One of Alabama’s most common fall butterflies is probably flitting across your property right now
Millions of pale yellow Cloudless Sulphur butterflies are fluttering through Alabama this time of year.
According to Butterflies of Alabama, Cloudless Sulphers are our state’s most widespread and common yellow butterfly.
These delicate-looking insects aren’t that delicate. They have the ability to fly 12 miles a day – almost a half marathon a day.
We have resident Cloudless Sulphers, and during the fall, we also get northern Sulphers migrating south, which swells the local numbers considerably. These butterflies are common across the southern U.S. from California to Arizona and from Texas to the Atlantic states, but their range extends south all the way to Argentina and north to Canada.
They have a wingspan of roughly 3 inches, which makes them easy to spot from a distance as they flit across our fields and roadsides.
Both males and females are mostly yellow or even green-tinted yellow on their wings and bodies. The male is typically solid lemon yellow on the upper side of its wings while the female is more pale yellow with darker wing edges and a dark-ringed spot on the top side of its front wing. Both genders sport a pair of pink or brown ringed white spots on the underside of their hindwings (shown here) and often more spots scattered around their wings. These butterflies usually rest and feed with their wings closed up instead of spread flat.
One unusual characteristic of the Cloudless Sulphur is its very long nectar-sipping proboscis, which allows this butterfly to feed on deep-throated blooms frequented by hummingbirds. Topping its list of preferred blossoms around Lake Martin are honeysuckles, native azaleas and wild morning glory, and they are also fond of lobelias, lantana, hibiscus and bougainvillea … but they will feed on many different flowers, such as the zinnias growing in the Russell Crossroads community garden where these photos were made.
Males fly rapidly, searching for mates. Females lay single eggs on senna plant leaves, which are flowering nitrogen-rich legumes. Common Partridge-Pea is a senna often chosen here in Alabama, where it is used to control roadside erosion and is often planted to attract game, including bobwhite quail.
This insect’s scientific name, Phoebis sennae, refers to Phoebe, the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology and the senna plants that often host its young.
Cloudless Sulphur caterpillars, which begin life so tiny they are almost microscopic, are very highly camouflaged because they take on the color of the plants they eat. A caterpillar that eats mostly yellow flowers will be mostly yellow; a green leaf-muncher will become mostly green. They are further camoed by spots and stripes of many colors, including blue, yellow and black. These insects make a chrysalis that looks like a pointed leaf, often hidden in plain sight on the stem of a plant and colored to match its host for protection while it is morphing into a butterfly.
In the tropics, Cloudless Sulphurs breed year-round, but here in the southern U.S., there are usually two generations a year.
They are most often seen over open or disturbed ground, such as parks, gardens, roadsides, fields and yards – places where people tend to be as well. So keep your eyes open, and you are sure to see plenty of Cloudless Sulphurs here in the Lake Martin area.