Lovely Lepidopterans

Fall is a time of great color in Charleston, and much of it is provided by migrating butterflies. The famed Monarch, recognized by white speckles on the rims of its wings, is on its way south to Mexico, where it will hibernate for the winter before emerging to lay eggs next spring. Their delicate wings are a common sight along barrier islands, where they flutter through sand dunes to nip at nectar from wild flowers that bloom this time of year. Monarchs are the longest-living butterflies, surviving for many months, while most of these flying insects live only a matter of weeks after emerging from their caterpillar cocoons.
Other common migratory butterflies include the Gulf Fritillary, the Cloudless Sulfur and the Skipper. The fritillary is distinguished by its bright orange wings and is spotted easily in the historic district as it darts to and fro over bright blooms of lantana and plumbago, and gets its name for its fly-over patterns in the Gulf of Mexico. The sulfur is bright yellow, and may be the most common set of wings in local gardens. Skippers look much like moths, and with a more grayish hue of their wings are less visible than the brighter butterflies, and can be distinguished by moths by their club-like antennae.
All of these creatures are members of the family Lepidoptera, meaning “scaled wings”, and are cold-blooded and require sunlight for energy. What looks like a pair of wings are actually four, and are lined with veins that provide aerial power. The Monarch’s thick black veins are most noticeable. Butterflies eat by means of a long, hollow tongue called a probiscus, which pierces the flower petal and sucks up nutritious nectar.
Naturally, the increase in butterflies brings an increase in spiders looking for a flying meal, especially the large Argiope or Banana Spider that weaves massive webs as big as six feet wide on paths among the beach sand dunes. The butterfly numbers are so huge – in the tens of millions – that there’s plenty to feed the spiders and propagate the butterfly species.