I can “azure” you that it is finally spring.
It wasn’t a little birdie that told me; rather, a small butterfly. This butterfly has all the reason in the world to be blue. For that is the color of the spring azure butterfly.
The spring azure is one of the first (and most easily identified) butterflies of spring. At about an inch in width and with a lovely blue hue, it is found flittering in woodland habitats. The trails at Menemsha Hills Reservation provide a likely place for an azure sighting, but more often than not, no special trip is necessary to get a glimpse of these common insects. Known to congregate in moist areas, spring azures can be found frolicking in mud puddles or alighting on moist animal scat (droppings) in many natural places.
Once you spot one, try to discern its gender. The upper sides of the males are mostly blue, while the female has black on the outer edge of her wings. The male is also more active in the mid-afternoon through dusk.
In the family of gossamer-winged butterflies, there is a bit of an identity crisis in the particular genus of the azures. Scientists disagree on how many species of azures there are; therefore, in Massachusetts, their number is either three or four. This uncertainty is due to the periodic nature of their flights, their habit of producing multiple broods, and small differences in color and morphology.
The spring azure generally flies in April and May, but, with multiple generations appearing in the same year, can persist longer into the season. Another variety, the summer azure, shows up later during the summer months, but also can be seen in the spring.
This insect has what entomologists call a species complex. This condition occurs when similar-looking species confuse scientists with different preferred habitat, flight periods, and food plants. Luckily, this is not the kind of complex that requires therapy, just patience.
Are you confused? Me, too. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of these little blue creatures flying around.
The caterpillars of the azure butterfly are myrmecophilic (literally, “ant-loving”), meaning that they are involved in a relationship with ants. What an interesting couple! The ants tend to the larvae and, in exchange, the caterpillars provide a sweet carbohydrate snack. A true give-and-take partnership.
If things don’t work out, metamorphosis will help. Once the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it can get away from that loving ant. Perhaps not as fast or as far as it would like, though. The spring azure flies no more than 50 feet in one flight. This petite butterfly loses so much heat that it must stop and rest in the sun to absorb more warmth for the next flight.
You can draw them out of the woods and into your habitat by growing their preferred native plants. They like viburnums, milkweed, privet, blackberry, and meadowsweet, among others.
Robert Frost obviously enjoyed the spectacle of these hard-to-classify transients, which he described in his poem Blue-Butterfly Day:
It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,
And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry
There is more unmixed color on the wing
Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.