Before the Flutter*

Though butterflies possess all five senses, “Butterflies can’t see their wings. They can’t see how truly beautiful they are, but everyone else can.
People are like that as well.”
Naya Rivera

Passion vine, food for the caterpillars

My first Arizona garden included a thriving passion vine, exploding with flowers along the wall of the house. I was delighted at the beauty of it all, until one day, the vines were suddenly covered in munching caterpillars. There were so many the plant was wiggling under the weight of them. I recoiled in horror, screaming Noooooo! I did not know then that the vine was a feast for the eggs of the Gulf Fritillary butterflies hatching into caterpillars, a part of the life cycle of butterflies. I was so distressed. The caterpillars won that battle.

Who doesn’t love butterflies? But who wants their garden skeletonized by a hungry army of caterpillars? Well, we often can’t have one without the other.

I’ve been to many butterfly exhibits where a kaleidoscope of butterflies live among a collection of colorful plants daintily sipping nectar, the entire scene is sunshine and delight. In the Jardin Mariposa in Mindo, Ecuador, I learned more about the cycle before the flutter of wings. 

I think they are getting into position!

In the life cycle charts, butterfly sex is frequently left off the illustration, but that happens by joining their abdomens, facing away from each other.  This can last up to eight hours. Then there will be fertilized eggs laid on a host plant. A female butterfly may lay 200-400 eggs in her lifetime, but only 2-3 may survive in the wild. Eggs hatch into hungry caterpillars and eating is their full-time job. 

Hungry Caterpillars

Caterpillars come in various colors depending on the species, amazingly patterned and shaped so they are camouflaged from hungry predators. Naturally, everything in the life cycle of nature is hungry. The caterpillars transform into a chrysalis** and here is where my experience broadened.

The caterpillar nursery

Entering the Jardin Mariposa near Mindo, Ecuador,  we walked through an incubator of netted boxes where specific plants were covered in munching caterpillars. Velcro held the netting in place and was pulled away to allow us to look inside.

Right plant for right caterpillar

As time passes, the butterfly farmer collects the chrysalis and repositions them along a string display nursery organized by species and each chrysalis attached by a drop of silicon. 

Chrysalis Hangout

Here were chrysalis of green, gold, and twisted dried leaf-like cases. We watched as a cream-spotted tiger wing emerged from its golden chrysalis. The butterfly’s emergence is a dangerous moment. If anything interferes, like a strong wind gust, as it unfolds its wings, antenna, proboscis, and legs, it will be unable to fly, thus unable to feed, and it will die. We watched as other butterflies emerged, spellbound at this magical experience.

Just Emerging

Eventually, we walked on into a football field-sized garden of flowering plants and flying flowers. In whatever language, Mariposa, Papillon, la Farfalla, or butterfly, they are pollinators all. In a butterfly exhibit, they are magical, colorful, fascinating insects that leave you in awe at the beauty in nature.  

Butter-colored insects became butterflies?

Where did the word butterfly originate? The word origin Oxford Dictionary admits to a lack of certainty: “The butterfly may get its name from the brimstone butterfly and other yellow or cream-colored butterflies, but its name, in use as far back as the 8th century is suggested the flying yellow insects feasted on uncovered butter.”

Colors on the antenna aid in species identification. Here are blue, yellow, orange and black

The North American Butterfly Association documents 750 species in North America and 20,000 species worldwide, ranging in size from .5″ (13 mm) to the rare Papua New Guinea rainforest species, the 12″ (304mm) Queen Alexandra Birdwing. Many butterflies live only two weeks, the famed Monarch from 6-9 months. Identifying features are the colors and patterns of the scales on the wings and the antenna and feet.

Butterflies taste their food with their feet. These legs are circled in orange, like knee socks

Rarely am I looking closely at these features. So here is a photo of butterfly feet. All butterflies have six legs though most extend only four.  In close-up photos, you can see the antenna have different colors.  

Notice the yellow tips on the antenna

Butterflies have commanded attention throughout the ages, and the common names are great fun to explore. My favorite hierarchy in the brown and orange group are the Monarch, Viceroy, Queen, Red Admiral, and Question Mark. In most butterfly exhibits I’ve visited, the chrysalis are protected behind glass, and the colorful butterflies are just over your shoulder, seducing your attention away from the transformative process. In Ecuador, I had the opportunity to fully appreciate the magic before the fluttering began. 

On the way to becoming butterflies

Old MacDonald had a farm, and butterfly farming is not what we think of when we hear this song. Still, it is an industry growing in the US and established in Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Kenya, El Salvador, Malaysia, and Suriname. Interested in more info? 

Climbing up head first, but will attach by the tail. Chrysalis have to be gathered.

Butterflies are supplied for exhibits throughout the world. You can buy a butterfly kit complete with plant material, netting cage, and chrysalis to watch them hatch. You can order butterflies for release at events, such as weddings or funerals.

No, I don’t know the name of the species, but isn’t wonderful lepidopterists do!

Butterflies do important pollinating work, and they are a special pleasure for us all.

* A group of butterflies is called a flutter and a species of Lepidoptera.  

**A pupa is the life stage of insects that undergo a complete metamorphous from embryo, larva, pupa to imago or adult. … Most are just called pupa, but butterfly pupas are called a chrysalis. A cocoon is made out of silk that a moth caterpillar spins around itself then pupates inside. Australian Butterfly Sanctuary. 

Butterflies have compound eyes and forward facing eyes

4 thoughts on “Before the Flutter*”

  1. Wonderful post! In the last few years I have learned so much more about butterflies. We all need to be educated to we can keep them surviving in our world. Thanks for all the info and photos!

  2. Lovely, delightful, and information post. Thank you. Incidentally, it’s very cold in your home state. So no butterflies. But I’ll plant lots of parsley next year for the Swallowtails! Love, Sherry Dailey

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