Monday, July 5, 2010

Red Admirals


I first noticed these eye-catching orange, black and white butterflies a month ago on the Chippewa River State Trail and along Rustic Road 107 on the way to Meridean.  Smaller than the Monarch, a handful of them sat motionless soaking up the early morning sun on the road and atop a patch of nettles bordering the road.  They were quick to take off as I approached.  Their erratic and rapid flight made them nearly impossible to photograph.

Other than recognizing them, I didn't think much of it until this weekend when I went out to check my bluebird boxes.  There must have been an "emergence" over night.  Red Admirals were everywhere, thousands of them.

The scene was reminiscent of an unforgettable experience I had on Father's Day, in 2007, when I walked through literally a blizzard of them along the Trail.

Known to scientists as Vanessa atalanta, the genus (family) name, Vanessa, is said to have been coined by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame.  He created it by rearranging the first syllables of the name of a close friend Esther Vanhomrigh.
The species name, atalanta, is a reference to the pugnacious Greek goddess who was the swiftest runner of her time, known for outracing event the most fleet-footed men.

While most butterflies get their common name from their appearance, there is some disagreement about the etymology of the Red Admiral.  Some sources say it's a reference to the insect's striking color:  red admirable.  Others say it's because their "splendid hues resembled a naval ensign."

Twentieth century novelist Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame, related an interesting story about the Russian nickname for the Red Admiral,  the butterfly of doom - because it was abundant in 1881, the year Czar Alexander II was assassinated.  And if you look carefully at the underside of its two hind wings, you may see the numbers "1881."

Surprisingly little is known about the biology and seasonal distribution of this migratory insect.  Scientists at Iowa State University are recruiting amateur observers to participate in their Vanessa Migration Project

Get outside and see the butterflies!

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