Not So Red but Admirable

Spring has sprung in full form and many of Connecticut’s ephemeral wildflowers have now finished their frenzy of flowering before being locked in shade by newly emerging, bright green leaves of trees. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to see one of the early spring butterflies in my yard: an adult Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).

Red Admiral butterflies usually have orange bands, not red. Photo by Peter Waycik, CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

I thought that the beginning of April was quite early for this butterfly to be flying around. Daytime temperatures were in the mid-50s (13 °C ) and in the 40s (7 °C) at night. Why was it out and about? Without much in bloom yet what flowers were providing nectar for it?

The Red Admiral adult I saw may have spent the winter in hibernation in a bark crevice or other tight cavity. Did it stay in the brush pile at the edge of my property? Unlike the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Red Admirals usually can’t survive really cold winters.

In the fall, many Red Admirals migrate south, as far as southern Texas. In early April we had two strong and very stormy weather systems that transported warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into our area. Remember those freakish record-breaking few days in the high 80s and 90s (25 °C to 35 °C)? It’s possible my Red Admiral arrived then.

This butterfly has evolved to survive early spring’s cool temperatures. The adult’s black background helps absorb heat. It also likes to feed on the sap running in trees, so doesn’t depend on nectar from flowers. They will occasionally feed on nectar later in the season. Red Admirals also gets minerals from bird droppings and dead animals.

Red Admirals have a worldwide distribution. They are found in the temperate regions of North Africa, North and Central America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Adults have a wingspan from 1.75 to 3 inches (4.5 to 7.6 cm). They are mostly black with broad orange (not red) bands on top of the fore- and hindwings. The upper forewings have white dots at the wingtips.

The Red Admiral was not named after a British naval commander, but rather by 18th-century naturalists. Its name is a corruption of the word “admirable.” This butterfly was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

The best way to attract Red Admirals to your yard is to plant one of its host plants, the plant where females choose to lay their eggs to provide food for the larvae, or caterpillars. The primary host plant for the Red Admiral is Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). Plant it in a shady spot with rich soil, but out of the way. Stinging Nettle has fine hairs on its leaves and stems that contain irritating chemicals. These are released when the plant comes in contact with skin. The hairs are normally very painful to the touch.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is the larval food plant of the Red Admiral butterfly. Photo by BotaFlo, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.
Red Admiral larvae or caterpillars feed on Stinging Nettle. Notice the spines on its body. These actually are not sharp and the caterpillar can be safely handled. Photo by Holger Krisp, CC BY 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Stinging Nettle, however, does make a very healthy cooked green. Cook it like spinach, boiled in salted water for 45 seconds to a minute. According to an article published in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, its leaves have abundant fiber, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidant compounds like polyphenols and carotenoids.

A close up of the hairs on a Stinging Nettle. Like little hypodermic needles, they inject a chemical which causes irritation. Plant Stinging Nettle away from less traveled areas.

If the idea of planting Stinging Nettle doesn’t suit you, try False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica), a related species that doesn’t have stinging hairs. It grows in the same rich, moist shady locations. False Nettle is hard to find, but can sometimes be discovered for sale online.

False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) is also the host plant for Red Admirals and doesn’t have stinging hairs. Photo by Fritzflohrreynolds, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.
The Question Mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis), shown here, as well as the Comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) have larvae who also feed both on Stinging Nettle and False Nettle. Photo by and (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man), GFDL 1.2 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

So, grow some larval food plants and the butterflies will come.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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