We have compiled documentation of a selected few butterfly species we have encounted so far in Ithaca, New York.
Things have been quite hectic since coming to Ithaca, New York so we have not had the time to properly document every species we encounter each day, nor have we been able to keep up with some of the things we have been doing with them. This post compiles a few random butterfly species that we collected over the past week because it would be pointless to make several smaller posts and because no pictures were ever taken for the majority of things we saw or caught.
Moving in chronological order that the pictures were taken, the first species is Papilio cresphontes. We have been seeing tons of these swallowtails; they are perhaps the most common butterfly after skipper species, cabbage whites, and monarchs. We were able to capture several females since coming to Ithaca, but none of them laid any eggs. About half of them died before we even got a real chance to set them up because they were already so worn down and weak when we caught them (almost none of them had a complete set of legs. . . ). The set up that we used consisted of rue cuttings in a laundry bag left outside in open sun. Females were fed as much as possible, but it was difficult to get them to fatten up when they were so skinny to begin with. After up to two or three days of zero reaction to the rue, we would give up on the female.
The second species here is monarch (Danaus plexippus). We didn't really know what to expect with these up here in the North, but as it turns out they don't seem to be any less common than back in Albany, California. In fact, they may be even more common at this time of year based on the fact that we are seeing them almost everyday, sometimes even around urban areas. An interesting thing to note is that the monarchs here definitely seem to be smaller in size than the ones back home.
Number three is the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele). These are somewhat rare even though it would make sense that they would be flying strong right now, spilling the eggs right before it gets cold because the first instar larva in the overwintering stage. So far, we have already managed to catch two females. We had set the first one up in a tub with nothing in it, hoping that it would lay without any extra help because they supposedly quite careless about where they do it in the wild (by that I mean not necessarily laying on the host plant but if not, usually still in close proximity). Unfortunately, it did not lay at all and died after several days of starvation on the day that we finally found a source for violets (Viola) and brought some home. By this time, we had captured a second female that did lay an egg or two on the violet before losing all interest for no apparent reason other than it seemed to be getting weak. We blame this on our lack of patience initially in trying to get the butterflies to feed. We have found out the hard way that this species takes an awfully long time (sometime several minutes of struggling) to realize that there is food, even after we force the proboscis into honey-water. With any other species, we would automatically assume by the end of 30-60 seconds of resistance that the thing just isn't hungry.
On the same day and exact location (butterfly bush [Buddleja] at Cornell Botanic Garden) that we caught the first Speyeria, we also caught two American ladies (Vanessa virginiensis). Our initial thought was actually that we had painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), but these are much smaller and have much larger spots on the hindwings. This is our first time seeing virginiensis, even though they are also supposed to fly in Alameda County, California. So far, this is the only Vanessa species in Ithaca.
The last species that this post includes is the orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme). When we first got here and saw all these white butterflies dashing around the grassy, wildflower areas we almost puked thinking that the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) would still be the most common and boring species all the way across the country. As it turns out, most of them are indeed cabbages, but in certain areas, they are sulfurs (the sad part is that sulfurs are also supposed to be common on the west, but they are some of the rarest sights back at home where there are a tiny fraction of the number of insects compared to Ithaca). The most common habitat for these is on open, grassy fields (literally grass in this case) with little flowers. We sometimes see half a dozen C. philodice and occasionally C. eurytheme. There are usually both males and females there, including a few white form females like the one in the picture. The things fly incredibly fast and are impossible to catch even when landed because they are so sensitive to movement.
Although they are not pictures in this post, we thought it would be appropriate to discuss the endings of our female Papilio troilus and female Limenitis arthemis astyanax. We did not get spicebush (Lindera benzoin) until a week after capturing the female and by that time, the weather was not good for egg laying at all. We attempted to set it up, but we could not get any activity out of the female whatsoever even though it was extremely plump and still decently strong. Because spicebush cuttings dry out so fast, we were struggling to keep up the setup and eventually, we tried bringing her to the live plants at Mundy Wildflower Garden and putting her in a laundry bag, but there was still no sun at all. After a while, it became apparent that she was still not at all interested in laying. It was just as well, then, that we accidentally let her get away. As for the Limenitis, we never got around to making a very good setup because we lack host plants (we also don't know what host plants they really like here) and the first one we caught got away after the laundry bag it was in got knocked over sometime during the afternoon that we were out collecting. The second female we caught was almost dead when we caught it so we never got a chance at all with her.
After finding our first silver spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) larva yesterday, we went on another collecting trip and collected many more, among other lepidoptera.
Having figured out that the silver spotted sipper larvae can be found on the locust around here, we ventured out to Beebe Lake again today to find more. We made our way to the sunny part of the trail with locust that we were at yesterday and began searching for nests. At first we had trouble finding them, but eventually began finding a few. Soon after, we began to get good at spotting them and started finding them in large quantities - we had no idea they were so common!
Each plant had several larvae, usually of all different sizes, but mostly on the larger size (mostly fourth and fifth instars). The largest larvae we found we full grown fifth instars, which were absolutely enormous compared to other skipper larvae we have reared, weighing 1.3 g and over an inch long in length. The shelters of these giants were covered in silk, and practically looked like cocoons. We also found some quite small ones, one of which looked like a first instar with an empty egg shell nearby. The smaller larvae construct nests by cutting out a square of leaf (but not clipping it off completely) and folding it over themselves with a few thick strands of silk. We probably found about two dozen by the time we left the locust and moved on.
As we continued on the trail, we caught plenty of different interesting insects we had never seen at home (not that there really were any insects back there), mostly the common grasshoppers, some colorful beetles and true bugs, a few damselflies, and of course a storm of heminopterans at the flowers. As for lepidoptera, we mostly just saw cabbage whites and skippers (just like home), but as there was a lot of milkweed among the wildflowers, we did spot a full grown fifth instar. Unlike home where the only milkweed you ever see is the introduced tropical varieties (A. curassavica or tuberosa) in people's gardens, the milkweed here is native and common in natural areas. We've also noticed that monarchs here don't seem to be quite the same as the ones back home - there seems to be more variation in the size of the butterflies we've seen, and in general they seem smaller. The larva we found today looks a day or two from pupation and it is probably only two thirds the size of the ones back home (though if it is parasitized, that could explain it).
Near the end of the trail, we spotted a large Arctiid larva crawling rapidly across the gravel. It looked about and inch and a half long and was covered in long orange hairs. We didn't know what species it was at first, but after collecting it and taking a closer look, it appeared to be the larva of the salt marsh moth (Estigmene acrea), a species we had encountered back home as well. It was most likely crawling rapidly along the ground in search of food (they're extremely polyphagous).
After locating rue (Ruta graveolens) at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, we were able to find eastern giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) larvae.
After our first trip to the Cornell Botanic Garden yesterday, we realized that many butterflies such as Papilio cresphontes and troilus are common and still in flight here. Thus, on our visit today, we tried to locate some of their hosts in order for to attempt getting eggs out of the females we caught yesterday, and also to find any larvae or eggs that might be on them.
At first, we spent a long time trying to find troilus hosts, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), but we simply couldn't (makes us wonder why the butterfly was even here??). We later asked one of the workers there who told us there wasn't spicebush in this section of the garden, but there was some in the arboretum, but that was far from here and a storm was due in half an hour.
We then quickly moved on to searching hosts of the Rutaceaea feeding cresphontes. We knew there was some lemon trees (Citrus limon) there, but they were small and not very good, so there wasn't much hope of finding eggs or larvae on it. Instead, we tried looking for hop (Ptelea trifoliata), prickly ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), or rue (Ruta graveolens). Based on the Botanic Garden plant database, there was no prickly ash and the few hop trees they were supposed to have were apparently in a different section quite far from where we were looking. We thus forgot about the hop and prickly ash and tried to find some rue, which they supposedly had three patches of in the herb section.
After searching for probably much longer than we should've (half an hour at least?), we located two of the three patches, which in retrospect were actually just in plain sight. We quickly scanned the first patch, but surprisingly found no eggs or larvae, despite that the butterflies (both sexes) were always flying around the garden (while we were searching, we actually caught a male cresphontes drinking nectar, though we have little use of him). When we got to the second patch, we were delighted to see that there was a second instar sitting right in front of us on the upper side of a leaf. We eagerly searched the pants for more, but all we could find was a dead second instar on a leaf (no idea what the case of mortality was). The single live larva was good enough for us though - we had never seen the larvae of this or related Heraclides group species in real life until now. The larva is a perfect dropping mimic (much more convincing than other Papilio larvae we have seen), being shiny with blotches of white on the dorsum of the abdomen and rear. The thorax is also extremely enlarged and shaped like a snake head. We collected the larva in a dish and started heading back as the storm was beginning.
While looking for the cresphontes and troilus hosts, we spotted a bunch of the common stuff again, like melanoplus and band-winged grasshoppers, monarchs, skippers, red-spotted purples, etc. There were also a terrifying amount of Heminoptera and Diptera here compared to at home, with probably hundreds (thousands?) swarming the flower bushes in the garden.
We also took a few shots of the garden right before we left if you were wondering how it looked.
Today we checked out Cornell University's botanic garden in Ithaca, New York for the first time and ended up collected a several new butterflies.
Yesterday, we hiked around Beebe Lake, which is right next to and should lead to the Cornell botanic garden, but we never actually made it there because it was late and we were tired. This afternoon, we set out again, taking to the road instead of the Beebe trail, which is a much more efficient route.
Our first impression of the garden was that there were tons and tons of good butterfly nectar flowers. When we first stepped inside to walk around, we were greeted immediately by a large black swallowtail sucking from bunches of pink flowers under a tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Our first thought was a black form female eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) (the tulip tree was reassuring) or possibly a black swallowtail (P. polyxenes asterius). However, neither of those sound likely because P. glaucus is early season univoltine (possibly second partial) in upstate New York and we cannot find any egg or larvae of P. polyxenes despite the presence of numerous species of host plants (some exotics in an edible state). Spicebush swallowtail (P. troilus) never even crossed our mind at the time not just because it is a species that we have never had any experience dealing with in the past and know very little about, but also because we have yet to find any host plants around (even in the garden). It was not until we caught it with a laundry bag and got a close look at it that we realized that it was indeed P. troilus—and a surprisingly fresh and plump female at that.
It has very wide and rounded fore- and hindwings with white and gray spots (not yellow) that are surprisingly large (no smaller than your typical western tiger [Papilio rutulus]) because we have always been under the impression that P. troilus is a small species. Unlike tigers, there is very little blue except on the back of the hindwings and there are two very distinct rows of orange spots there instead of one. The ovipositar is white, which coincidentally or not, corresponds with the color of the eggs. The head shape is also sort of strange. . . unexplainably.
Inside the garden, there are a lot of butterfly bushes (Buddleja) that were covered in butterflies from skippers (mostly silver-spotted [Epargyreus clarus] and some least [Ancyloxypha numitor]), some monarchs (Danaus plexippus) (we see these often in the urban areas too, so evidently they are quite common), and--to our great surprise--giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes). There were at least three of these humongous butterflies sucking from the butterfly bushes that we tried pouncing on several times with the laundry bag before catching a very fat female. We were surprised because we expected the giants to be quite rare up here in the Northern range and because, like the P. troilus, we could not find any host plants growing wildly anywhere. Rue (Ruta graveolens) and hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata) are supposedly at the garden, but we could not find the rue and the hop tree is in a completely different section, far from the butterflies we saw. The only thing we could find at the garden were two potted Citrus, but they were in bad shape and did not have any egg or larvae on them.
After we got home and took a closer look at our catch, we measured a whopping ~130 mm, making it larger than any butterfly we have ever seen except two-tailed (P. multicaudata) (it is larger than any P. cresphontes or rumiko we have obtained from pupae). The ovipositar is orange, which again corresponds with the color of the eggs.
In the same area as the giants, we found red-spotted purples (Limenitis arthemis), which is something brand new to us. From a distance, the things have a strong resemblance to the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) (and the other mimics) and because of its large size, we almost mistook it for another P. troilus when we first saw them. We snagged one as it was sucking and it too turned out to be plump female. These are supposed to eat Prunus spp. and willow (Salix). There is very little Prunus around here (none in the garden), and none of it is native cherry (Prunus pennsylvanica or serotina) which should be preferred; the only willows are a few Salix nigra on the edge of Beebe Lake. For now, yet another mystery. . .
Around 5 '0 clock, it started to rain a bit and the butterflies scurried away, so we headed home. It was certainly too late to start trying to get them to lay eggs. And, as mentioned before, a major issue is that we don't really have good (if any at all) host plants for them and, even if we did have access to them, it would have to be cuttings. On top of that, the laundry bag would make a very meager setup. We will definitely need to check the garden again soon or explore elsewhere to try to gather the host plants and to collect more butterflies to increase our chances of getting eggs. For now we are keeping the butterflies locked up in darkness and feeding them honey that we quickly purchased at the convenience store.
Ithaca, New York
This timeline is a series of daily posts recording our observations and experiences with various insects around the Cornell University campus in Ithaca, New York, starting from the time we moved here in 2017. As this is a personal blog, we try to keep collections for our entomology course work to a minimum, and mainly focus on just the species we catch and raise for our own fun and interest. Posts prior to this time can be viewed at Timeline 2012-2017: Albany, California.
January 2018 (1)
December 2017 (8)
November 2017 (1)
October 2017 (5)
September 2017 (25)
August 2017 (18)
Full Species List
(Alphabetical by scientific name)
* New York nonnative/resident
** New York nonnative/nonresident
*** Albany update
Papilio polyxenes asterius × Papilio zelicaon***
Full Species List
(Alphabetical by scientific name)
* New York nonnative/resident
** New York nonnative/nonresident
*** Albany update
Butterflies & Moths
Common checkerspot skipper***
Great spangled fritillary
Milkweed tussock moth
Salt marsh moth
Virginia creeper sphinx
Western tiger swallowtail***
White-marked tussock moth
Butterfly & Moth Hybrids
Black swallowtail × anise swallowtail***
Grasshoppers, Katydids, & Crickets
Carolina band-winged grasshopper
Lesser meadow katydid
Sword-bearing conehead katydid
Two-spotted tree cricket
Cornell Botanic Gardens
Mundy Wildflower Garden
Albany, California Updates