“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes,
but in having new eyes.”
It was right under our nose for decades, and nobody knew it.
We saw it flitting in our gardens and spiraling into the sun, but we mistook it for another. Even the university experts were fooled.
One reason it snuck by us is that it is a Sulphur.
Sulphur butterflies are hard to tell apart. There are many of them in the Pieridae family: Dogface, Little Yellow, Dainty, Orange-barred, Statira, Sleepy Orange, Cloudless, Clouded, Lyside and more. Plus they are all yellowish and lively, barely stopping so you can get a good look.
So local butterfly enthusiasts were floored in late 2011 when we learned there was a new kid in town...only he had been here for years from Dade to Palm Beach county. The Pink Spot Sulphur was known to live in Cuba and the two Bahamian islands, but we never realized it was in the tri-county area of southeast Florida.
It all started when someone at the University of Florida began to notice that out of the thousands of Sulphur specimens pinned in the McGuire Center, some of them had a pink spot on their thorax. These were intermingled with others that did not have the spot, which made him wonder if perhaps this was a different species altogether than how it was classified. He was right.
He realized that the Pink Spot Sulphur (Aphrissa neleis) was also a long-time resident of south Florida.
Bugs can be so sneaky!
One of the reasons I love butterflying is because there is so much mystery regarding insects. There are so many discoveries yet to be made and folks who garden, just like me and you, can make enormous contributions to science just by doing what we do.
Experts at the University of Florida realized that we had a newfound resident species on our hands. At first, they published their discovery in academic circles, which proved to be fruitless because the folks on the ground (local gardeners) didn't receive the memo. The academics wondered how prevalent the butterfly was. They were curious about its host plant.
They knew they had to ask the butterfly gardeners!
There is often a gap between University knowledge and practice. We all know how this goes. It's like in work-places where the bosses are detached from the employees in the field. It's a similar conundrum. After communicating with folks who raise and photograph butterflies, and utilizing social media to sound the alarm, they got their answers.
Within months of reaching out to the butterfly garden community, lepidopterists discovered the host plant for our new butterfly. Gardeners quickly answered the questions, spotted the new butterfly and located the caterpillars in their own back-yards. They host on a tree commonly called "shaggy bark", nerd word Lysiloma sabicu. It's a non-native, but it is what the butterfly uses in the islands, and in south Florida too.
I was working at a butterfly house when this all went down, which was great because I had fast access to the host plant for our new friend. Since the plant can get VERY big, I kept mine in a container. To this day, they regularly visit my landscape. I am able to enjoy them and photograph them.
I recently reared some in a container.
The green larvae look similar to other Sulphurs. They have excellent camouflage.
Just before emerging, the pupa became transparent and the yellow wings could be seen folded up inside.
On the day they emerged, I was thrilled to have males and females. The males are brighter yellow and have less markings. The female is in the foreground of the next photo.
It's the little pink spot on the thorax that gives them their name.
This, friends, concludes the story of how citizen scientists helped academia record the Pink Spot Sulphur as a south Florida local.
Keep your eyes peeled, you may make the next discovery.
Jessica Morgan McAtee
For more South Florida species, please check out my regional resource South Florida Butterfly Bonanza.