Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us


Filed under: Bugs — Lowell Christie -- June 11, 2015 @ 8:30 pm

Fender's Blue butterflyA young couple camping for the first time since the birth of their child were playing that game common to all parents, asking their toddler, “What’s this?” in an effort to expand her world along with her vocabulary. One afternoon we overheard them going through the routine.

“Sarah, what’s this?”
“A robin.”
“What’s this?”
“A daisy.”
“And this?”
“A grasshopper.”

When a monarch sailed by they posed the usual question. “That,” shouted Sarah, “is a butterflower!”

So it is. Butterflies are as brilliant and as graceful as flowers dancing in the breeze – and just about as varied. Of the roughly 150,000 known species of lepidoptera (which includes both butterflies and moths), 20,000 are butterflies. The greatest number inhabit tropical regions, but even so, we have 700 species in the United States. Only an expert can identify them all.

By definition, butterflies have scaly wings. (The word lepidoptera comes from the Greek words lepidos, meaning scales, and ptera, meaning wings.) Scientists continue to posit reasons for the scales, but most agree that easily detached scales make it easier for butterflies to escape predators. A hungry bird might end up with nothing more than a mouthful of scales while the insect flutters off relatively intact.

Writer David Quammen calls butterflies “six-legged worms strung between kites,” and if you examine one carefully, you’ll see that his description is an accurate one. Butterfly wings are fleshless sheets of paper that are painted sometimes with prisms and mirrors, sometimes with pigments. Without its gossamer wings, a butterfly is nothing more than an ugly, antennaed worm. Remember, the butterfly started out as a wormlike creature.

We all know that butterflies undergo metamorphoses. Since the time of imperial Rome the transmogrification of crawling caterpillar into airborne adult has symbolized resurrection. Whether scribed on ancient tombs or on modern headstones, an emerging butterfly represents a soul freeing itself from its earthbound body.

To a scientist that’s pure fantasy. Butterflies are as tied to the earth as any other winged creature. Those that eat at all feed from earth-grown flowers (a few species don’t feed as adults), and they certainly need an earthly anchor upon which to lay their eggs. But the facts do bear out other fancies. For the most part butterflies are as pacific as they look – as strict vegetarians, they ask for nothing more than to flutter through golden summer days sipping nectar.

Butterflies have carnivorous cousins, however. One species of moth (found in Malaysia, so we don’t have to worry) is known to sink its proboscis into human flesh to sip blood. Another species laps up tears. Luckily, our butterflies neither sting nor bite; they’re known mainly for their beauty, and occasionally for their fighting.

Many butterfly species exhibit a strong sense of territoriality, and not only toward their own species. An angry butterfly protecting its territory may pursue another butterfly farther than a quarter of a mile before satisfying itself that its particular flower patch is finally secure. Some particularly pugnacious species, such as the pearl crescent and the American copper, dart out after anyone or anything that ventures into their turf – and that includes man or dog. Ever been escorted off the premises by a butterfly?

Some butterflies even engage in aerial wrestling matches. At times, several buckeyes will rise into the air simultaneously while attempting to batter one another back to earth. Ofttimes these battles result in shredded wings, lost legs, and broken antennae – regular butterfly battery. While they’re fighting, these contestants emit a series of sharp clicks that are audible more than 100 feet away. These are not cries (butterflies do not have voices), but rather a sound that is made by snapping two body segments together while the butterfly is moving its wings.

Not all butterfly duets are territorial in nature. Mourning cloaks, white butterflies, and sulphur butterflies sometimes engage in spectacular spiral flights. Such rituals begin close to the ground as one butterfly begins circling around the other. Then both butterflies start spiraling around each other as they soar up into the air – sometimes as high as 60 feet. Then, as though at a signal, one butterfly drops like a rock while the other gradually drifts down on the breeze.

Courtship, you say? Not at all. Unromantic lepidopterists insist that this dance takes place when an already bred female tries to discourage the unwanted attentions of a male. He may have love on his mind, but she’s more interested in finding an appropriate site to lay her eggs.

During this season in which we worry more about keeping cool than keeping warm, we need to remember that butterflies are basically ectothermic (cold-blooded) animals. Yet some species exhibit a behavior that allows them to function in the chilly air of early spring. These butterflies shiver to warm themselves.

Just as an airplane warms up its engine before taxiing down the runway, so a butterfly must rev up its engine before it can take off on a cool morning. Mourning cloaks, red admirals, and Milbert’s tortoiseshells – three fairly common butterfly species – are able to raise their body temperatures 35 to 45 degrees above that of the surrounding air.

The warming process begins the previous autumn. After emerging from the chrysalis these butterflies feed heavily on nectar and tree sap, transforming the sugars into fat reserves – butterfly fat, if you will. Then they search out a cozy protected nook where they sleep over the winter.

When spring arrives the sun’s heat is slow to reach those hidden crannies; so, the butterfly must make its way to the sun. These so-called warmblooded butterflies shiver vigorously. It takes them only a few minutes to raise their body temperatures enough to crawl out onto a sun-drenched branch or ledge and let Old Sol take care of the rest. As we swelter beneath the midsummer heat of the desert sun, it’s comforting to think of having to shiver to keep warm.


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