If you want to see more pollinators than you can wrap your head around, then Florida native Bidens alba (Beggarticks) is just the ticket. I’ve always let Bidens alba grow in patches here and there in our landscape. Before I really knew the benefits that Bidens alba provides for wildlife, I appreciated the aesthetic beauty of their small aster blooms. They remind me of those flowers I might have picked when I was a child and conjure up a carefree, easy breezy feeling of nostalgia. For a wildlife gardener, Bidens alba really has it all. This wildflower grows without care and sometimes more than we’d like. Most regard Bidens alba as an aggressive weed and rightfully so. Managing this wildflower in our landscape has proved to be a labor of love. Our garden is anything but tidy and I don’t mind pulling up the seedlings where I don’t want them. Picking the clingy seeds off of my shoes and shorts is all part of deal, requiring a little patience. I see it as more time spent in the garden and a necessary commitment to the critters that depend on this plant. Birds will use the seeds for food, a huge variety of pollinators visit the flowers and it’s the larval host for the Dainty Sulphur (Nathalis iole) butterfly. Earlier this year was the first time I saw the Dainty Sulphur butterfly visit our Bidens alba. Once I recognized the butterfly, I began to see more of them as they flitted about from leaf to leaf to lay eggs. I had to wonder if they’d been here all along and I just didn’t notice them. It is also quite possible that I am the only one in the neighborhood that lets Bidens alba grow and it took them awhile to find it.
Dainty Sulphur butterflies are very small with a wingspan of an inch or even less. They stay very close to the ground and are commonly found in open, dry disturbed sites where their larval host grows, such as roadsides, meadows, fields, or a weedy garden such as mine. Catching a glimpse of their dorsal wings can be difficult as they flutter very fast. I find them easiest to photograph when they are resting horizontally towards the sun’s rays to warm themselves up. When they are perching, they rarely open their wings and usually keep them closed, revealing their elongated forewing with black spots and a yellow-orange strip along the edge of their wing. Male and female Dainty Sulphur butterflies are very similar in appearance and I have never tried to differentiate them while out in the garden or in the field. According to Florida Museum of Natural History University of Florida, the female has more of an orange flush and more extensive black markings than males. I will have to look for this the next time I am out observing them.
Dainty Sulphurs can look different depending on the time of year. In the dry season of fall and winter, you will find that they have a darker, more olive-colored ventral hindwing. In the wet season of summer, they will appear more yellow. There is also a white form Dainty Sulphur, but this is rare and I have yet to see one or meet anyone who has. Females will lay one single egg on a tender young Bidens alba leaf, especially young seedlings. Late instar caterpillars are green with a slim purplish dorsal stripe. The pupa, or chrysalis, is green. These butterflies will also use Florida native Helenium pinnatifidum (Southeastern Sneezeweed) and other Helenium (Sneezeweed) species as their larval host. They have also been shown to use non-native Thymophylla tenuiloba (Bristleleaf Pricklyleaf) and non-native cultivated Marigold. If you love butterflies such as the Dainty Sulphur and attracting wildlife to your landscape, Bidens alba is more than worth considering. I have found that the benefits of growing this wildflower far outweigh my efforts to keep it managed in our landscape.