butterflies Are Back

    There are a lot of signs of spring to look for at this time of year in Wisconsin, but one of the most welcome is the first butterfly of the season.

    Phil Pellitteri, an entomologist, a distinguished faculty associate emeritus and the recently retired head of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab, said that he saw something surprisingly recently during a walk in the woods.

    “Lo and behold, on one of those very nice days, (I) saw my first spring butterfly. That’s always a treat,” he said.

    Pellitteri said it was a mourning cloak butterfly, which isn’t surprising since they “seem to be the most common.” He added that there is a group of brush-footed butterflies that overwinters as adults. That’s great for us, he said, because it means “they’re up and about” after just a few sunny days.

    An anglewing butterfly might have been present for Pellitteri’s walk as well, although even the expert spotter had a hard time identifying it “as it was whizzing by.”

    The returning cold weather isn’t a big concern, even though butterflies seem so delicate. Pellitteri said that butterflies will lay low when the temperatures drop, but when the mercury climbs back over about 55 degrees, “you might be blessed with seeing one.”

    Other than the anglewings, mourning cloaks, and the brush-footed butterflies, there are some migrants that can show up in Wisconsin at any time. But beyond that, most butterflies overwintered in a chrysalis form, including swallowtails. Pellitteri said that “it’s going to take some heat to get them to develop enough and start emerging.”

    To overwinter successfully, butterflies take advantage of being cold-blooded and slow their systems down to need minimal energy to survive. They burrow under leaf litter frequently, and wait out the harsh winter conditions. Because of this, Pellitteri said, it’s better to leave them outdoors if they are found in the fall or winter. Otherwise, “they are usually not in a physiological state where they can feed, and they burn their energy reserves because it’s warmer (inside),” he said.

    Woolly bears overwinter by using an interesting technique. Pellitteri said that these caterpillars, which are the larva of a species of tiger moth, will spend the winter as full-grown caterpillars under rocks or in wood piles, and only at this point in the spring will they spin their cocoon.

    Small white cabbage butterflies are another early variety. Pellitteri said that while they overwinter as chrysalis, “boy, they seem to come out very quickly.” They lay their eggs on various types of mustard plants, which are some of the first weeds to come up in the spring.

    Moths are similar to their butterfly cousins. Pellitteri said that their emergence is also staggered, and that some spend the winter in the adult form as well. He shared that people taking part in maple syrup production will often report moths that are out and attracted to the sap being collected. They aren’t welcome, since they tend to “dive in and contaminate things.”

    Once the weather warms up, there will be plenty of butterflies and moths to enjoy. Pellitteri said that Wisconsin hosts about 150 species of butterflies, and 3,000 to 4,000 species of moths.

    Pellitteri said that it’s too early to predict how robust a butterfly season Wisconsin will have this year. 2012’s drought severely impacted the populations. Even last year, he said, was “quiet” as a result.

    “One would hope that (this year) we’d see some rebounding with some of these populations,” he said.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Phil Pellitteri Guest

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