Just living is not enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower,” said the butterfly. This short poem by an unknown poet says it all.
Butterflies, papillon in French, papilio in Latin and mariposa in Spanish delight us with their presence in our gardens. They have been around for some 50 million years and add immense aesthetic value to our lives. Their life cycles are carefully watched by generations of children. They are indicators of a healthy environment and a warning of pollution.
Many a wedding and funeral are graced with the release of them as a symbol of new beginnings and celebration. William Wordsworth wrote, “To make a wish come true, whisper it to a butterfly. Upon these wings it will be taken to heaven and granted, for they are the messengers of the Great Spirit.”
Butterflies of the order Lepidoptera are made up of over 100 families of insects. The butterfly and moth do not differ taxonomically with both being Lepidoptera, but the differences are in their physical and behavioral characteristics. Butterflies have antennae with ends rounded or club-shaped while moths’ are feathery or thin. The body of a butterfly is smooth and thin while that of a moth is thick and fuzzy. Butterflies are active during the daytime and moths are busy flying around in the evening and nighttime. The wings of a butterfly are vertically held while at rest and those of a moth are held flat against their body.
True butterflies are made up of six families: Swallowtails, Brushfoots, Whites and Sulphurs, Gossamer-wings, Metalmarks and Skippers. The Black Swallowtail of the family Papilonidae has a tail-like appendage only on its hind wings, giving it a ruffled look. There are 600 Papilionidae worldwide with 40 or less in North America.
The Brushfoot of the family Nymphalidae is the largest family with over 6000 species worldwide and 200 in North America. They have small front legs used to taste food. This family has delightful names including: Monarchs, Milkweed, Crescents, Checker Spots, Peacocks, Commas, Long Wings, Admirals, Emperors, Satyrs and Morphos, among others.
The Whites and Sulphurs of the Pieridae family are small or medium size with white or yellow wings with black or orange markings. They have three pairs of walking legs and are abundant worldwide with over 1,100 species, 75 species being in North America. They like legumes or cruciferous plants (in the bean and cucumber family).
The Gossamer-winged butterfly of the family Lycaenidae, is very small and difficult to identify. Its wings appear sheer,
are streaked with bright colors and flash in the sun. They mostly exist in the tropics but can be seen in temperate zones as they display their blues and coppers while they dash from flower to flower.
Metalmarks of the Riodinidae family are small to medium size, mostly seen in the tropics with only a few dozen in
Skippers (Hesperiidae) have a thick thorax, small wings and unique antennae that end in a hook. The have a quick skipping flight and are mostly drab colors of brown or gray with white or orange markings. Worldwide 3,500 species are evident with 275 species located in North America mostly in Texas or Arizona.
Unique features of a butterfly
Butterflies are brightly colored for many reasons: camouflage, heat absorption, locating a mate, serving as a warning and a source of protection. The female is often larger than the male, and they find their nourishment through eating flower nectar and pollen. They land on a flower and are able to taste with their feet, a handy feature. Their lifespan can range from 4 days to 11 months. Their tongues can be almost as long as their bodies equipping them well to get to nectar in deep-cupped flowers. The wings of butterflies are covered with tiny scales that can be discovered when their wings are inadvertently brushed with a fingertip. It is always best not to handle their wings although minimal handling seems to do no harm. Butterflies migrate for long distances. They develop symbiotic and parasitic relationships with social insects such as ants. They can be pests and damage agricultural crops or serve as valuable pollinators and eat harmful insects. They are viewed as good omens in Japan when one lights on an interior screen and is seen as a loved one visiting. Conversely, in some areas of our world, their presence is seen as a bad omen. Their beautiful, colorful wings are sometimes used in decorative art. I have been told that butterfly boxes, although a nice ornamentation in a garden, are not effective or needed for their shelter.
The butterflies in Virginia
The butterflies in the state of Virginia are numerous. Listed among them are: Admirals, Emperors, Leafwings, Longwings, Milkweed, Snouts, True Brushfoots, Harvesters, Swallowtails, Great-Skippers and Spread-wing Skippers. Being a coastal community, we are witness to migrations and certainly the changing impacts of pollution. Treat your butterflies to plants they love and sources of clean fresh water, and they will treat you to many a colorful sight.
Perennials to attract butterflies
Color is important in attracting butterflies. Like hummingbirds, they are interested in reds, yellows and bright colors. Many perennials can be planted to attract them. Phlox (Phlox panicalata), blanket flower (Gallardia), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis) are consistently attractive to butterflies and moths.
Also consider New England aster (Aster novae-angiae) and blazing star (Liatris spicata). Other promising plants include tickseed, purple coneflower, crimson honeysuckle, stonecrop ‘Autumn Joy’, black-eyed Susan and bee balm.
The bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), a small short-lived umbrella-shaped tree in the chestnut family, forms large white panicles of aromatic white flowers in July. The flowers remain for several weeks and attract hordes of butterflies of many species.
Natives that attract butterflies
Butterflies have survived for thousands of years on native plants. They need nectar-rich flowers with large flower heads composed of numerous small flowers together in large clusters. Joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), yarrow (Achellea), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), cardinal flower and all the elderberries, blackberries and blueberries serve as wonderful sources of nectar. Take a look at different varieties of milkweeds. Some are very interesting and even beautiful plants to have. They are often greatly favored as nectar for butterflies. Their interest goes on into the fall and winter with their unique seedpods that explode with seeds for the birds. Many a child has delighted in the “parachute” seeds. For the pupae caterpillar, parsley and fennel supply a wonderful treat. Grow these in your garden to attract the wonderful caterpillars. Allow them to feed and feed. They will grow overnight into fat finger-sized creatures and then suddenly they disappear. The well-nourished pupae goes off to form a chrysalis and in time returns as a beautiful butterfly. The gnawed stalks of the parsley and fennel can be cut down and quickly respond with returned vigorous growth to support subsequent generations of butterfly larvae. This practice is especially effective with the Black Swallowtail butterfly. Plant some butterfly support in your yard. Watch the wonderful display as they return in their full glory.
Speaking of chrysalis and cocoons
Butterflies lay their tiny eggs on the undersides of leaves. The larvae emerge and feed on surrounding vegetation until it matures and is ready for a large change. It then goes off to become a butterfly. When the larvae or caterpillar changes into a butterfly (metamorphosis), it needs protection from its many predators. A moth spins a cocoon which is a covering made of silk that encloses a pupa and is usually colored white. The chrysalis is the pupa stage of butterflies and moths and is made from shed skin. Caterpillars of moths shed hairs or setae from their skin to help form their cocoon as a protection from predators. In China the silk which is made from the secreted saliva of the larva is treasured for their silk industry. The chrysalis has a further use once the butterfly emerges. It perches upon it and uses it as a resting area while drying and expanding its new wings.
Additional value of butterflies
Butterflies are indeed magical. They appear while we are gardening or can be enjoyed while dining on a porch with a view of our gardens. They enchant children and adults alike with their fairy-like appearances and gentle ways. Their larvae stage supplies protein for bird babies as they grow, and their cocoons are a source of soft silk fabric. Butterflies are grown on farms to be distributed as “butterfly releases” to homeowners, businesses, weddings, schools and other celebrations of life. They are a symbol of the transformation and rebirth. They are often photographed by camera enthusiasts who attempt to capture their plump bodies and graceful wings while they patiently concentrate on obtaining their life-giving nectar.
Butterflies are a wonderful source of beauty. Plant something to encourage them on their long journeys. Do your part to prevent pollution as it has a direct impact on their lives. Give them moisture and beautiful flowers to light upon. Then sit back on your porch and sip some sweet tea while they delight you with their presence.