Great spangled fritillary: new butterfly in garden

Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele).

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Just look at this great spangled fritillary, the first I’ve seen in my garden. Wow. NABA-North Jersey Butterfly Club website reports that females emerge later than males and are usually larger and darker. Great spangled fritillaries average 3 inches, smaller than a monarch. This one is at least 3 inches. So, since today is September 18, and this butterfly seems large and dark, I’m thinking it may be a female.

The NABA Club gives flight dates for great spangled fritillaries from early June to mid-October with extreme dates being 5/26–10/14.

It’s nectaring at a zinnia, with some verbena blossoms in the background, a beautiful combination of colors, don’t you think. Butterflies of New Jersey comments that great spangled fritillaries tend to spend a long time nectaring at a single blossom. This one surely did just that, giving me as much time as I liked to take photos.

To my best knowledge, zinnias are rarely mentioned as an important nectaring flower for butterflies, and zinnias are not native to New Jersey, but butterflies and bees love them. Go figure. I’m interested in native plants as a means of attracting beneficial insects, including butterflies, of course. But if a nonnative plant is a good attractor, then it is welcome in my garden. At any rate, native plants are more important as larval host plants than as nectaring plants.

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Great spangled fritillaries are bright orange with black spots and irregular black bands on the front wings when seen from above. The hind wings from above have concentric rows of black markings.

From below, the front wing is bright orange and brown with irregular black bands, while the hind wing is brownish orange with 2 bands of shiny, silvery spots separated by a wide cream-colored band. Well, look at that. This description is from the NABA-North Jersey Club website. Pretty accurate, I would say. I had thought that the view from below was not so important in identifying a butterfly, but now I see that it is. The hind wing from below is not just a faded replica of the above view, but something different, beautiful, and important in its own right.

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Great spangled fritillaries are common and widespread in northern New Jersey. So why have I never seen one before. They are attracted to milkweed, wild bergamot, New York ironweed, and purple coneflowers–and zinnias, obviously. I’m proud to say that all of the above flowers are present in my garden, even the New York ironweed, which I planted this spring.

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Their larval food plant is the common violet (viola). According to the NABA Club website, females lay eggs near, but not on, violets in late summer. Leaving leaf litter and woodchips around the violets helps to insure a new generation of fritillaries, which overwinter as first-instar larva. Instars are intervals between molts. Molting is simply shedding skin. Butterfly larva are also known as caterpillars.

Knowing that fritillaries use violets as larval food plants, I’m more inclined than ever to identify blue violets as wildflowers, not weeds, and to nurture them in some areas of the garden. Just so long as they don’t overrun everything else. The violets seen below are in a wildflower corner of the garden. As you can see, wood chips surround the violets, so perhaps some caterpillars will overwinter there. I hope not to step on them. Oh, dear.

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According to Butterflies of New Jersey, great spangled fritillaries are tolerant of conspecifics nectaring on the same flower. Although the eastern tiger swallowtail below is a different species, the 2 butterflies seem not to mind each other’s company.

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Welcome to the garden, great spangled fritillary. I sincerely hope that many of your offspring find a good home on or near the blue violets in the garden and flourish to give us beauty and hope next year and for years to come.

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