The American Lady Poised for a Nectar Treat

by Connie Peceny, Spring 2005

It was my four-year old daughter who reminded me of the beauty of butterflies. The chaotic fluttering of the multi-colored miracles zooming by her face sent her skipping happily along the trail. A common sight on many hikes in the New Mexico wilderness, especially in the early spring and throughout the summer, butterflies capture our attention with their brilliant colors and unique markings.

The American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterfly perched on the tip of this sunflower was sighted on the Columbine Canyon Trail in Carson National Forest in mid-summer. Its distinctive markings include white patches on the forewings, and a rich orange and black spotted pattern on its topside. It also has two large eye-like spots of greenish brown on the underside of its hindwings that distinguish it from its close relative the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). If you look carefully, you will be able to see these spots quite clearly on each side.

The American Lady is from the Nymphalinae family also known as ``True Brush-foots.'' They are called brush foots because their front legs, which are much smaller than their other legs, are covered with tiny little hairs. They love to suck nectar from plants such as sunflowers, as this little beauty is doing. You might also see them on lantana, purple coneflower, or milkweed plants while on your hike. They like open spaces, meadows, and forest edges where they can bask for long hours in the sun.

American Ladies are nervous creatures though, so don't expect them to hang around and pose for you like this one. As soon as they sense they're being watched, they are likely to take off in chaotic flight, flying close to the ground, and searching for more nectar-filled flowers. These butterflies also practice ``mudding'' which is sucking minerals from stream banks, mud ponds, and even cowpies.

Your best chance of sighting these beautiful butterflies is in the early morning and on cool days. You can try practicing your butterfly watching at home before your hike, too. American Lady butterflies are often found in backyard gardens and in open spaces where wildflowers offer the nectar crazy butterflies a tasty treat.

Diana Northup took this photo on the Columbine Canyon to the Meadows hike in July 2004. Bruce Neville identified the American Lady from the photo.

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