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Skippers: The fluttering fairies of urban habitats

Peck's skipper (Polites peckius) nectaring on native asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) in a Lincoln, NE habitat garden.

Skippers might be the most emblematic butterflies of suburbia. They flutter out of the grass to escape lawnmower blades. They bounce between clover flowers in the poorly-maintained youth baseball outfields, where children sit cross-legged and bored far from the real action of the game. We see them perched on chain-linked fences surrounding city parks and tangled in spiderwebs under playground slides. We remember them from our youth even if we didn’t know what they were at the time.

From a distance, skippers resemble moths. I often hear children and adults alike dismiss them as "just a moth" when they see one skidding from flower to flower. Although dismissing moths is a topic I will save for another day (there are around 12,000 species of moth in North America, each with a unique way of living their life), incorrectly grouping skippers with the moths can be easily forgiven. They are very fuzzy, like moths. They tend to be brown or tan colored, like many moths. They even tend to fly more like a moth, with an erratic sputter that looks little like the elegant wafting of a butterfly. However, skippers are actually members of the Family Hesperiidae within the butterfly Superfamily Papilionoidea--making them true butterflies and not moths (although current molecular classification work is ongoing). Two characteristics are consistent with the butterfly designation: the upright wings when at rest, and the diurnal habit.

Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris) feeds on nectar from Agastache foeniculum in an Omaha, Nebraska habitat garden (summer 2021).

Skippers are so abundant in cities and neighborhoods because they thrive in the environment we have created for them. Their larvae (caterpillars) can eat most grass species, including non-native turf grass and weedy crabgrass, and their life cycle is very short (as little as 10 days from egg to adult). The adults will sip nectar from just about any butterfly-friendly flower. The only habitat these little butterflies need is a patch of weedy grass that hasn’t been mowed for a couple weeks with a few flowers here and there.

One of the most common skippers seen in the southern and eastern USA cities and neighborhoods is the Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris). The caterpillars feed on most grass species, including non-native grasses that might be found in abandoned lots and unmaintained roadsides. However, they likely feed just as well on native grass species in habitat gardens and restored meadows within and around our cities. The adults drink nectar from a variety of flowers, including milkweeds (Asclepias sp.), Agastache foeniculum, native asters (Symphyotrichum sp.), and many others. Sachem overwinter as caterpillars, likely tucked into blankets of thatch or leaf litter to stay warm. In recent decades, the Sachem range is extending northward--not because of adaptations to the cold, but because of warming winter temperatures from climate change (Crozier, 2003). Although the ecological impact of this range extension remains unclear, it will allow more people to experience this lovely butterfly.

How to increase habitat for skippers:

  • Plant native grasses that support the most skipper species (in the eastern US this includes Bouteloua sp. (blue grama, sideoats grama, and buffalo grass), Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem) and Panicum virgatum (switchgrass)).

  • Leave grasses standing over winter to create overwintering habitat

  • Plant native flowers that bloom throughout the season

  • Don't mow short. Let your lawn get a little longer before mowing (keep mower blade at ~4"). This will promote a thicker, more drought-tolerant lawn while also allowing skipper larvae to have protection between mowing cycles.

  • Limit pesticides to target applications and only when necessary.

Peck's skipper (Polites peckius) nectaring on aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) in an Omaha, Nebraska habitat garden in the fall of 2020.

Further Reading:

Crozier, L. Winter warming facilitates range expansion: cold tolerance of the butterfly Atalopedes campestris. Oecologia 135, 648–656 (2003).

Crozier, L. Warmer winters drive butterfly range expansion by increasing survivorship. Ecology 10,02-0607 (2004).

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