This summer we have been blessed with more butterflies than usual in our Nature Education Center (NEC) gardens and fields, especially monarch butterflies. Because of this I became interested in knowing more about these important pollinators, so I went to Olbrich Botanical Gardens Blooming Butterflies event in their conservatory in Madison. Here one could see as many as 19 butterfly species found in the United States. Here is a digest of some of the interesting butterfly facts I learned from interpretive signage found throughout the Conservatory:
* Butterfly or moth? Both insects have two pairs of wings and six legs, have bodies covered with tiny scales, eat nectar from flowers, and develop from caterpillars. Here the similarity ends. Butterflies are active during the day, usually have bright colors, rest with wings together and upright, have a slender, smooth body, have straight, thin antennae with club-shaped tips, and makes a chrysalis during the pupal stage. Moths, on the other wing, are active at night, usually have dull colors, rest with wings spread flat, have plump, fuzzy bodies, have feathery, comb-like antennae, and makes a cocoon during the pupal stage.
* There are about 17,500 butterfly species in the world, and they all go through the same four developmental stages in their lifetime, egg, caterpillar or larva, chrysalis or pupa, and adult.
* Butterfly wings are covered with thousands of tiny, overlapping scales like shingles on a roof. The scales help keep them warm by absorbing sunlight. They have two pairs of wings they beat at the same time four to twenty times per second.
* Butterflies smell with their antennae; that helps them find food and gives them a sense of touch and balance.
* Butterflies taste with their feet with sense organs that can detect sugar in nectar. This lets them know if something is good to eat or not. Some females can also taste host plants using organs on their legs to find the right host plants to lay their eggs.
* All butterfly eggs are tiny and vary in color and shape. They can be laid on top or underneath a leaf. Most butterflies lay several thousand eggs in a few days’ time, some one at a time, others lay clusters of eggs. In one to two weeks caterpillars hatch from eggs and will eventually become butterflies in a miracle of physiological change from one form to another.
* The first thing a newborn caterpillar does is eat its own eggshell. That provides nutrients needed to begin the next stage of its journey in becoming a butterfly. Caterpillars eat nonstop to satisfy their enormous appetites. Did you know a monarch caterpillar will eat an entire milkweed leaf in four minutes flat?
* Caterpillars have six simple eyes which can’t see detailed images but can pick up movement. They have two short antennae and strong jaws to munch through leaves. They walk on six-pointed legs and eight stumpy prolegs.
* A caterpillar sheds its skin several times, called molting, when it gets too big for its skin. Underneath, there is a new skin.
* When a caterpillar is fully grown, it stops feeding for the last time and begins to form a hard, outer case around itself called a chrysalis. The caterpillar is now called a pupa as it slowly changes into an adult butterfly undergoing a process called metamorphosis.
* What happens in a chrysalis is truly a miracle of nature. Inside a chrysalis the caterpillar body is broken down and reorganized into an adult butterfly. This may take a few days to a couple of months. Once the change is complete, the outer shell splits, and an adult butterfly pushes out. Its wings are crumpled up, but the butterfly pumps body fluid into them so they expand. It takes a few hours before the wings become dry and stiff enough for flying and then it is ready to fly away.
* An adult butterfly does not eat or grow once it has left the chrysalis. It lives only an average of a month nourished mostly by flower nectar. A few butterflies, like the monarch and mourning cloak, can live up to nine months.
* Monarch butterflies come together in large groups to migrate to warmer places for winter. Their journey can be as long as 2,000 miles and take up to two months to complete. How they find their way is another of nature’s mysteries.
* Butterflies are cold-blooded. Their body temperature changes according to the temperature of their surroundings with the optimum temperature to fly between 82 to 102 degrees F.
* Besides nectar from flowers, some butterflies also drink water from puddles, sap from trees, sugary liquids from overripe fruit, or liquids from fresh dung or animal carcasses.
If you want to make a butterfly feeding station, you can use colorful plastic mesh dish scrubbers placed in a container. The butterflies are attracted by the colors and they perch on them while feeding on sugar water placed in the container using the following formula: Dissolve one-part raw cane sugar in eight parts of water. For example, one cup sugar to eight cups of water.
Butterflies are not only truly amazing, but important plant pollinators in our natural world. The problem is, many species are declining due to pesticide use and habitat loss. How can we help them? We can conserve butterfly populations by preserving and restoring their needed habitats and by minimizing pesticide use.
Be sure to see the short video, BUTTERFLY POLLINATORS IN SEARCH OF NECTAR AT: http://www.apg-wi.com/price_county_review/opinion/