Readers’ wildlife photos

August 31, 2023 • 8:15 am

Today we have the life of a butterfly, with photos by Mary Rasmussen. Mary’s captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

The Red Admiral Butterfly

I always leave a few Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) plants in my garden here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Nettles are popular with the Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) but also feed a variety of other moth and butterfly caterpillars.

Like many Monarch butterflies, Red Admirals are migratory. Most northern Red Admirals are thought to migrate south each fall, but some may overwinter. Red Admirals do not survive the coldest winters and most of North America is re-populated by southern butterflies migrating north in the spring. They are a very welcome sight here in mid-spring:

Female laying an egg.  The butterfly’s reproductive organs are located near the lower tip of the abdomen. You can see the tiny green egg that she will deposit on a Nettle leaf. The egg’s  surface has a glue that will hold it on the leaf:

Macro shot of a Red Admiral egg on a Stinging Nettle leaf. You can see the hollow stinging hairs of the Nettle leaf. I’ve learned that I can grasp the plant while moving my hand upwards and not suffer any consequences. Moving your hand down along the plant is definitely not recommended.

Caterpillars feed primarily on plants in the Nettle family (Urticaceae).  They sew a leaf closed around them to make a protective nest and then eat their way out. They do this several times while they are maturing:

The caterpillar hangs down and forms a “J” shape, signalling that it will soon pupate.

The chrysalis:

The newly emerged butterflies have brilliant coloration. Their underwings are particularly beautiful:

I use a Nikon D500 camera with Nikon VR 105mm f/2.8G macro lens. For the butterfly egg I used a Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens with extension tubes.

Recommended reading:

Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Princeton Field Guides, by David L. Wagner

This guide has an index of the caterpillars and most useful is the index of food plants. Many times I have been able to identify a caterpillar by looking up the plant it is munching.

12 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Great natural history! Yes. Those stinging nettles can be a real annoyance if you don’t pay attention.

  2. This is such a wonderful post. I love seeing the egg coming from the butterfly. Very exciting photos.
    Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks Mark, this is a real compliment coming from someone whose work I admire. Stinging Nettle is very hardy. I also grow some in a pot that stays outdoors all winter. If you plant some Nettle I’ll bet the Admirals will come to you!

  3. Unfortunately red admirals have completely disappeared from my area (south central Iowa) as well as almost all butterflies. I have not seen more than 2 this year and swallowtails are absent as well as all other species of butterflies. What has not disappeared is aerial spraying of soybeans. It’s a Grave New World.

  4. Absolutely lovely pictures, each one artful and technically perfect, with excellent and appropriate lighting. This post made me nostalgic about my childhood in Wisconsin, where Red Admirals were abundant during the “nice” part of the northern hemisphere’s year. The butterfly that came out earliest in our area (Wisconsin) was the Mourning Cloak. It was always exciting to see the first Mourning Cloak of the year and realize that spring really was right around the corner.

  5. In my garden this afternoon I was watching Red Admirals and the closely related Peacocks. I suffer the presence of some nettles for this reason. Unfortunately both species are far too lively for me to get photos: yours are wonderful.

Leave a Reply