This is why we need to be careful when we’re out cleaning the yard – You never know what you’ll uncover when you turn over a moss-covered rock! While this small little brown blob may not look like much now, come spring or summer, it will turn into the most lovely little blue butterfly. If you have enough of them living in your yard, it might actually look like a Disney fairytale scene :)
This is a Blue butterfly caterpillar in the subfamily Polyommatinae (family: Lycaenidae). Or baby blue butterfly, as I like to call it since caterpillars are just immature butterflies. Its probably an Eastern Tailed Blue, Cupido comyntas, but it could also be a different species in the same family. Although I’ve mostly seen Eastern Tailed Blues at my parent’s place where I found this little guy, that of course doesn’t mean that my caterpillar is one of them instead of something similar looking. The caterpillar is definitely in the Lycaenidae family based on its shape and size, but caterpillars can be pretty difficult to identify to species if they don’t have any distinguishing characteristics visible without a microscope, and you don’t know what they were feeding on. The caterpillars of the Eastern Tailed Blue can even be totally different colors depending on what they were feeding on. They vary all the way from purplish brown (like my little tyke), to pink, to yellow, to many shades of green! Talk about challenging, lol.
The adult butterflies in the Polyommatinae subfamily are usually much easier to identify than this little brown fuzzy thing – and the adults come in lots of beautiful shades of blue 💕 Unfortunately, since this was at my parents place, I didn’t try to bring it back to Michigan to see what it turns into. Besides, I usually like to leave things where I find them. If you happen to be a Lycaenidae expert and manage to stumble upon this story, please correct me if my identification is wrong and I’ll happily update my story :)
The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly is native to North America and has a broad range from Canada all the way to Mexico, and sometimes even into Central America. It can be found in sunny meadows, forest edges, and often seems perfectly happy living in somewhat disturbed areas like roadsides and people’s yards that have gotten slightly unkempt (plug for mowing your yard a bit less). The caterpillars eat a wide variety of legume (pea family) and herbaceous plant flowers and seeds, like vetch flowers and clovers. There’s a ton of white clover in my parents yard and I’m guessing that’s what this little caterpillar was eating. I know my mom hates all the clover in the yard, but without clover there probably wouldn’t be a bunch of tiny little blue butterflies fluttering about next spring and summer. Personally, I’d much rather have the weedy fairyland than the perfect green stretch of bug free area homeowner associations seem to like, but that’s just me… (plug for less weeding :) )
The Eastern Tailed Blue caterpillar overwinters (=sleeps through the winter) as a “mature” caterpillar. The caterpillar spends the winter hunkered down in leaf litter or other loose debris that gives them a decent hiding spot. Just like where I found my caterpillar – resting just under a moss covered rock next to a bunch of fallen leaves that never got raked up (plug for not raking leaves, lol). As I keep inserting plugs for reasons not to do chores, I should also note, this is a really good reason not to shred your leaves even if you must rake them. Many caterpillars, not just the ones of the pretty Eastern Tailed Blue, overwinter in leaf litter or leaf piles. If you shred or otherwise removing the leaves you are likely shredding or remove the caterpillars (and chrysalises & cocoons too!) as well as the places they are trying to hide. At least wait until spring. Once spring arrives many caterpillars hatch from cocoons and chrysalises and the Eastern Tailed Blue will find the leaf of one of its food plants to attach its chrysalis to. Then, once it’s a little warmer, it will be time for the lovely little blue butterflies to emerge…
Two more fun notes about the Eastern Tailed Blue before I let you go… one, While I didn’t see any ants around my caterpillar (probably because it was hibernating), sometimes the Eastern Tailed Blue caterpillar will produce a sweet liquid to convince ants to defend it from predators (like the aphids I wrote about last year). This is called Myrmecophily, which basically means ant loving. The adult (butterfly) Eastern Tailed Blue also tries to be clever. One of the reasons its called an Eastern Tailed Blue is because the butterfly has two tiny little projections, or “tails” on its hind wings. If the butterfly feels threatened, it will rub its hind wings together causing the “tails” to quiver and shake. This is supposed to distract predators and entice them to go after the less essential tail end of the wings instead of the head and main body. Meaning the butterfly can escape. Presuming it doesn’t just fly away in the first place that is…
To read more about the Eastern Tailed Blue, check out these resources:
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Researchers are constantly trying to learn more about species and the insect diversity around us. Sometimes there is by-catch from these studies or the specimens are no longer needed after the research is complete. When this happens, I try to recycle the specimens. Here are some recycled specimens looking for forever home:
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