by KTNA Staff ~ July 20th, 2014
It was a great year for lilacs in the area,
and while admiring the blooms,
Robin Song was surprised by what else she found.
On a warm, sunny summer afternoon I was drawn to the lilac tree in the nursery. It’s several years old, now, tall, and magnificent when in full bloom. It’s blooms are a lovely shade of pinkish-lavender, and intoxicatingly fragrant. I found out long ago that they don’t make for vase flowers, wilting within hours of picking, and shedding their tiny individual blossoms. The fragrance doesn’t last long, either. Best to admire them on the tree, swaying against an impossibly-blue Alaskan summer sky.
Next to this lilac tree grows a small lilac bush. This one has blooms colored more towards bluish-purple. The contrast between the two lilacs pleases this artist’s eye, and I lined up the camera to get both into the frame of my photos.
Walking out to the nursery, I noticed there were several Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies working the lilac blooms. They were lively and a couple were chasing each other high into the air in a twirl of flashing yellow and black wings. They’d descend again, splitting apart just before coming to the lilac branches, each going to a different bloom. The fluttering butterflies made for a beautiful contrast of colors and motion in amongst the blooms. Curiously, I noticed that the butterflies seemed to prefer the pink lilac blooms over the more purple blooms. There would be five or six butterflies in the pink blooms and only one or two in the purple blooms. The butterflies in the purple blooms wouldn’t stay there long, and would soon flutter over to the pink tree.
Along with the butterflies I observed bumblebees working the blooms. They crawled deep within the tiny blossoms, probing for the nectar down the throat of each bloom. This summer I have noticed that there seems to be more small bumble bees than large ones. I’ve heard other people comment about this, as well. No one seems to know why the bumble bees appear to be smaller, this summer.
Another butterfly arrived-an orange and black Comma Anglewing. The edges of its wings were tattered, denoting that it had been busy, visiting flowers and foliage, during its short life. A few Hover flies were also buzzing about the lilac blooms.
Two of the Swallowtail Butterflies caught my attention. I worked around the tree until I could get near them for a closer look. One was very pale yellow-almost white. I knew this to be one I had looked up two years ago- it’s called the Alaskan Tiger Swallowtail. I hadn’t seen one last year, and so was pleased to see the return of this variety this summer. It was near-perfect, not a tear or hole in its wings, just missing a tiny portion of one tail of its right wing.
The other Swallowtail was a variety I had not seen before. It had wide black stripes running down its wings next to its body, and the wing bars were outlined in black. Instead of several orange dots along the edges of its wings, it had just two large orange dots at the inside base of each wing. Looking it up later in the “Insects of south-central Alaska” book, I discovered that it was the Old World Swallowtail. I read that this butterfly is typically found in subalpine meadows, near or above treeline. It feeds mainly on sage and wormwood. It’s found in northern Canada, Alaska, northern Asia and Europe. Why this Old World Swallowtail was here, far from a subalpine meadow, feeding on lilac, was a mystery, indeed! I photographed the exotic visitor with awe, when I went the next day and found it amongst the blooms once again.
The peak of my experience came when an insect came winging in that I haven’t seen at the lilac tree in three years, now. A graceful Hummingbird Moth, or Common Clearwing hovered a few inches in front of my camera. It was intoxicating to follow this lovely insect in around the fragrant blossoms, working to get the best camera angles. It was art motion. Whenever it stopped fluttering, the transparent part of its four wings became windows, the blossoms or the sky framed by the chocolate-brown markings on its wings. The moth’s body is ‘furry’-looking and intricately colored in shades of sienna, brown and creme. Its long, slender legs dangle as it flies, and its large eyes add a fawn-like grace to its delicate head. It’s an amazing creature, all the more so to watch as it dances in, out and around the lilac blooms.
All too soon it left the tree and zipped off towards the forest to the west of the nursery. I went back to photographing bumble bees. I was so intent on my work that I did not notice the sky. I started when the first rumble of thunder sounded in the east. I glanced up to see a towering thunderhead in the southeast, and a giant gray cloud approaching from the Talkeetna mountains. The rest of the sky was blue and the sun was still shining. I kept photographing and was also using my little video camera. I managed to get one video of a bee working the lilac blooms when a peal of thunder sounded. It makes for a wonderful Alaskan summer video. The rain began to fall soon thereafter and sent me and my cameras indoors.
The next afternoon found me out by the lilac tree again. All the players were there-from the Old World Swallowtail to the Hummingbird Moth. I was occupied with the camera once more when I heard a loud ‘brrrt- brrrt- brrrt’ of insect wings. Could it be? I looked around, and – sure enough – it was a Galium Sphinx Moth! Both the Clearwing and the Galium Sphinx are in the Hawk Moth family, and this was the first time I’d seen both working the lilac tree at Birch Creek Ranch. While the Clearwing has a wingspan of from one and a half to two and a half inches, the Galium Sphinx measures two to two point eight inches. It’s body is heftier, with the abdomen striped black and white. Its wings are solid, with a pale yellow stripe running down the center of the larger pair. Its eyes are a pale blue. It seemed to be working deeper into the clumps of lilac blooms than the Clearwing, and I used the camera’s flash to get better photos. This didn’t bother the moth at all, and it paid me no mind as it went about its activity.
The two Hawk Moths stayed apart and didn’t interact like the Swallowtail Butterflies did. I wondered how these two moths found this one lilac tree, so far from any other, and where their mates were, and where their caterpillars wintered…there were so many questions in my head as I watched and photographed these two rare visitors.
In just a few short days the peak of the lilac blooms were past and the insects had gone elsewhere. Where they went and what happened to them next I don’t know. How they managed to make it through the long Alaskan winters and springs until the next short bloom of the lilacs took place again just filled me with awe.
A word to future gardeners- plant a lilac bush or tree. Some lovely summer day, you’ll be very glad you did!
Writer’s Voice, KTNA
The Secret Life of Lilacs, by Robin Song