EARTH LADY: Question Mark, Comma butterflies herald spring’s arrival

The Question Mark butterfly is burnt orange with black dots and splotches, and the "question mark" appears on the underside of its hindwing. (Margaret Gratz)

The Question Mark butterfly is burnt orange with black dots and splotches, and the “question mark” appears on the underside of its hindwing. (Margaret Gratz)

As your English teacher insisted, a declarative or interrogative sentence must be followed by the correct punctuation, and for the butterfly enthusiast, clarity in identifying butterflies is sometimes just a matter of a punctuation mark. Such is the case with two very similar brush-footed butterflies, the Question Mark and the Comma.

A cursory, passing glance at these two butterflies can confuse even a well-trained lepidopterist, but upon close observation there are a few discernible differences. Both the Question Mark and Comma are angelwings of the genus Polygonia. And it is when their wings are folded that punctuation plays such an important role in identification. Polygonia interrogationis will have a silver “question mark” on its hindwing; whereas, Polygonia comma, will sport a “comma.” Out of respect or perhaps fear of some long ago English teacher, the botanist in charge of bestowing these butterflies with a scientific name acknowledged the importance of punctuation.

Both butterflies will be a burnt orange with black dots and splotches. In the spring the hindwing of the Question Mark will be bordered with violet. The Comma will have a violet border only in the fall. To further help with identification, the Question Mark will have four dots in a row on its forewings, while the Comma will have only three. When the wings are folded, both butterflies resemble dried leaves and are well camouflaged. With wings folded, the Question Mark’s hindwings will be distinctly tailed; whereas, the Comma will not have as pronounced a tail. Both the Question Mark and the Comma have wing borders that look a bit frayed or ragged around the edges.

The host plants for the Question Mark include hackberry trees, elms hops and nettles, and the host plants for the Comma are similar. The caterpillars of both species are spiny. The chrysalis of both the Question Mark and the Comma looks like a withered leaf, but the pupal stage is only transitional. These two brush-footed butterflies overwinter as adults beneath tree bark and in any nook or cranny they can find. Because their blood contains a sort of butterfly anti-freeze, glycerol, these butterflies can withstand very cold weather.

So the Question Mark or Comma you see in the spring survived the winter and may have been hibernating in the woodpile or beneath a loose board in the garage. These butterflies can live as long as eight months, which is very long for a butterfly. The Earth Lady saw a Question Mark butterfly the third week in February, the first warm day of the New Year.

A butterfly in February, when nary a flower is in bloom, is unfathomable, but do not fret about its lack of sustenance. When it comes to nectar, these two butterflies do not imbibe but seek nutrients from sap, rotten fruit, carrion and dung, which does not sound very appealing but such food sources are always available. It has been reported by some scientists that both of these butterflies have been known to become intoxicated from quaffing the juices of rotten, fermented fruit. Temperance may not be one of their virtues, but forbearance is due any butterfly that survives a cold, harsh winter, has angel wings and is punctilious about punctuation. The Question Mark and Comma butterflies herald spring’s arrival.

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month