As promised in Swallowtails vs. Monarchs, I looked up a few more lepidopterans over the past couple weeks. Now I can name a whopping five butterflies off the top of my head (I know, so very impressive for a bug blogger), one of which happens to be the Summer Azure.
If you’ve ever gone on a warm-weather hike in the eastern or central United States, you’ve probably noticed some little purplish butterflies floating around. These may have been Summer Azures, appropriately named for their bluish/purplish wings and the season in which they thrive. Summer Azures are gorgeous butterflies – their wings display vibrant hues when spread out and are white with black speckles when folded. Their big eyes give them a cartoony, ever-intrigued expression, and their fuzzy white scales make them look soft enough to cuddle (if only they were big enough).
Young Summer Azure larvae are well camouflaged to blend in with the plants they feed on, but sometimes that camouflage isn’t really necessary. Remember how fire ants enjoy farming aphids for their honeydew? They do the same thing with Summer Azure caterpillars. The caterpillars produce a sugary substance that the ants like to drink, and the ants guard the caterpillars from some of their predators and potential parasites. However, some larvae in the Summer Azure’s family of Lycaenidae will eat the ants’ aphids if their farmers aren’t paying attention… and the ants’ own offspring.
Hmm. Might be time to round up some different livestock, there, ants.
Camouflage becomes more of a necessity for Summer Azures when the little lepidopterans pupate. Their chrysalis strongly resembles the dead leaves it’s hidden in, which deters potential predators from viewing it as a snack. The Summer Azure spends the winter metamorphizing in its chrysalis before emerging as an adult butterfly in early spring or summer. Once their wings are fully inflated and ready for flight, Summer Azures enjoy the nectar of dogwood plants – which, as a North Carolinian, makes me love them even more!
The NC state flower is the dogwood for those of y’all unfamiliar with state symbols. Today we’re expanding the social studies and science parts of our brains, yay!
While the Summer Azure is one of the smaller butterflies in North America with an at most 1¼ inch wingspan, the actual smallest is the Western Pygmy Blue (whose wingspan only reaches ¾ of an inch). However, both butterflies belong to the family Lycaenidae, along with the phenotypically similar Hairstreak butterflies (of the subfamily Theclinae) and the other blue butterflies of their shared subfamily Polyommatinae. While Lycaenidae is a pretty big family of close to 5000 different species and a breathtaking palette of wing colors, just about every member sports those big, cute eyes and fuzzy exoskeleton.
God didn’t have to bless us with big-eyed, flower-sipping fairy puppies, but He did. I think even those less enthused by arthropods would agree that Lycaenidae is quite a gift.
Another fun fact about our little blue buddies: like swallowtails (and apparently a lot of other lepidopterans; who knew?), Summer Azures partake in puddling, wherein a little posse of butterflies will gather around a mud puddle or the like to sip water together. Apparently they do this to obtain important nutrients that flower nectar lacks, such as salts and minerals. Look at you go, butterflies,
eating drinking a balanced diet and setting a good example for the other arthropods.
Why not take a hike this spring? It’s fun and it’s good for you. Plus, you might be fortunate enough to cross paths with some Summer Azures or their Lycaenidae brethren! Just be sure to pack a water bottle or two to beat the heat.
Drink water. Stay hydrated. Be one with the butterflies.