Fly Like a Butterfly

Butterflies are fascinating insects. They begin life as caterpillars, which creep along the ground and on trees with tiny legs. They then form protective structures called chrysalises and morph into fragile, but beautiful flying creatures that feast on nectar from flowers. You may know about all this, but did you know that some butterflies get drunk while sipping on rotten fruit? Or that there is a species that feeds only on peanut plants and tastes delicious with jelly? Time to learn about some butterflies!

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Purple-spotted Swallowtail

Perhaps one of the most famous species of butterflies is the Monarch Butterfly. Monarchs are known for their incredible migrations, which sometimes involve flying thousands of miles!! Most butterfly species can overwinter and survive winter conditions as larvae. Monarchs, however, are more sensitive to the cold and many will travel to winter in Mexico and southern California. So how do these small creatures migrate such great distances without getting lost? The answer seems to be connected to the sun. Monarchs are able to follow the position of the sun and keep track of the time of day through neurons located in their antennae and eyes. If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating phenomenon, check out this short article.  Monarchs are also known for being poisonous. They lay their eggs around milkweed plants. When the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the milkweed and store toxins from the plant in their bodies which are retained in the adult stage. Viceroy Butterflies are similar in appearance to Monarchs and were once thought to be using Batesian Mimicry, which is where a non-poisonous species mimics a poisonous species to use to its advantage. Studies conducted by researchers in the 1990’s revealed that Viceroys actually taste unpleasant to predators as well, thus these butterflies and Monarchs may be using Mullerian Mimicry, where each species benefits from their visual resemblance. If a Blue Jay tries to eat a Monarch or Viceroy and experiences a foul taste from the toxins, it will probably be less likely to attack butterflies with that color/pattern in the future.

Left – Monarch Butterflies. Right – stages of chrysalis formation.

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Migration

Swallowtails are cool members of the butterfly world which even a novice like me can identify. Named for their forked tails, swallowtails comprise hundreds of species throughout the world and tend to be quite colorful. Among the common species in the eastern/midwestern portions of the United States are the Spicebush and Tiger Swallowtails. Spicebush Swallowtails are named because females will often lay eggs on the leaves of spicebushes, which provide valuable food for larvae. I’ve enjoyed watching the interesting flight patterns of these colorful species and often find them in the woods while doing trail work. Most caterpillars feed on the leaves of trees or shrubs, while adults drink nectar from flowers and also feed on fruit. Occasionally, butterflies will drink from fruit that are rotting and fermenting, resulting in some tipsy butterflies! They will also apparently drink from beer cans and wine bottles, according to this report by National Geographic.

Full-grown fifth instar larva of spicebush swallowtail, Papilio troilus L.

Spicebush Swallowtail larvae have eyespots to confuse predators. Photo by Jerry F. Butler, Entomology and Nematology Department, University of Florida.

The top two pictures are of Spicebush Swallowtails. On the bottom is a Tiger Swallowtail, while the 2nd picture from the top right is of a female with an alternate look.

I plan to make an effort to learn more about butterflies and how to identify them. There are many amazingly colorful species all over the world which I know hardly anything about. Perhaps I’ll be able to attract a variety of species by planting new wildflowers. Hopefully you have some flowers or a garden that attracts these interesting creatures. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to down a milkweed brew and mimic a tiger while flying erratically.

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http://www.allposters.ca/-sp/Butterflies-of-the-World-posters_i8933960_.htm

 

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