Friday, May 2, 2008
Eastern Pine Elfin Butterfly
Name. The Eastern Pine Elfin is a small dark butterfly with two names; Callophrys niphon and Incisalia niphon. It is a member of the Gossamer Wing family of butterflies which includes the blues, the coppers, the hairstreaks and the harvester. The family is the second largest in the world of butterflies with an estimated 7,000 species. Over 100 species are found in North America. Within those, there are at least nine species of Elfin butterfly of which the Eastern Pine Elfin is the most commonly seen in Massachusetts.
When and where seen. Last Saturday, April 26, was warm and sunny and there were at least three kinds of butterflies in my garden. The largest and the most numerous of the three was the unwelcome Cabbage White butterfly. Then there were several Spring Azures – easy to spot because of their intense blue coloring, and finally some little dark-colored ones which turned out to be Eastern Pine Elfins. You are likely to see them this time of year in pine woods, mixed pine and oak woods, and in more open areas where there are young pines. If you shake a young pine or jostle one with your rake, you might scare up a little flurry of these Elfins.
Identification. This is one of those butterflies that rests with its wings held together over its body so what you see is the underside of the wings. If it just flutters by, it appears to be quite dark and without distinctive markings, but when it settles down to feed, you can easily make out black, brown and white patterns. The edges of the wings are slightly scalloped and a little feathery. Their close relatives, the hairstreaks, have short hair-like tails extending from the hind wings. Dick Walton has a short video of “Early Butterflies” which includes the Eastern Pine Elfin. You can find it at www.rkwalton.com/seasons.html.
Caterpillars. The caterpillar is a rich green color, about three quarters of an inch long and a bit slug-like. It has a pair of creamy white stripes along each side of its body making it hard to see among the pine needles. The hairstreaks and elfins provide a classic example of adaptive coloring in the caterpillars. In the species that feeds on cedars, the stripes are broken into spots to provide more suitable camouflage for that environment. Those feeding on broad-leaved plants are either unmarked or mottled.
Lifecycle. Eastern Pine Elfins spend the winter as pupae and hatch in the spring anywhere from March to early June, depending on latitude, but later than other elfin species. At our latitude, late April is typical. The adult butterflies feed on nectar. The ones I saw were visiting the vinca. The adult males hang out near young pines waiting for females. The female lays her eggs on youngish pines – it favors those not more than 22 feet tall. The Eastern Pine Elfin is an adaptable species and while it prefers native pine, it will make do with ornamental species. There is one brood per year.
References. Robert Michael Pyle, Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterflies, David L. Wagner, Caterpillars of Eastern North America; the web site for Butterflies and Moths of North America at www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Bug Guide at http://bugguide.net/node/view/3571.
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