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Eastern Commas in Winter

Eastern Commas, a.k.a. Hop Merchants, on hops plants. Illustration by Mary E. Walker in Butterflies Worth Knowing by Clarence Weed (1917)


This winter, as always, Eastern Commas are spending time as adult butterflies hibernating in loose tree bark, old logs, hollow trees, between rocks, and around buildings. They venture out on warm days to nectar on tree sap or just bask in the sunshine. In fact, Doug Downs just spotted one on December 19 in White County, Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau.

In spring, summer, and fall Eastern Commas are seen along trails, greenways, or old roads that go through deciduous woods (where trees lose their leaves in winter) or on the edges of woods. They bask and perch on footbridges, tree leaves, damp soil, or rocks in sunny openings along trails. They also like to visit  limestone cedar glades, riverbanks, and flower gardens. The wings above are dazzling orange, the undersides look like tree bark. Remember the Cheshire Cat character in the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland? One minute he was a colorful cat in mid air, the next minute he was wiping himself out with his tail. That’s just how the Eastern Comma appears and disappears. Years ago, people called this “dazzling and eclipsing.”

Eastern Comma caterpillars eat elm tree, nettle, and hops leaves. Hops are plants usually grown for brewing beer, as they provide both flavoring and stability. Most hops in the United States are now grown in the Pacific Northwest.

According to the delightful little book, Butterflies Worth Knowing by Clarence Weed published in 1917 (before Prohibition), Eastern Commas were once called Hop Merchants. A hop merchant was an occupation both in other countries and in the United States.  Hop merchants were people who bought hops from farmers and sold them to beer brewers. Eastern Comma caterpillars, which fed on hops, sometimes attached their chrysalises to the hops leaves or stems. The chrysalises had and still have metallic gold or silver knobs on them. The amount of gold or silver on the chrysalises would give farmers a clue as to what hops prices would be in the near future. They probably hoped for lots of gold on those chrysalises.

©Rita Venable 2011

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