The Smallest Butterflies Are Some of The Toughest! Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea)

It’s easy to think of small butterflies as delicate or fragile, but in fact, the smallest butterflies are some of the toughest! Today, on this early December day in northern Florida, most butterflies are in dry-season mode, that is, hibernating. However, a few butterflies here are as abundant as ever. The Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), one of the smallest North American butterflies, is taking full advantage of our unusually warm December weather, despite a recent freeze on Thanksgiving morning. I spent a couple hours with this tiny but mighty butterfly today, and want to share the experience with you!

Salt Marsh habitat at N end of bridge to Haven's Island, Hwy. 24, Levy Co., FLORIDA, 8-XII-2013

Salt marsh habitat at N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, Hwy. 24, Levy Co., FLORIDA, 8-XII-2013

The Eastern Pygmy-Blue lives in salt marsh habitats, where its larval foodplants grow in abundance. While these environments are quite scenic, they are subject to harsh conditions on a regular basis. At times, all the low vegetation is completely inundated by sea water, especially during storms. And it freezes here. Yet for a few organisms, such conditions are ideal…

View of the world, according to an Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

View of the world, according to an Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

The Eastern Pygmy-Blue lives in coastal salt marshes in the southeastern United States, from eastern Texas to South Carolina. In northwestern Florida, the favored larval foodplants of the Eastern Pygmy-Blue are Saltwort (Batis maritima) and especially, Perennial Glasswort (Sarcocorina perennis). Wherever the latter plant is found, Eastern Pygmy-Blues are usually common.

Foliage of Sarcocornia perennis, FL: Levy Co.: N end of bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Foliage of Sarcocornia (Salicornia) perennis, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

Everything in the intertidal zone must tolerate regular exposure to salt water. This makes survival difficult for many plants and animals! Yet there are some, including our tiniest of butterflies, that feel very much at home in the ever-changing intertidal environment, egg, larva, and adult.

Male Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea) basking in the December shunshine, FL: Levy Co.: N end of bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Male Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea) basking in the December sunshine, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

Males of the Eastern Pygmy-Blue spend most of their time cruising the canopy of larval foodplants, searching for females. When it is sunny and not too windy, males are in continuous flight above the foodplants, and rarely stop to pose for a photo. Normally, you have to follow a male for several minutes before he will pause, briefly (as above), for a chance of a close look or to capture his image!

I spent about 30 minutes in a “grove” of S. perennis today, around noon, following the various males as they landed, rarely, in their search for females (photo above).  Then, along the edge of the salt marsh, I saw a female blue fluttering above the foliage. She flew differently- slower, and less determined. I headed towards her, as she was settling on some glasswort.

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue, perching on the larval foodplant, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), perching on the larval foodplant, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

I spent a couple minutes photographing this female, as she displayed her underside against the late morning sky (above). Then, she became restless and moved on…

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue perched on foodplant, signaling to nearby males, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), perched on foodplant, signaling to nearby males, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

I caught up with her a couple minutes later, when she landed on some Sarcocorina, with her wings spread partly open, signaling for attention from nearby males. It only took a few seconds for a male blue to arrive on the scene!

Male courting female Eastern Pygmy-Blue, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Male courting female Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

The male blue (above) pursued the female for several minutes, but all attempts at mating ended in failure. She then flew a few feet away and landed on an especially lush-looking Sarcocorina twig.

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue, ovipositing, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), ovipositing, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

As I watched, she twisted her abdomen around the twig, and placed an egg at the junction of two branches.  I could not see the egg from where I was watching, but then changed my view (yes, sand spurs and cactus spines in my left knee), and could see the egg clearly!

Newly placed egg of Eastern Pygmy-Blue, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Newly placed egg of Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

After ovipositing, the female Eastern Pygmy-Blue rested briefly, before taking flight once again.

Female Brephidium pseudofea, resting, after oviposition, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Female Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea), resting, after oviposition, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

As she flew away, a breeze kicked in, and I lost sight of her. Thus, I headed along the edge of the salt marsh, to another area where I often find these blues.  Upon arriving at the site, I saw a female perched, signaling for males.  Just as I crouched down, ready to take photos, a male blue arrived, and the two immediately began to court.  Before I knew it, the two were in copula, and luckily, I was able to get a few shots.  Their union only lasted a few minutes, before they flew off in different directions, but I felt very lucky to have been there at the right moment…

Mating pair of Brephidium pseudofea, FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven's Island, 8-XII-2013

Mating pair of Eastern Pygmy-Blues (Brephidium pseudofea), FLORIDA: Levy Co.: Hwy. 24, N end of bridge to Haven’s Island, 8-XII-2013

I’ll share more about these awesome blues in a future post (there is so much more to tell about them), so stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “The Smallest Butterflies Are Some of The Toughest! Eastern Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium pseudofea)

  1. Kim Stringer

    Fascinating – and always a problem to photograph. I have lots of scars from doing the same.
    You got some wonderful photographs!
    Kim Stringer

    Reply
  2. Steve Woodhall

    Brilliant observations. By the way, skateboarders’ knee protectors are great for stopping thorns penetrating your knees! They allow you to ‘knee walk’ on stony ground, a great plus here in the Karoo where I’m busy shooting this week.

    Reply

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