In a recent article, we mentioned our pre-cottage-season activity of looking at photos of plants with pale purple petals. On further review of our cottage photographs, it was clear we are not the only ones drawn to pale purple flowers. Accordingly, we thought you would be interested in seeing some of the many insects and spiders that are attracted to pale purple petals, some to feed on the nectar of the flowers and to help pollinate them, and some to feed on the insects attracted by the nectar. Most people associate butterflies and bees with flowers but as the following shows, flowers also attract a variety of arthropods, including moths, beetles, true bugs, wasps, and spiders.
We start with a member of the family of sphinx moths, the hummingbird clearwing moth. These large, heavy-bodied moths grow to 2.5 centimetres in length and can be seen actively feeding on nectar during the day. Given their size and ability to hover and fly from flower to flower they are sometimes mistaken for small hummingbirds. We see these diurnal moths from late May to August. This one was photographed at the end of May last year feeding on the pale purple blossoms of the lilac bush at our cottage.
The small goldenrod soldier beetle is very common along the roadside to the cottage, often seen feeding on nectar and insects. Adults can grow to a length of 1.2 centimetres. While camouflaged when feeding on yellow flowers, such as goldenrod, this beetle is conspicuous on other colours of flower as seen on this pale purple spotted knapweed flower. Its distinctive yellow and black colouration tells would-be predatory birds it contains a defensive chemical and is unpalatable. Interestingly, the chemical, cantharidin, does not deter toads from feeding on these beetles.
This pale pinkish-purple spotted common milkweed flower is hosting two true bugs and a butterfly. The small milkweed bug is a member of the family of true bugs. It can be distinguished from the large milkweed bug by the black heart shape on its back. Adults grow to 1.3 centimetres in length and can be seen feeding on the nectar of a variety of flowers throughout the summer. While most often seen on milkweed plants, it also feeds on the nectar of other flowers. Also feeding on this flower’s nectar is a member of the grass skipper sub-family of butterflies.
The next flower, also a common milkweed, has both a beetle and moths on it. One member of the sub-family of flower longhorn beetles is the banded longhorn beetle which can grow to 1.5 centimetres and can be seen feeding on the nectar of a variety of flowers throughout the summer. Adult tussock moths, a family which includes the gypsy moth we discussed in our last article, can be seen feeding on nectar in the summer and fall. The tussock moths in this photo, are not gypsy moths, and were about 2 centimetres long.
Adult thread-waisted wasps feed on nectar. They are a medium-sized member of the family of sphecidae wasps, growing 2 to 3 centimetres in length. Thread-waisted wasps are ground nesters, feeding caterpillars to their young. This adult was pictured early one morning while it was resting on a very pale purple aster blossom. (Well, alright it’s almost white.)
One member of the family of crab spiders that we regularly see at the cottage is the goldenrod crab spider. The female’s body can grow to 1.0 centimetre while the males are half that size. These spiders are ambush hunters often seen on flowers where they prey on nectar-feeding insects. They are able to change their colour, from white to yellow to light green to blend in with the flowers they are hunting on. However, they cannot change their colour to blend in with the pale purple petals of this purplish-red clover.
So, the next time you are admiring flowers with pale purple petals take a few moments to look closely before smelling them. In addition to saving yourself from a sting or bite on the tip of your nose, you will likely be pleasantly surprised by the diverse wildlife you see.
The key sources we relied on in preparing this article included: Tom Murray’s Insects of New England & New York; John Acorn and Ian Sheldon’s Bugs of Ontario; Larry Weber’s Spiders of the North Woods; Donald Borror and Richard White’s Peterson Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico; and, David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie’s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America.