Bug News

Bug News

Observations, factoids, funny clips, and lots of bugs and other nature related images.

6-Minute Read

A flash of gold… A quick flutter followed by erratic flight then another flash of gold… Did it finally land? Did I lose it? All I see are dead leaves… Ah-ha! There it is pretending to be the dead leaf it is sitting on. And it stayed still long enough to get a picture!

I see one or two of these lovely creatures most springs, but they are super sporadic fliers, darting from one patch of sun to another. Landing to sun, then zipping away the second I get close. They almost never land and hold still long enough for me to get a photo. And what good is a story without a photo? This early spring flutter-by is the handsome Morning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa (family: Nymphalidae).

Morning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

Morning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

Despite it’s sad name, there’s no need to cry over the Mourning Cloak. Even though I usually only find maybe a couple each year, Mourning cloak populations are doing just fine - according to the conservation powers that be (like the IUCN or CITES) anyway. Well, at least in North America. In parts of Europe though, the Mourning Cloak, or Camberwell Beauty as it is more commonly known as over there, is a protected species.

Which brings up that the Mourning Cloak is found throughout North America and in northern parts of Europe and Asia. It’s actually somewhat unusual for a species to be found around the world and not be an invasive species. Of which the Mourning Cloak is not. The Mourning Cloak is most commonly found in hardwood forests or somewhat wooded areas, but can be found in meadows and open areas too. It all depends on where their host trees are. While the butterflies themselves don’t really eat much, preferring to drink the liquids of fermenting fruits or sap coming off trees (instead of drinking flower nectar like a normal butterfly), their caterpillars do need food. The caterpillars (aka baby butterflies) eat the leaves of a number of different trees, including willows, elms, mulberries, cottonwoods and poplars, birch, and hackberries.

Morning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

Morning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa

The caterpillars rarely do enough damage to the trees to be notable, although some places in Canada have designated them as a pest. A lovely, lovely pest. In large groups, the caterpillars are capable of defoliating whole branches of a tree. Not a problem here though. Considering I have a ton of cottonwood/poplars, as well as mulberry and willow trees, on my property that they are more than welcome to chow down on, it would be nice to see more than just one or two of these butterflies a year. Alas. I’ve never seen any of the caterpillars, although as rare as it is for me to find an adult, I suppose that is not a surprise. The caterpillars of the Mourning Cloak usually go by a different name than the adults. They are called Spiny Elm Caterpillars. If you do see one of the caterpillars though – don’t touch it. The striking, mostly black caterpillars with bright red spots, have some large spines attached- and those spines can give a nasty sting to human flesh. Note to self… Do not pick up every cool looking bug you find… Lol. We’ll see if I remember. No guarantees…

Chrysalis on my house - maybe from a Mourning Cloak?

Chrysalis on my house - maybe from a Mourning Cloak?

While the caterpillars have stinging barbs to try and protect them from the many things that would like to eat a plump, juicy caterpillar, the butterflies take a completely different route to avoid predators. They just try to look inedible, lol. As pretty as the butterfly is when its wings are open, when its wings are closed, it looks just like a dead leaf. And who would want to eat an old dead leaf? The gray and brown patterning on the undersides of its wings also lets the butterfly easily camouflage itself against a lot of tree barks. Convenient for when they are sucking up tree sap!

Mourning Cloak butterfly pretending to be a leaf…

Mourning Cloak butterfly pretending to be a leaf…

To read more about the Mourning Cloak, check out:

Can you see me? Just a leaf here…

Can you see me? Just a leaf here…


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Written by an entomologist for the enjoyment of all... The goal is to post 1 or 2 new stories every week, so stay tuned!