Hairstreak suite July 02, 2007
Many of our more interesting butterflies are quite small, but beautiful in an understated way under magnification, or enlarged as a photo. This less than dime sized flutter-by would be easy to pass by. I have photographed various hairstreaks on common milkweed, dogbane, and butterfly weed; milkweeds seems to be their preferred nectar plant.
Several hairstreaks, Coral, Banded, and the above pictured Edward's Hairstreak are all found on prairies. One thing that makes the Edward's so fascinating, besides a general rarity, is their relationship with Allegheny mound-builder ants. When the hairstreak eggs hatch out, the larva climb about in oak trees eating the leaves of their host plant. But there is great danger awaiting them in the air. Parasitic wasps desire to lay their eggs within the body of these diminutive caterpillars, and the hatching wasplings would eat them alive. An ugly but true fact of nature that endangers many types of caterpillars.
Now, the surprising part! Enter: our hero the Allegheny Ant. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive... well maybe not. But a hero none the less. These ants protect our little hairstreak larva and prevent them from coming to harm. And at the end of the day they help them back down to the ground and safely keep them inside the ant mounds. Strange bed fellows for sure :) Apparently, the little larva secrete a milky honeydew that the ants find irresistible. You can't make this stuff up!
Nature has some strange things going on, and we probably don't know the half of them. Butterflies are fascinating creatures, with varying life histories from species to species. But who would have guessed some rely on ants as baby-sitters?