Skippers – the “Other” Butterflies

long tail skipper butterfly

Butterflies are most noticed in the fall, when they visit flowers in your yard or along our roadsides. We marvel about their beauty and diversity and celebrate the Monarchs that we know are on a long journey. And it is the term diversity that is the point of this post – the term meaning “a range of different things”. High diversity is always a reason to celebrate in nature and we do have high diversity of butterflies and their relatives on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Skippers (as well as butterflies) are members of the large insect order known as Lepidoptera: the Greek prefix “lepido” meaning scaly and the root “ptera” meaning wing. These smaller members of the group are less noticed, but their diversity is impressive. Many species are small, but are fast flyers, a reference to their name skippers. If you take the time to notice them, you will be impressed by the variety or diversity that come to the same flowers that attract butterflies.

For many, the scales are much more prominent than on butterflies and created striking patterns. The Long-tailed Skipper is one of my favorites, sporting brown and iridescent blue wings and long “tails”. This species is also amongst the larger of the skippers. As with all Lepidoptera, the caterpillars of skippers feed on plants, many of which are in our gardens or local environments. The long-tailed skipper’s caterpillars feed on legumes (beans) and a number of other common herbaceous (non-woody) plants. And that is part of this story as well, for the flowers that adults seek out for nectar are only a part of the life of these important insects. Host plants for caterpillars are equally important to provide if you want to attract them to your gardens or communities.

The growing interest in pollinator or butterfly gardens is impressive and encouraged. However, as we develop these areas, we should also plant or encourage the growth of “host” plants upon which the caterpillars depend. This can be as simple as setting aside a “no mow” zone of native grasses and herbs that will support many insects, spiders, and other members of our coastal ecosystem, including the pretty ones that we love to watch. Discover and celebrate Skippers this fall and they will not disappoint.

Thanks to Carmen Lugo for the great photo of Long-tailed Skipper. Hope to see you in our great outdoors!!!

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Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

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