Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Magic of Butterflies

What is it that is so captivating about butterflies? Why are children young and old so entranced with them?


The obvious answer is their remarkable transformation. Metamorphosis is one of nature's most grandiose and extravagant miracles. It is incredible in the truest sense... you seriously cannot believe your eyes, when you get the chance to see it occur.

But also I think it's because they are so fleeting. Their lives are so short, and so tied to the seasons -- the first butterfly is the truest harbinger of Spring. And caterpillars are so accessible. They are easy to find (in their season), and they will crawl all over your arm and tickle you and you can watch them munch leaves.

We have found ourselves quite smitten with butterflies lately. First, there was the tent caterpillar we found at the park. We brought it home to observe it, and placed it in one of our bug-studying habitats. It was so active and had such interesting markings. I was looking forward to trying to get a good photo of it, but surprise! we woke up in the morning to find it had formed a cocoon. And about two weeks later, we woke up to find the cocoon empty. (Sadly, I didn't get a good picture of the moth either. It's so annoying when nature won't comply with my compulsive need to document everything!)

Tent caterpillar cocoon

Then we ordered some painted lady caterpillars. They were so tiny and still when they arrived, I thought for sure they had died in transit. But no, they ate their food and grew and pooped and ate their food and grew and pooped, exactly as the enclosed pamphlet said they would.

Chrysalids (painted ladies)

And they formed chrysalises! And then... they emerged. As butterflies! Beautiful, active, sugar-water-drinking butterflies. They were amazing. We observed them for a few days, and then released them to allow them to complete their life cycle out in the world.

Ready for release

We watched them fly away, and then noticed that this one hadn't gone far. "Look!" I called the five-year-old over, "Look, that one's still right there in the grass!" No sooner had she identified that particular butterfly as her favorite, the one she had dubbed "Late Rose" because it had been the last to emerge from its chrysalis, than we watched as a gray catbird swooped down and caught it in its beak.

Released painted lady
Seconds before the catbird swooped in.

Usually, my girl is very matter-of-fact about these things, but this time, she cried. She yelled at the catbird. And then she convinced herself that perhaps that wasn't Late Rose at all, it was some other butterfly who just happened to be there, some other butterfly that she hadn't raised. Whatever helps you sleep at night, kid.

So we were very excited to get to see the butterfly show at the Krohn Conservatory on our recent trip to Cincinnati. It was an amazing display, highlighting butterflies of Japan. First we got to see the butterfly nursery.

Butterfly nursery

Then we entered a room that was literally filled with butterflies, and we each held a silk flower dipped in nectar and hoped that one would land on ours.

They were so incredibly beautiful.

Two butterflies

We stood very still. We willed them to come to us.

Flapping butterfly

Over here, butterflies!


And then... magic.

A butterfly friend

Happily, my yard is full of these beautiful pollinators right now. Butterflies, like bees, are essential to our ecosystem. There are lots of easy ways to make sure your garden is attractive to these colorful visitors -- the National Wildlife Federation has a helpful guide.

After all, we all need a little magic in our lives.

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