On the wild side: Got the blues?
When I first saw an Eastern tailed blue butterfly, I was startled. I stood stock still as it opened and closed its small wings, brown when closed, and when opened, well, words cannot describe the beauty of the blue color flashing before my eyes. It sat on a flower for only a few moments, opening and closing its wings in the sunlight as I stood there in awe. I treasure those few moments as some of the most rewarding in my efforts to create habitat for rare and endangered species.
Many years ago I learned of the problems the blues are having with habitat loss; the Karner blue in New York and the Xerxes blues in California are both victims of urbanization. So when I moved out here on my 11 acres, I was determined to plant as much lupine as I could. The entire life cycle of blue butterflies depends on ample lupine, clover, vetch, and alfalfa, all of which are in the legume family. For a while, I had an entire bank filled with lovely blue lupine which I grew from seed. However, after several years, other native plants crowded it out, and now I must protect the areas for lupine from them, which can be rather intensive work. The flowers and leaves of lupines are beautiful, so it is well worth the effort.
The good news is, blues can also carry out their entire life cycles on clovers, even white yard clovers, and clovers grow easily on their own. So now, on my property, in small islands throughout the lawn, I am allowing clovers to grow. They must not be disturbed, as possibly eggs are being laid on them, and larva are feeding on them. Even if you look closely at your clovers, you may not see these larvae as they are no more than a third of an inch long. Perhaps you will find a four-leaf clover. As well, tiny ants are protecting them. ANTS?!, you ask. Yes, ants are critical for their survival. This is another one of those little known essential symbiotic relationships most people are not aware of, but which is absolutely fascinating, as most things natural are.
The larvae of blues secrete a sweet honeydew from their abdomens to which ants are attracted for feeding. The larvae also have glands all over their bodies which secrete amino acids, a component of protein, which the ants can get simply by stroking the body of the larva with their antennas. Due to this, ants protect this food source by repelling insect predators and parasites which would do harm to the caterpillars. In a study made of this peculiar association, it was found that four to 10 more caterpillars survive in the presence of ants. Great odds, I would say!
So, you who have a terrible aversion to ants, just know that they are one of the most important and amazing eusocial insects in the world, and deserve our respect. Even though some are considered agricultural and household pests, in the right place, ants “bind together many terrestrial ecosystems,” according to the esteemed Edward Wilson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Ants.” Personally, I work around ants, and only on a rare occasion might I kill one.
Back to the blues: I do get the blues when I see all the clover mowed down in huge yards where nobody ever walks. Bees love them, also, for their nectar, so clovers serve multiple purposes. However, here on my property I must deal with the “mower man,” and I do. This summer I am creating “Blue butterfly zones” and am soon to laminate signs with a picture of a blue butterfly on it to be placed on a stake in the middle of its clover habitat. If you have the heart to do this as well, and a mower man who will accommodate your interest, then do it. I suggest having several patches, not just one, and encourage neighbors to do so as well. That way, there is not as much habitat fragmentation and the butterflies and bees can easily fly from one patch to another.
On many occasions I have seen the tiny pygmy, or elfin blue butterfly (as I call them) so I suspect it may be fairly common. It is no more than a half inch wide and has powdery blue wings. Insects are quite clever at surviving in spite of habitat loss, and it seems the smaller they are, the better. Larger ones, such as the monarch, have a longer life cycle, and since they migrate, need lots of habitat. Most blues are usually about the size of a quarter, but are still in need of plenty of clover or lupine to thrive. Perhaps I will grow a patch of alfalfa next summer and see what happens.
Nothing important in life is ever accomplished if we are complacent, or indifferent. We can sit around angry, or depressed, singing the blues all our lives, or we can do our small part to help protect a fragile ecosystem right in front of our eyes. It might not happen overnight, but someday you might be lucky enough to see a gossamer blue butterfly float out of no where and land on a clover in your yard. That moment of pure beauty will confirm for you, as it did for me, the importance of doing something, and never giving up.
Article by Christine Maccabee
Nature Note for 8/14/2016