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“Just Living isn’t enough said the butterfly, one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower”. Hans Christian Anderson.
Today, let’s enjoy those most beautiful, the most familiar of all insects: the butterflies. We can learn something about them but if nothing else, we can enjoy looking at some awesome specimens.
Perhaps no other creature brings out a sense of happiness and even freedom than the butterfly and perhaps this is why many of us like to imprint this insect permanently on our skins as tattoos. Their beautiful wings, creating a flash of colour as they flitter by, are a sure sign of the coming of spring and of general well-being.
Ancient Egyptians depicted butterflies in their art 3,500 years ago and the Mesoamericans of Teotihuacan carved brilliantly coloured images on temples and jewellery. We have depicted them in art, in jewellery; in fact, on anything we needed to decorate. Of course, who can forget Alice meeting the hookah-smoking caterpillar during her adventures in Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s famous book?
Many ancient cultures, like the Japanese, the Aztecs and the Romans, considered butterflies the personification of the soul but the Japanese also consider them a bad omen. The Naga people of India and Myanmar claim to be descended from a butterfly. Aristotle’s word for them was psyche or soul. In Christianity, the life cycle of the butterfly represents spiritual transformation and in images of the Garden of Eden, it is a symbol for Adam’s soul. According to an Irish saying, “Butterflies are the souls of the dead, waiting to pass through purgatory”. Clearly, this gorgeous creature has been associated with that most precious element of being human: the soul – for a very long time.
Generally, the earliest known fossils of butterflies are from 40 to 50 million years ago during what is known as the Eocene epoch, although some theories suggest that they originated during the Cretaceous period (between 145 to 66 million years ago). Their evolution and development is closely linked to the development of flowering plants. However, a new study from 2018 found the oldest fossilized remains from the order to which butterflies belong. These fossils, mostly wing scales, are 200 million years old, from the Triassic-Jurassic period, which links them to non-flowering plants (which were dominant at this time). So, possibly, butterflies – and the proboscis that they use to suck out nectar – evolved before flowering plants. Another study looked at 200 million year old fossilized wing-scales to show that colours in Lepidoptera wings were present since that time and were probably a basis for diverse communication strategies.
Did you know that there are around 17,500 species of butterfly in the world? Along with moths, they belong to the order Lepidoptera and both are the only insects to have scales on their wings. Butterflies are also able to coil up their proboscis.
Maya Angelo said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
Yes, a butterfly is also the icon of metamorphosis, perhaps because the difference in its life cycle stages is so compelling. Female adults lay eggs on the leaves of specific host plant; when they hatch the larvae first eat the eggshells and then start feeding on the host plant leaf. Caterpillars are the larvae of both butterflies and moths and are themselves very distinctive. Many are easier to identify than their adults are. We all know that they eat leaves voraciously and shed their skin a number of times, sometimes even changing colours and appearance. After a while, the caterpillar attaches itself to a twig or a wall and becomes a pupa or chrysalis and this is where the magic happens. Inside this sack-like structure, a lot is going on. The body of the caterpillar is essentially broken down and rearranged into the wings, body and legs of the butterfly. This stage may last for a few days or for more than a year depending on the species. Many butterfly species overwinter or hibernate as pupae.
Butterflies feed on the nectar of flowers and are very important pollinators but did you know that they also feed on moisture from rotten fruit, dung, decomposing organic matter and even corpses? They also like to gather on mud puddles or wet sandy areas to sip mineral-rich water; this is called puddling and males do this more often than females. This could be perhaps because they pass on the nutrients gathered to the females to help with egg production. Basically, butterflies try to extract nutrients like sodium and amino acid from any liquid. Remember they can only suck up their food through those proboscises mentioned earlier. Male butterflies release pheromones; some even do a little dance to attract a female and then die soon after mating. This seems to be the fate of many males in the insect world.
Being cold blooded they have to bask in the Sun to increase their body temperatures and hibernate in protected spaces during winter. This hibernation can take place during any stage of their life cycle, depending on the species.
The four wings on each side of the body are connected in such a way that they can move independently allowing for a wide variety of flight patterns. Experienced butterfly watchers can often identify species from these patterns. Butterflies also have excellent vision, which enables them to fly with precision.
Several species migrate but the best example of butterfly migration is that of the Monarch in North America, which is widely known to migrate in autumn to overwintering sites in California and Mexico, a round-trip distance of 4,000 miles. They cover the distance south in two months and overwinter there. Few of the original adults actually complete the trip home. Instead, the females mate and lay eggs along the way and their offspring finish this incredible journey. The thousands of butterflies hanging from trees in their southern destinations is a gorgeous sight! By the way, Monarch butterflies have been bred on the International Space Station.
Found in every habitat from tropical forests to deserts to grasslands to tundra, you can see them almost anywhere in the world, because they live on every continent except Antarctica. The average lifespan of an adult butterfly is probably around one month, if they are not eaten by predators that is. The smallest butterflies may live only a week or so, while a few species, such as the Monarchs can live up to nine months.
They are highly sensitive indicators of the health of the environment, being pollinators of plants & they play crucial roles in the food chain. Birds and other insects prey on butterflies and caterpillars, so they have developed camouflage and mimicry techniques for protection. Many caterpillar are green in colour, to blend in with leaves for example and some larvae, particularly those in the Tropics, bear a resemblance to bird droppings, a disguise that makes them unappealing to predators. Some butterflies may look like dead leaves on a twig when they are at rest with their wings closed. The under-wing markings of the comma and question mark butterflies help them to go unnoticed when hibernating in leaf litter and some have markings that resemble eyes of birds to scare of predators.
Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, found in the forests of the Oro region in Papua New Guinea, is the largest butterfly in the world, with females reaching wingspans of 25 cm or 9.8 inches. It is an endangered species and its international trade is illegal.
Here is a fun fact : Study of the coloration of the wing scales of swallowtail butterflies has led to the development of more efficient light-emitting diodes, and is inspiring nanotechnology research to produce paints that do not use toxic pigments, as well as the development of new display technologies. Basically, they are helping us improve our televisions and computer screens. Nature is truly amazing!
I get some amazing ones in my garden like the peacock, painted lady, tortoiseshell, common blue and brimstone and I am very grateful for their visits.