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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

White Checkered Skipper Butterfly (Pyrgus albescens)




White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens) - female on Red Buckwheat 
 

Butterflies are common visitors to native plants.   Natives provide two types of butterfly food: nectar for the adult butterflies and larval food (usually foliage) for the caterpillars.  Larval foods can be quite specific – sometimes limited to a handful of plant species from the butterfly’s home range.  So it’s not surprising that natives attract more butterflies than plants not native to a region.  For more tips on butterfly gardening see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/06/butterfly-gardens.html

This year, we’re introducing a group of smaller butterflies: the Skippers (Family Hesperiidae), common butterflies of local gardens.  One species sometimes seen in Western Los Angeles County is the White Checkered Skipper – Pyrgus albescens   (pronounced PEER-gus  al-BESS-sens).  We’re spotting it more often this year, perhaps due to the drought.  You may also have noticed this butterfly, in your garden or in the wilds, and wondered what it was.

White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
perches with wings onpen
 
Like the Umber and Fiery Skippers discussed in July and August (2016), the Checkered Whites belong to the family Hesperiidae (the Skippers).  But Checkered Whites are placed in the subfamily Pyrginae - Skippers that perch with wings outspread, rather than half-open.  Pyrgus species are further classified to the tribe Pyrgini, which contains nearly 600 species in North and South America.

The genus Pyrgus, which contains about 50 species, can be found in Europe, temperate Asia, and North, Central and South America.  All look somewhat similar: small gray butterflies, with square white blotches, and black-and-white checkered wing fringes. [1]   Pyrgus species can be difficult to tell apart, particularly in areas where the ranges of several species overlap.
 
White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
male on Yarrow (Achillea millefolia)
 
The White Checkered Skipper is sometimes included in the more common and widespread Pyrgus communis (the Common Checkered Skipper).  In fact, there is still lively debate regarding the taxonomy of this ‘species’. [2, 3]  We’ve chosen to treat it as a separate species, due to its range limits and minor physical (morphological) differences.  However, it’s still not clear whether it is better regarded as a sub-species or variant of Pyrgus communis, an incipient species, or a truly separate species.  To learn more, we recommend references 2 & 3, below.

The White Checkered Skipper is native to the Southern U.S. (primarily Texas, the Southwest and California) and Mexico.  Its range appears to be expanding, both eastward and north. [2]     In Southern California, it’s found at lower elevations, in drier, sunny places including native prairies, low deserts, roadsides, fields and gardens.  It is never common, but may be seen where ever larval food plants (Malvaceae) are available.  Its range appears to be limited by the Sierra Nevada and Transverse mountain ranges. [3]

 

White Checkered Skippers are small butterflies, with a wingspan of 1 - 1 1/2 inches (2.5 - 3.8 cm). Their coloration is similar to, but slightly paler than, the Common Checkered Skipper.  The thorax (mid-body) of the males appears blue, due to conspicuous blue hairs.  The female body, lacking the blue hairs, appears dark gray to black.  The abdomen (hind-segment) is dark gray with white stripes.  

Both sexes have large, square white spots on the upperside of both sets of wings, forming irregular, blotchy stripes.  The wing background color is gray or gray-brown mixed with red-brown, the brown being more obvious near the wing margins.  The wing-fringes are checkered black and white.  This is particularly obvious in the males, where the checkered squares reach to the edge of the wing fringes. 

White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens) - underside
 

The underside of the wings is overall a light gray, giving individuals a pale gray or gray-blue appearance in flight.  On closer inspection, the underside has a series of irregular bands, composed of squares that are pale gray, tan and dark brown-black.   You rarely see the underside, but it’s quite pretty.  As always, photographs are a great help in identifying butterflies and appreciating their intricate beauty.

White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
 has pale under-body
 
The face, sides and underbody are hairy and pale gray in color, as are the upper segments of the legs.  The antennae are black and white striped, and have the characteristic tip of the Skippers.  The proboscis (tongue) is dark (see above). For more good photos (including those of the larvae), see:


 


White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens) - male on
 Yarrow  (Achillea millefolia), Sunflower family

In our gardens, we see White Checkered Skippers flying near host plants or feeding on a number of nectar plants.  The peak flight period is from about February until October.  Like most skippers, Pyrgus albescens favors plants with many small flowers.  We see them most commonly on plants in the Sunflower (Asteraceae) and Mint (Lamiaceae) families, as well as the local native Buckwheats.  These butterflies are easy to identify when nectaring.

Skippers like the White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
 will  go to  great lengths to get their favorite nectar
 
We also see Pyrgus albescens perched on leaves and sometimes on the ground.  Males perch and cruise in places with nectar and host plants, looking for food and receptive females. Males have scent scales on the upperside of the forewing that release pheromones that attract females. [4]   The males are quite territorial; we see them vigorously chase White Checkered and other Skippers, particularly the Fiery Skipper.

White Checkered Skippers likely have several broods a year in our area.  The eggs are pale green and are laid singly on leaves of host plants. [5] The larvae (caterpillars) are pale blue-green with stripes.  They construct simple ‘tents’ by folding over a leaf and fastening it with strands of silk. 

White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
Female on Cheeseweed
 

While the scope is not well-defined, several genera of plants in the Mallow Family (Malvaceae) are known to serve as larval host plants.  These include the true Mallows (Sida or Malvella species), the Globemallows (Sphaeralcea), Velvet-leaf or Indian Mallows (Abutilon), Poppy mallows (Callirhoe) and likely others.  In our area, the common native host is most likely Alkali Mallow (Malvella leprosa). We have seen individuals visiting the non-native Cheeseweed (Malva parviflora); we’ll try to see if this species also serves as a host plant.

We are always glad to see this pretty butterfly in our gardens.  Look for them in your own garden, particularly if you grow the host plants.  We think you’ll enjoy watching these and other Skippers.  Their behavior is more interesting than you might think!




 

White Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus albescens)
 

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  1. http://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/North%20America%20-%20Pyrgus%20albescens.htm
  2. http://images.peabody.yale.edu/lepsoc/jls/2000s/2000/2000-54(2)52-Burns.pdf
  3. http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1603/0013-8746%282008%29101%5B794%3APOGVBT%5D2.0.CO%3B2?journalCode=esaa
  4. http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Pyrgus-albescens
  5. http://www.learnaboutbutterflies.com/North%20America%20-%20Pyrgus%20albescens.htm

 

 

 

We encourage your comments below.   If you have questions about Skipper butterflies or other gardening topics you can e-mail us at :  mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com
 
 
 

1 comment:

  1. Great article and I love that very first image - the colors and composition are well done.

    ReplyDelete