Butterflies on Noxious Weeds

As I mentioned in my last post, regal fritillaries are out in high numbers in our Platte River Prairies.  We’re watching – among other things – what plant species they’re using for nectaring, and are interested to see if that use is similar to what we saw last year.  Right now, the most attractive plant to fritillaries is one that might surprise you – musk thistles.

On the other hand, if you’ve spent much time watching butterflies, you’ll not be too surprised at the attractiveness of this noxious weed to butterflies and other pollinators.  Native thistles are recognized as important nectar sources, but non-native thistles, especially those we’re legally obligated to eradicate, don’t always get the same positive attention.  This week our technicians were out looking for both musk thistles and regal fritillaries (for different reasons) and they were finding both simultaneously!  We ended up killing a lot of thistles out from under butterflies.

Here is a selection of photos from last Friday, showing fritillaries getting what they can out of these noxious weeds before we kill them off (the thistles, not the butterflies…)

It seemed like every musk thistle had a regal fritillary on it...

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This fritillary flattened itself against a strong wind gust.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
This entry was posted in General, Prairie Insects, Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography, Prairie Plants and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Butterflies on Noxious Weeds

  1. Jerry Ziegler says:

    I’ve been seeing this for several years now, with a variety of butterflies feeding on non-native thistle. The thought that is always kicking around in the back of my head is: If they’re feeding on this, what AREN’T they feeding on, by that I mean the stuff that they should be feeding on. And what effect is that having?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      It’s a good question. I think it’s much less important with butterflies, since they generally (as I understand it) have a minimal impact on overall pollination services. The bigger question is bees. Bees also use non-native thistles, as well as species like sweet clover, which they REALLY like. That could certainly be causing a problem in terms of other plants not getting attention. I’m guessing this has been studied, but don’t know of any particular research projects.

  2. Sharon says:

    These butterfly posts are splendid! I find myself looking forward to your posts and even attended the Austin Butterfly Forum because of the interest you sparked with your camera and observational skills. Thank you! Well done.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Great – thanks! I’m glad you’re getting something out of the photos/posts. Once you figure out butterflies, you can start on really interesting insect groups like springtails and ground beetles!!
      – Chris

  3. James C. Trager says:

    And lest we forget – ants!

  4. Pingback: Butterflies on Noxious Weeds « IonXchange’s Blog

  5. Adrian O. says:

    Chris – are musk thistles the same as bristle thistles?

  6. There are also many native thistles – beautiful plants that are not invasive. People tend to think all thistles are problem plants, but the native ones we have here, in Wisconsin, are very well behaved and butterflies love them!

  7. Chris,
    Is there someplace I can get the names and pictures of invasive thistles in Nebraska. I recently bought a small piece of land and I have a thistle of some sort growing but I’m not sure if they are native or not. I have pictures of them as well.
    Tiffany

  8. Dan Staehr says:

    Could painted lady larvae if present in sufficient numbers be used successfully to combat non-native thistles?

  9. Pingback: Regal fritillary на Carduus nutans - Антэкология

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