Here is your next BFF (ButterFlyFriend): the Red Admiral (Vanessa Atalanta). These butterflies, like the Mourning Cloak, overwinter as an adult, but they don’t hibernate, rather they migrate, similar to the Monarch Butterfly, but not quite as far. They head down to South Carolina and Texas, where temperatures are warm enough for a butterfly to have his or her best life. In spring, whether it’s the longer days, warmer temperatures or the urge to travel, they head back to Ontario, sometimes showing up as early as April, but more typically in May.
If you learn anything about how to identify our local butterflies, it’s looking for clues on the different wing sets. Each butterfly has two sets of wings—the forewings which are at the front of the insect and the hind wings that extend toward the end of the abdomen.
The Red Admiral, like other similar butterfly species, including the American Lady, Painted Lady and the American Snout, have very similar white spots on their forewings. The key to distinguish between this family of angelwings, is to observe the hindwings. Hopefully when you do see a Red Admiral it stays still long enough for you to observe a bright red orange band (called the marginal band) along the edges of the hindwing and forewing making it difficult to confuse with any other species. It looks like an interrupted letter 'U'.
As you know from the Mourning Cloak, each butterfly is associated with specific host plant or plants on which to lay its eggs, ensuring that the young larva that emerge from the eggs, have adequate nourishment. The plant of choice for our Red Admiral is the nettle family. Nettles are not a plant that most of us have in our gardens or find in parks and manicured green spaces as it is a little wild and unruly. Common Nettle (Urtica dioica) is referred to as stinging nettle, one that our field staff know very well, as the leaves can sting when they touch your skin. People use this plant as an antioxidant, collecting leaves when they first emerge and don’t cause stinging, and steep them into a tea for drinking. Likely the same vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids, polyphenols and pigments found in the plant that benefit humans are what sustain the offspring of the Red Admiral as they go through their life cycle. Once they emerge from their chrysalis, about three to four weeks after being an egg on the nettle plant, they will seek out many plants for nectar, but after mating, the female Red Admiral will seek out more nettle on which to lay her eggs, as her mother did.
So, if you are fortunate enough to see a Red Admiral in your travels, chances are there are nettles around, hopefully not growing along your front-door walkway, but rather off the beaten track. The butterflies habitat preference varies, from the flowers in our backyards to open fields, beaches and shorelines. But their ideal habitat (for reproduction purposes) is moist meadows and woodlands where, you guessed it, there will likely be lots and lots of nettles. This butterfly, like other species of animals, can be quite territorial and has been observed not just chasing other butterflies away, but will take on birds and even people, although personally I think most of us would secretly enjoy that.
In September or October, after producing about two or three generations here in Ontario, the final brood of this species will migrate back to where their ancestors came from in the spring, coming full circle. How do they know where to go? It could be the desire to move to a warmer place (remember, they are cold-blooded). It could be the cooler, shorter days and lack of suitable nectar or host plants as our summer turns to autumn. This is an important concept, the following of the plants, particularly the host plants for each species of butterfly. This is something entomologists (that is someone who studies insects) have known for years. The range of a butterfly can be mapped with north, south, east and west boundaries. This is largely dictated by climate conditions which allow for the successful establishment of a habitat that supports the host plant, in a quantity to sustain the butterfly’s offspring. It's kind of like how far you are willing to travel to buy food for your family. Is it five minutes, or five hours? Along with other considerations, like work, community, schools and health care, that is part of what determines where you decide to live. With butterflies it's all about the food and where to easily find their living 'grocery store'.
With climate change, scientists and entomologists alike are predicting changes to specific butterfly ranges based on how the host plant responds to warmer climate conditions. So areas of Ontario or Canada that have never seen a Red Admiral butterfly may well see them in the future.