On the Nature of Butterflies

Spend a summer day watching a field. Under a blazing sun, above flower-speckled green, they dance on the air like living confetti—just as paper-thin and delicate. They, among other pollinators, maintain a crucial link in the living systems of the world. Flowering plants use their visitations to propagate themselves on into the future.

This summer I’m volunteering in a butterfly garden, as a caretaker of caterpillars. Most of the caterpillars that Beaver Creek Reserve raises are monarchs, a species of particular concern for conservation groups.

As we spent the hour-long training period exploring our work space and seeing demonstrations on the care of caterpillars and chrysalises, I was stricken by the many instances of frailty we encountered in our overview of the butterfly life cycle. Of course, butterflies are symbols of fragility: it should surprise no one that I think this way—but it’s more significant than I imagined.

Monarch caterpillars go through five stages of molting, or shedding of the old skin; the final instance of which is the formation of the chrysalis in preparation for becoming a butterfly. If a molting caterpillar is disturbed—too firm a nudge from a finger—the old skin will stiffen, vicelike, about the insect’s body. The caterpillar becomes trapped in its own skin. Unable to escape, it dies.

When the caterpillar is ready to become a butterfly and prepares to form its chrysalis, it will climb to a high surface and begin weaving a small node of silk by which to hang itself. If a caterpillar is removed from the surface while in the characteristic “J” position (that is, preparing to become a chrysalis), the thread of silk snaps and it is detached. Unable to form another silk node, the caterpillar dies.

The final stage of molting leads to the chrysalis. The caterpillar attaches itself to the underside of a high surface and sheds the final skin of its neonatal form. The chrysalis, though, is still delicate. A chrysalis which falls to the ground becomes dented or flattened. This is another death sentence for the insect. The caterpillar may become unable to reform into a butterfly, or the resultant butterfly may be deformed and unable to fly. It dies.

As we learned about these dangers to caterpillars, they were all in the context of how to handle the insect. We are not to disturb a molting caterpillar or a caterpillar in a “J” position. Chrysalises, which are almost always formed on the bottom of screens attached over ice cream pails (the “habitat” of the caterpillars”), are to be transferred, screen and all, to a new cage to develop in peace. If any fall, there is no point in transferring them. I took careful notes, as usual, and committed myself to an ethic of caution and sensitivity when handling our charges.

However, it does not escape me that the reality is far removed from our careful environment. Creatures which we are working so hard to care for, which we are taking such precautions not to damage, which would fill us with guilt if we killed, are routinely sentenced to the void: to the continuing cycles of nutrients and energy that is the natural trophic web. Countless numbers die while in these impossibly fragile states of being—how could they not? A tiny bump, a fall, a rough gust of wind—all spell instant death. How can creatures which require such perfect conditions to survive continue to exist in our world? It is something remarkably beautiful and precious.

Something we should continue to care for.

Monarchs are in danger. They are noteworthy for being a migratory butterfly species: and what’s more, their migrations are multigenerational. One generation makes only part of the journey. Only the last generation of the year actually migrates at all. If something goes wrong in one generation—one terrible summer storm or one eroded migratory route or one degraded overwintering ground—the species itself will suffer. Linked by thin threads of time, bound by strict anatomical rules: this is a species which seems, because it is so very fragile, barely tethered to existence. And yet, butterflies are everywhere. Until humans began wide-scale degradation of habitat and application of insecticides and herbicides, they were incredibly successful and widespread. It is up to us to keep them here in our world.

Jim, our instructor and the person in charge of Beaver Creek’s butterfly raising project, is certainly trying. He and a few other volunteers gather wild eggs for the butterfly house. “My wife and I have these milkweed patches on the roadsides where we go just before we know they’re about to mow.” And thus, monarchs are saved from death.

So what are some ways you can help butterflies?

  • Volunteer: this is something I’m doing since I have the time. Find a butterfly garden or nature center that does butterfly work.
  • Raise caterpillars: it is best not to do too many at once since this can spread disease or parasites if you’re not careful enough, but you can easily rescue some eggs from dangerous locations, raise the caterpillars, and release them. I’ll be documenting Beaver Creek’s butterfly-raising methods so you can follow along with me. Otherwise, there are plenty of sites based on the topic. Here’s a lovely one I found which covers the care of caterpillars.
  • Plant a butterfly garden: choose plants that attract butterflies, preferably ones native to your region, and plant them. This is pretty simple, but you can add more complexity (with sunning and shady spots, plants that flower at different times of the year, plants for different species, and so on). It’s a good way to help out wild butterflies, especially ones that wander into town. Again, there are many resources available to help you. Make sure to find guides for your region to learn the best plants to use and which butterfly species to expect.


To the reader: What are your experiences with butterflies?


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