It's a gorgeous day, which means that the Red Admiral butterflies can be spotted, especially near flowers! The orange, black, brown and white vanessa atalanta have been spotted in greater numbers this year. Even though we found out some great Red Admiral facts earlier this week (some may settle in NYC! they love butterfly bushes!), we chatted with entomologist—and Cornell-NY State Integrated Pest Management Program field expert—Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann about the fluttering creatures to find out more because we're mesmerized by them. She also revealed that they have been "attacking" her sliding glass doors last weekend!
How far can butterflies travel in one day? How far can the Red Admiral fly?
The species, altogether, migrates some 2,000 miles from the overwintering sites (Guatemala through Mexico) to summer egg-laying sites in Canada and the Northern US. They do this in several generations. However, each individual butterfly would have trouble making the journey under its own power— it’s a long way for an insect with a 2 inch wingspan. They have been shown to migrate on windy storm fronts that come from the south to north—much like Monarch butterflies do. This helps them cover up to 250 miles a day.
What is special about the Red Admiral?
I would say nothing, except that it is native, pretty and it was unknown until relatively recently that the red admiral migrates at high altitudes, the same way Monarchs do. They do not aggregate in their southern range, the way Monarchs do.
What caused this apparent explosion of butterflies?
Nobody knows for sure, but some factors may be the mild winter (high winter survival), early warm spring (early movement) and enough rain to have good vegetation for them to feed and lay eggs.
Are butterflies considered pests?
Butterflies begin their lives as eggs that hatch into larvae. Some butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are huge pests because they eat plants, for example the white cabbage butterfly. This is the most common white butterfly you typically see in suburban areas. It will lay eggs and larvae will feed on wild mustard plants, but these cause a huge amount of damage to cabbage, broccoli and all related food crops. Red admiral larvae prefer nettles—which are considered pesty by us (nettles have sharp needles)—so this species of butterfly is truly not a pest.
Are certain butterfly varieties in danger?
Yes, there are many species of butterflies with special ecological requirements that are on the endangered and threatened lists. They are usually the ones sensitive to disruption in habitats or habitat destruction.
How much longer can we expect to see the Red Admirals?
They will be around all summer, but this will probably be the time when most are seen due to their movement and activity.
Red Admirals are author Vladimir Nabokov's favorite butterfly: "Its coloring is quite splendid and I liked it very much in my youth. Great numbers of them migrated from Africa to Northern Russia, where it was called ‘The Butterfly of Doom’ because it first appeared in 1881, the year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated, and the markings on the underside of its two hind wings seem to read ’1881′. There is something interesting in the Red Admirable’s ability to travel so far."