Columbine duskywing

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Native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis

Who knew that columbine has a species-specific butterfly? I didn’t until I noticed a few skeletonized leaveson a couple of plants–chewed leaves with nothing left but the ribs. Normally columbine leaves do not get chewed, and the plant’s only pest is leaf miners, which don’t appear until summer. Looking closely at the leaves, I saw a few more with damage only at the leaf margins, a sign that caterpillars were at work rather than, say, beetles.

Looking even more closely, I saw a few tiny green caterpillars clinging to the edges of a few leaves. (Sorry about the quality of this image–it was a very windy day.)

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Caterpillars of columbine duskywing, Erynnis lucilius, on native columbine.

I turned to my trusty Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies, which has an index to host plants as well as to butterfly species–an extremely useful feature. I looked up columbine and found that there is a species-specific butterfly, that its caterpillar is green with some yellow features, and that the season is correct. Bulls eye. I also found more about the species’s life cycle on the Butterflies and Moths of North American website.

For those of you who worry about insect damage to your plants, be aware that this small plant is in bloom while the chewing is going on. So if you want to see butterflies, hold off on the pesticides and be willing to tolerate a few chewed leaves.

Also, remember that ecological gardening takes time. I’ve been growing columbine for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen this caterpillar before. According to the references, this butterfly inhabits woodlands and rocky slopes (where columbine lives in the wild), not suburbs. So how did the mother butterfly find my columbine plants last fall? And think what would have happened if I did a rigorous garden cleanup in fall–the overwintering eggs probably would have been destroyed. Think about all the things that must go right for a few tiny caterpillars to survive.

Once again, this story shows that if you plant it, they will come. It’s always amazing.

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