Red maples budding, the sound of spring peepers chirping, and bird song are universal signs of spring on Long Island. But the flight of tiny blue Spring Azure butterflies on the sandy trails of the Refuge means that Spring has truly sprung!
The Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) has a wingspan of around an inch. This butterfly is in the family Lycaenidae – with other blues, coppers and hairstreak butterflies. Many additional species that resemble the Spring Azure likely fall under the umbrella of Celastrina ladon, which is why many publications often refer to the species as the “Spring Azure complex.” More research is being completed across the country to determine just how many species might fall into this broad category. The range of the Spring Azure is widespread through central and eastern North America. Males are a beautiful clear blue, while females are blue with black margins on the edge of their wings. The undersides of the wings are pale bluish-white and gently spotted.
The Spring Azure emerges from its chrysalis in the early spring of late March and April. Adults dart around the understory, searching for flower nectar that they drink with their straw-like proboscis. They utilize the nectar of many early flowering plants, including highbush blueberry, inkberry, spicebush, and bearberry. After emerging, adults are most active during the daytime from mid-afternoon to dusk, but only live for a few days. During this time, adults will reproduce and females will deposit the next generation in the form of tiny pale green eggs on the edges of flowers and buds.
When Spring Azure caterpillars hatch from their eggs, they eat only the flowers and fruits of their host plants. The flowering dogwood is a favorite of the tiny caterpillar. Amazingly, this caterpillar, like other species in the Lycaenid family, is tended to and taken care of by ants! The caterpillars secrete a nectar-like substance that attracts the ants. While the ants feed on the energy-rich substance, they also ingest a chemical that subdues them from harming the caterpillar. Having ants nearby protects the caterpillars from predators, especially those predators who find the taste of ants bitter; ants will also bite insect predators that get too close. In turn, the ants get nourishment from the caterpillar secretions, while the caterpillars receive unparalleled protection from their unexpected bodyguards.
In a month’s time, the caterpillar will mature and pupate. They will spend the rest of the year’s seasons in their yellow-brown chrysalis, developing into the beautiful blue butterflies that will herald in next year’s long awaited Spring.
by Cara Fernandes