Eastern Comma, Hop Merchant, Comma Anglewing, Polygonia comma (Harris) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae: Nymphalinae)1

Donald W. Hall and Jerry F. Butler 2

The Featured Creatures collection provides in-depth profiles of insects, nematodes, arachnids, and other organisms relevant to Florida. These profiles are intended for the use of interested laypersons with some knowledge of biology as well as academic audiences.

Introduction

Species in the genus Polygonia are referred to collectively as the anglewings. The eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), is also known as the hop merchant and the comma anglewing (Miller 1992). It is a relatively small, inconspicuous butterfly that is rather closely associated with moist woods where its preferred nettle hosts grow, but it sometimes strays into other areas. With its wings folded, it resembles a dead leaf and is highly cryptic.

Distribution

The eastern comma is found throughout most of the eastern United States, south to north central Florida and the northern Gulf states, and west to eastern Wyoming and Colorado (Butterflies and Moths of North America 2017).

Description

Adults

The wing spread of adults is 1.75 to 2.0 inches (Allen 1997). The eastern comma can be differentiated from the closely related questionmark (Polygonia interrogationis [Fabricius]) by the silvery comma in the middle of the hind wing (lacking the dot of the questionmark), its smaller size, less strongly hooked forewing margin, and shorter hind wing tail. As with the questionmark, there are two color forms that generally correlate with the "summer" and "winter" adult generations. The upper side of the hind wings is predominantly black in the summer form and mostly orange in the winter generation.

Figure 1. A dorsal view of summer form of an adult eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Figure 1.  A dorsal view of summer form of an adult eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Figure 2. A ventral view of an adult eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Figure 2.  A ventral view of an adult eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Credit: Jerry Butler, UF/IFAS

Eggs

Eggs are green, and the surface is sculptured with a series of vertical ridges.

Figure 3. Eggs of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Figure 3.  Eggs of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Larvae

Full grown larvae are approximately 1.2 inches in length (Minno et al. 2005). The head has short spines and a pair of branching spines on top. Body color is highly variable, from white to greenish-brown to black, and the branching spines (scoli) on the body are also variable from black to white with black tips (Opler and Krizek 1984; Scott 1984).

Figure 4. Larva of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Figure 4.  Larva of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris). (Perry County, IN)
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Pupae

Pupae are variable in color but always have prominent ventral gold or silver spots. The pupae are attached to a silk pad by the cremaster.

Figure 5. Ventral view of the pupa of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), showing silvery patches. (Perry County, IN)
Figure 5.  Ventral view of the pupa of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), showing silvery patches. (Perry County, IN)
Credit: Jerry Butler, UF/IFAS

Figure 6. Pupa of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), just prior to emergence of adult. (Perry County, Indiana).
Figure 6.  Pupa of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), just prior to emergence of adult. (Perry County, Indiana).
Credit: Jerry Butler, UF/IFAS

Figure 7. Leaf nest of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), with larva inside.
Figure 7.  Leaf nest of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris), with larva inside.
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Life Cycle and Biology

There are two generations per year, with the summer brood probably estivating for much of the summer as adults and the fall-winter brood overwintering as adults (Butterflies and Moths of North America 2017). Adults feed on fermenting fruit and tree sap but rarely on flower nectar (Scott 1986). Males perch in the sun on foliage or tree trunks to await females (Opler and Krizek 1984) and defend territories (Bitzer and Shaw 1983).

Eggs are laid singly or in stacks on the undersides of leaves or less commonly on twigs. Larvae rest on the undersides of leaves and make nests by silking together the two sides. They hide in the nests during the daytime and feed at night.

Figure 8. Canadian woodnettle, Laportea canadensis (L.) Weddell, a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Figure 8.  Canadian woodnettle, Laportea canadensis (L.) Weddell, a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Hosts

The larval hosts of the eastern comma are:

  • Urticaceae—nettles

    • Canadian woodnettle, Laportea canadensis [L.] Weddell

    • Urtica species

    • false nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica [L.] Sw.

  • Ulmidae—elms

    • American elm, Ulmus Americana L.

  • Cannabaceae—hemps

    • common hop, Humulus lupulus L.

Figure 9. False nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica (L.) Sw., a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Figure 9.  False nettle, Boehmeria cylindrica (L.) Sw., a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Figure 10. American elm, Ulmus americana L., a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Figure 10.  American elm, Ulmus americana L., a host of the eastern comma, Polygonia comma (Harris).
Credit: Donald Hall, UF/IFAS

Economic Importance

Eastern comma larvae are occasionally found on common hops, Humulus lupulus L. The name hop merchant was originally assigned to the pupa (and later transferred to the adult butterfly) and is based on the practice of farmers predicting the future price of hops based on the variation in the silver and gold spots on the pupae (Weed 1917). The eastern comma does little damage to commercially grown hops and is of no economic importance (Hawley 1918). In fact, virtually all current commercial hops agriculture in the United States is in the Pacific Northwest and outside the distribution of the eastern comma.

Selected References

Allen TJ. 1997. The Butterflies of West Virginia and their Caterpillars. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. 400 pp.

Bitzer RJ, Shaw KC. 1983. "Territorial behavior of Nymphalis antiopa and Polygonia comma (Nymphalidae)." Journal of the Lepidopterists' Society 37: 1–13.

Cech R, Tudor G. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer's Guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 345 pp.

Glassberg J, Minno C, Calhoun JV. 2000. Butterflies through Binoculars: Florida. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 256 pp.

Hawley IM. 1918. Insects Injurious to the Hop in New York, with Special Reference to the Hop Grub and the Hop Redbug. Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station 147–224. pp.

Miller JY (editor). 1992. The Common Names of North American Butterflies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. 177 pp.

Minno MC, Butler JF, Hall DW. 2005. Florida Butterfly Caterpillars and their Host Plants. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida. 341 pp.

Butterflies and Moths of North America. 2017. ©Metalmark Web and Data. (https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Polygonia-comma) (9 February 2018)

Opler PA, Krizek GO. 1984. Butterflies East of the Great Plains. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Opler PA, Krizek GO. 1984. Butterflies East of the Great Plains. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 294 pp.

Scott JA. 1986. The Butterflies of North America: A Natural History and Field Guide. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 583 pp.

Weed CM. 1917. Butterflies Worth Knowing. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page and Company. 286 pp.

Footnotes

1. This document is EENY 455, one of a series of the Entomology and Nematology Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date June 2009. Revised February 2018 and February 2021. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication. This document is also available on the Featured Creatures website at http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures.
2. Donald W. Hall, professor; and Jerry F. Butler, professor, Entomology and Nematology Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.