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Master Naturalists: Feeding spring butterflies and insects

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
April 4, 2013 at midnight
Updated April 3, 2013 at 11:04 p.m.

Baby bonnets, a small tree commonly found on the Rio Grande River plains, starts blooming shortly after New Year's, and continues to bloom here in Victoria well into April.  Individual flowers are tiny, less than -inch across.  But because the tree produces so many blooms, it looks like it has pinkish frosting on it for several weeks in winter and spring.  Early-emerging insects find it an excellent source of nutrition and small winter birds pluck its flowers and eat them.

Soon, if we get some rain, we will see an explosion of wildflowers here to go with the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes we saw on the way to Houston.

Even though very few plants have been flowering, other than wind-pollinators, like oaks and pines, we have been seeing butterflies, bees and nectar/pollen-eating insects in our yard since January.

Monarchs, small swallowtails of several species and a variety of smaller critters, like crescents and checkerspots, have been around basking and feeding whenever it was a warm, sunny day.

So what are our late winter bloomers?

Cardinal sage (salvia fulgens) will bloom all winter if a hard freeze does not knock it back. We have 25 or so plants all over the yard - in full-sun to shade areas.

Firecracker plant (russelia equisetiformis) blooms the same way with showy red-orange flowers. We also have a cigar plant (cuphea ignea), which started blooming in February. Given that "ignea" is Latin for "on fire," you can be sure what that one looks like.

Finally, we have several trees that are insect/bird-pollinated in bloom. Our coral bean (erythrina herbacea) tree is blooming, a sure sign that hummingbirds will be moving north soon because it's long, slim red flowers are a hummer's favorite.

Several species of Mary's favorites, her bauhinias (orchid trees), have been producing white and pink blooms since February.

The earliest blooms, however, are on our baby bonnets (coursetia axillaris), an arid-land bush/tree in the legume family, which starts blooming in January. Its blooms are small, but they turn the branches light pink as they cover the entire plant.



Novel source of late winter nectar

With the drought conditions the way they are, very little is blooming in the wild.

Where have the insects been finding food? Skip "Kip" Kiphart of Monarch Watch shared the following story from Craig Hensley, interpretive naturalist at Guadalupe River State Park.

On Feb. 5, Hensley saw what he called "a diverse menagerie of butterflies, ladybird beetles, honeybees and various flies all over the leaves of our various thistle plants."

At that time there were no blooms, only rosettes of leaves. Peculiarly, the butterflies were eating something on the bottom of the thistles' leaves. He checked it out, suspecting that aphids were involved in some way because ladybirds are voracious consumers of aphids.

Under magnification, patches of honeydew were seen attached to fine, white hairs on the underside of the leaves. Yes, there were aphids, and aphids produce sugary waste called honeydew. Then, Hensley had an "ah ha" moment.

Using a microscope, he watched as an aphid exuded a clear bubble of honeydew onto its abdomen and then popped it with one of its legs, splashing the honeydew onto the leaf hairs.

He concluded, "The butterflies and honeybees were actually feeding on the sugary excretions of the aphids." Aphids were feeding early-emerging insects. Paul searched a field near us, where thistles grow wild, to see if they had aphids.

Alas, he could not find any. It would have been a great picture. A pest plant to most, thistles host a pest insect - aphids - resulting in food for early butterflies, honeybees, and ladybirds. As the email from Kip said, "Ain't nature grand." We agree.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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