When most people see a flash of orange from a passing butterfly, they automatically assume it’s a monarch. There are plenty of other orange butterflies, though, many the same size and flying in the same range. Once you take a closer look, most of them looking nothing like a monarch. One good example is the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), a gorgeous orange and brown butterfly that can be seen coast to coast across the northern half of the U.S. and into southern Canada.
This is the time of year to go looking for these beauties. They have only one generation each year, and the adults are emerging right about now. They have a fairly long lifespan, too – most butterflies are in flight for about a month at most, and many much less. Great Spangled Fritillaries, on the other hand, will fly for several months, from mid-June to mid-September. In the late summer they will mate, and females will lay their eggs on or near native violet species.
The eggs hatch not long after being laid, but the minuscule caterpillars don’t begin eating. Instead, they burrow down into the earth to find a safe hiding place, and then enter diapause (insect hibernation, basically) until spring. When the weather warms up, they emerge and begin feeding on the new foliage of the native violets. They eat for a few weeks, spend a few weeks in chrysalis, and then emerge around the time summer kicks in to start the process all over again.
Great Spangled Fritillaries resemble several other butterfly species in their range, including the Aphrodite Fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite) and the Atlantis Fritillary (Speyeria atlantis). If you’re interested in the specific details of telling them apart, try visiting the Massachusetts Butterfly Club’s side-by-side comparison pages. Great Spangled Fritillaries will visit many nectar flowers during their flight time, so any butterfly gardener in their range (see map to the left, from the website GardensWithWings.com) stands a good chance of seeing them in their own garden. To up your odds, try planting some native violet species for them to lay their eggs on.
Have you spotted any Great Spangled Fritillaries yet this year? Tell us where and when in the comments below!