First in spring, last in autumn
To Native Americans, butterflies symbolize joy, color and change. Unwed Hopi girls of the butterfly clan shaped their hair like butterfly wings. For early Christians, this mystical flyer symbolized the soul. In China, it represented conjugal bliss, and in Egypt, butterfly art decorated ancient Egyptian tombs. Today, the magnificent emperor butterfly is Japan’s national emblem.
Although there are earlier traces, butterflies and moths fully evolved about 65 million years ago. The order Lepidoptera includes about 220,000 species, of which nearly 45,000 are butterflies. One of these, the cloudless sulfur, is among the largest of the sulfur butterflies and captivates even casual observers. The cloudless sulfur ranges throughout the Western Hemisphere from America’s southwest to the east coast and as far south as Patagonia. Generally, the cloudless sulfur, Phoebis sennae eubule, is one of the first spring butterflies observed in Virginia and often one of the last to head south.
With a strong, rapid wing beat, stunning yellow males patrol the skies for receptive greenish-yellow or albino females. In late summer or early fall, thousands of cloudless sulfurs migrate north into California, Montana, Virginia and on to Canada. Migrants travel in a direct path, rarely stopping. Instead of returning south, these autumn visitors die in their northern destination. Lepidopterists (scientists who study butterflies and moths) are perplexed by this strange phenomenon.
This spectacular species frequents a variety of open habitats. Sometimes, watchers can also find them along roadsides, brushy areas and gardens. Numerous males often congregate in damp, muddy spots (“mud puddling”) to obtain vital nutrients and minerals. These restorative substances are often passed on to females during mating.
Gardeners and wildlife watchers can attract these nectar-sipping creatures by providing adequate water, space, shelter and food, including host plants for caterpillars. In particular, long tubular flora like hibiscus, lantana and wild morning glory attract adult cloudless sulfurs.
Locating these plants near windbreaks like fruit trees, trellises and eaves will help protect the butterflies from birds, parasitic wasps and inclement weather. Also, providing sunny areas allows butterflies to bask and absorb nourishing warmth for feeding and flight. By maintaining a healthy environment that is butterfly friendly, we ensure that butterflies like the cloudless sulfur can continue captivating observers with their colorful wings. As American naturalist Donald Culross Peatties says, “Man with all his looms and dyes cannot create anything half so exquisite as a butterfly’s wing.”