Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Spring Ephemerals

Susan Post, Jim Sternburg, and Jim Wiker

The term “spring ephemeral” evokes trips to the woods to see an ever-changing palette of favorite spring wildflowers. But have you ever thought of ephemerals in terms of butterflies? While we are used to seeing swallowtails, morning cloaks, cabbage whites and the first monarch of spring, we know we will continue to see them throughout the spring, summer, and even into fall. But what about those butterflies that are out for only a few short weeks each spring?  Illinois has 10 species that appear and disappear like the blooms of a bloodroot. And like the petals of a bloodroot blossom, inevitably carried away by spring winds, these butterflies only make brief appearances each Illinois spring.

Two species, the falcate orangetip and the Olympia marble, belong to the butterfly family Pieridae and are related to the ever-present cabbage white and the orange sulphur.

 

Falcate Orangetip—
Anthocharis midea

 

Spring has arrived in southern Illinois when one sees the orangetips visiting toothwort (Dentaria spp.). The falcate orangetip is one of the true harbingers of spring, flying through the woodlands only a few feet above the ground and seemingly never stopping. Once they alight, they are very approachable and can be studied at length by the careful observer. The male gives the species its common name as it has bold orange tips on its sickle-shaped (falcate) forewings.

Orangetips prefer wet, open deciduous forests in succession, especially those with young trees and plenty of small open areas. Both sexes bask frequently, especially early in the day. Males set up territories and patrol for females during the late morning and early afternoon. Females lay only one egg per plant either on the developing leaf or flowering buds of rock cress (Arabis spp.), winter cress (Barbarea spp.), and other mustards. The larvae feed on buds, flowers, and seedpods and pupate on sticks and branches near the dying host plants. 

Look for orangetips in April at your favorite wildflower haunt in southern Illinois.

Olympia Marble—
Euchloe olympia

 

The Olympia marble is found in prairie remnants, savannas, and sand dunes—dry sandy areas. In Illinois they fly from April to May and we have two forms —the Great Lakes form, which is smaller and flies well into May, and the regular form.  The common name comes from the marblelike pattern on the underside of the hindwing.

Males stake out hill-top locations or elevated sites and patrol just a few feet above ground. Their flight is rapid and direct. Females will deposit their eggs on unopened flower buds and flowers of rock cress (Arabis spp.). The larvae eat the flowering parts and seedpods of their hosts. The butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis.

Look for this species in spring at Sand Ridge State Forest on Arabis spp. or cleft phlox. They may also be found in the dry hill prairies along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

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