Mystery in the Pussytoes Patch — and Dragonflies!

American Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) on pussytoes (host plant) (Antennaria plantaginifolia)

Remember when I shared my excitement about having watched American Lady butterflies in my patch of pussytoes? If you recall, I planted these native flowers last summer because they’re the host plant for the American and Painted Lady butterflies that I hoped to attract to my garden. Well, a couple days ago I was overjoyed to find more than a dozen of the American Lady caterpillars feeding in the pussytoes patch.

I was a bit concerned about the white, cottony substance all over the plants though. Could it be a fungus? I know some caterpillars spin silk to protect themselves at night, but the amount of the white stuff seemed far too much for that, and some of the leaves seemed to be turning white with no signs of any sort of caterpillar enclosure. I’m still mystified about it.

What is this stuff on the pussytoes?

But even worse was the discovery the next morning that ALL of the caterpillars were gone. And since this is my first experience with this species, I’m not sure if these are/were in their last instar before pupating, but I doubt it. They seemed pretty small. I checked three times that day, in case they were just hiding beneath the leaves, but I’ve not found any of them. My conclusion? Either they all left to pupate at the same time, or they all were eaten by a very hungry and thorough bird who turned over every single leaf in the pussytoes patch. I can’t find any chrysalises nearby, so I may never know what happened to them. Unless I suddenly have a dozen American Lady butterflies in my yard two weeks from now, I suppose. I sure wish I’d had more time to watch them — one day wasn’t enough!

American Lady caterpillars feeding on pussytoes the day before they disappeared

In other news…look at these gorgeous dragonflies! I found them during a visit to a favorite nature preserve in southeast Michigan last weekend. These first photos are a male and female Spatterdock Darner (Rhionaeschna mutata), one of my favorite species of the large darner family. Here’s the stunning male, allowing me a close look after I spent more than an hour patiently waiting for one of them to land, and then I snuck up behind him verrrrry slowly. That sort of patience doesn’t come easily to me, so I’m quite pleased with myself.

Male Spatterdock Darner (Rhionaeschna mutata)

What’s that you say? You don’t think he’s all that spectacular? Well look at this closer crop and tell me what you think.

Detail of male Spatterdock Darner (Rhionaeschna mutata)

Yep, now you see it, don’t you? They’re so magnificent it’s hard to take your eyes off of them. But when you do, you get a chance to appreciate the subtle beauty of the females. Here’s one, first a wider view and then a closer crop of the abdomen pattern detail.

Female spatterdock darner
Detail of the subtle markings of a female spatterdock darner

Isn’t she pretty? We so often gush over the beauty of male animals, but the understated markings and colors of females can be appreciated too.

And speaking of female beauty, I’m always pleased to get a photo of a dragonfly on a flower, and this female Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta) obliged me by posing on a pretty pink clover bloom.

It’s such a relief when dragonfly season finally gets into full swing. I’ve realized in recent years that the world — my world — just doesn’t seem fully alive when the insects aren’t active. I endure long, agonizing months for them to show up each spring, and even when it eventually happens, it takes several weeks before we’ve got a good variety of species flying. And then there’s always that one day when I’m standing on the edge of a pond watching them — Ah, the first spreadwings of the year! Ah, the first skimmers of the year! — when I suddenly realize that I can breathe again. The weight of winter has lifted off my shoulders and I’m like someone who was suffocating and is suddenly presented with an infinite supply of life-giving oxygen. But I know I have to breathe as deeply as I can before the dark season returns.

Sometimes I feel a sort of panic when I think ahead to “the dark times,” and I try not to do that because it takes away from my enjoyment of the present. It’s important, I think for all of us, to be mindful of the present and not let ourselves get lost in worrying about the “what ifs” of the future. That’s always a struggle for me, but I’m working at getting better at being in the here and now, and enjoying every second I get to spend watching the amazing insects that make our human lives possible. And I’m glad you’re along for the ride!


  1. I love the detail of the spatterdock darner! I’ve never seen that before. She’s magnificent! Thanks for sharing that.


  2. Those are stunning dragonfly specimens! At first I thought the Spatterdock Darner was the most beautiful I’ve seen, but the simple elegance of the Dot-tailed Whiteface looks like a piece of jewellery adorning that clover! Love it. Thanks Kim.

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