American Copper Butterfly

2008 October 11

Butterflies give me a lot of trouble

S_ and Sam came back from a walk on October 3 with this little butterfly perched on a small Queen-Anne’s-Lace blossom. The wings are about 2 cm wide, give or take a bit. It was 40 degrees F outside at the time, and the butterfly was cold enough that it was content to just sit there while I tried to get some decent pictures.

It would periodically unroll its proboscis and suck a bit of nectar out of the blossom, but other than that it didn’t do much for quite a while.

The problem I have with butterflies is that they are awkward to photograph with the equipment I have [1]. This is why I don’t have many pictures of butterflies. It isn’t a lack of them; no, they are all over the place. I just have trouble getting decent pictures. Oh, I can get something serviceable eventually, but this one took over 50 attempts.

Anyway, when it finally spread its wings open, I did get a good look at the top surface of the wings, although I wasn’t quick enough to get a picture[2]. The forewings were orange with black spots, while the hindwings were mostly greyish-brown. Like this one. I’m sure it’s one of the small butterflies known as “coppers” (subfamily Lycaeninae), and referring to “Butterflies and Skippers of Michigan”[3] it looks most likely to be the American Copper, Lycaena phlaeas[4]

There’s apparently some question whether all American Coppers are actually a native North American species. The ones in the East (as far west as Michigan) are different from the ones in the rest of North America, and are very similar to a species found in Europe. It is believed that, one way or another, they were brought over from Europe sometime before the Revolutionary War[5]. Nobody seems to be saying how that would have happened exactly. Since they overwinter as eggs, I expect that the eggs could have been accidentally brought over along with agricultural imports. For example, eggs could have been in hay being used to feed animals like horses and cattle while they were being imported.

The caterpillars are little, green-to-red, slightly hairy guys that eat sheep sorrel and curly dock. These are plants that grow a lot in disturbed soils and clearings, and so that’s where you find these butterflies, too.

[1] Even the little butterflies are large enough that it is hard to get them all in the field of view of the macro lens, and the way they hold their wings means that I can’t really use my microscope stand (because then I’d be looking down on them from the top). This would be OK if they rested with their wings open, but they usually either rest with them closed like this one, or fan them slowly. Either way, looking down from the top doesn’t show anything when the wings are closed, and the shutter lag on the camera makes it really hard to catch them while they are open and not moving. So, I have to hand-hold the camera so I can shoot from the side. Hand-holding makes it really hard to hold the focus, and the macro has so little depth-of-field that they generally come out blurry. Of course, I can always take off the macro lens, which makes things much easier. But, this loses a lot of detail in the pictures. And on top of that, when I try to take pictures of them outside, they only stay still for a couple of seconds and I miss the shot. All in all, butterflies are just a problem.

[2] Mainly because it immediately flew up and landed on my right hand, taunting me. I’m ambidextrous enough that this woudn’t have been a problem, except that my camera is designed to be held in the right hand, and using it left-handed is darned near impossible, even for a left-handed person. Every time I got things sorted out, the butterfly would fly off, touch down in a couple of spots just long enough to avoid being photographed, and then land on my right hand again. Ultimately, it flew off into the living room and managed to hide behind the furniture, and I lost it. There are times when I doubt the wisdom of trying to take pictures of insects while they are still alive.

[3] Mogens C. Nielsen, Michigan Butterflies and Skippers, Michigan State University Extension, 1999. Another one of the very regional guides that I like so much, because it weeds out so many of the ones that don’t even live around here.

[4] On the page just before the American Copper, there was another, very cool butterfly, the Harvester. Not so much because of its appearance (it looks a lot like just another one of the coppers), but because of what it does. Its larvae eat aphids. Yes, that’s right. The caterpillars of the Harvester butterfly are carnivorous! It’s evidently the only known carnivorous butterfly in North America[6]. And, according to the book, they do live around here! They prefer to eat wooly aphids on tag-alder (a very common tree on our property), so next year, I’m going to have to intentionally go out and look for some of these guys.

[5] So, depending on how you look at it, the name “American Copper” is either singularly inappropriate (because they aren’t actually a native American species), or highly appropriate (because they are American in the same sense as the majority of the human population is).

[6] It harvests their souls! Or something like that.

4 Responses
  1. October 11, 2008

    Beautiful photos!

  2. October 20, 2008

    You’re a patient man to have shot 50 photos to get one good one. Outstanding post. Another triumph for the Project!

  3. October 27, 2008

    Those pics are beauties – the closeups I love! They make the butterfly seem so “furry” and you can almost feel the shimmery dust on his wings.

  4. aaa permalink
    May 3, 2010

    hahaha bad pics

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