It is almost time to start seeing butterflies in my beautiful wildlife garden here in northern Kentucky. One of the first butterfly host plants that I begin to monitor daily is my young sugarberry tree. It can feed the caterpillars of several species of butterflies and moths, including one of my favorites – the Mourning Cloak butterfly. The following photos were taken during previous years.
Lots of eggs in one basket
The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly lays large clusters of eggs around small twigs of their host plant. Since the butterfly hibernates through the winter as a winged adult instead of a chrysalis, it is one of the earliest butterflies that I see in my garden. As soon as there is a warm day or two in the spring, Mourning Cloaks wake up and start looking for tree sap runs (like woodpecker holes) to feed from and potential mates.
Safety in numbers ?
The newborn caterpillars eat together in a large group. I bring them indoors to raise in order to photograph them and also to protect them from predators. I’ve added a penny to this photo to show just how tiny those babies are when they first emerge from their eggs.
Prickly but harmless
You have to be careful if you decide to handle caterpillars. Some species of moth caterpillars are covered with irritating hairs or venomous spines that can cause severe pain or allergic reaction, particularly for anyone who is sensitive to bee stings. Mourning Cloak caterpillars are covered in hairs and spines, but they are harmless.
Time for a change
After a couple of weeks the caterpillars are mature enough to shed their last skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath. It is light gray with some pinkish color on the pointy tips. In another two weeks the butterfly is ready to emerge.
Time to fly
Mourning Cloaks love to bask in the sunlight. I keep several large rocks in my garden just to invite these pretty butterflies to sunbathe. I love the velvety colors on their wings. You cannot mistake these for any of our other native butterfly species.
Notice the muted colors on the underside of the wings. Mourning Cloaks prefer tree sap over flower nectar, and they perch on tree bark with wings closed and almost disappear from sight. I saw one flying around a couple of days ago, so hopefully I will find some egg clusters soon!
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