I’ve never heard anyone utter anything nasty about butterflies. About moths, yes, but not butterflies. In just about every other animal group, particularly within the many insect families, there are hordes of species — bedbugs, mosquitoes, yellow jackets, termites, carpenter ants, deer flies, weevils, locusts, what have you — that have been called every curse word in the book. But butterflies have been spared. Why?
For one thing, they are all nectar eaters. They don’t bite us or other creatures. They don’t infest our houses, don’t get in our hair, don’t splatter against our windshields, and don’t spread human diseases.
Or is it because they’re just too damn beautiful, too damn colorful, such graceful fliers? The fact that they are proficient pollinators may be a much more subtle reason for our love of them. Take the painted lady, for one. A human painted lady is generally held in low esteem, not so for the one that flits over our gardens flying from flower to flower. I can’t find a single pejoratively named butterfly in the guidebooks. Even the caterpillar that pupates into the painted lady butterfly is exquisitely patterned in yellow bands, between which bright red and white spots mingle and meander from head to tail.
In fact, early on many caterpillars were given different scientific names than the butterflies they became because their colorations were so striking. Only when the lepidopterist followed a given caterpillar through metamorphosis into adulthood did problems with differing nomenclatures clear up. Butterfly larvae, even though they may be found eating some of our most precious plants, do not have the bad reputations that many moth larvae have earned. One need merely mention gypsy moths or inchworms in some quarters to produce scowls on those within earshot.
Even grade school kids know the names of many butterflies, but very few moths. They can tell a tiger swallowtail from a monarch, a sulphur from a cabbage white. Butterflies have a way of attracting one’s attention, and once you’ve seen an exotic looking one the image sticks in the mind.
I live in a little, quite commonplace house in Noyac with a very small yard. Yet, this summer I have had a regal fritillary, a quite rare butterfly and an extremely aesthetically pleasing one, dropping in every other day. Is it because I have some violets, the host species for their caterpillars? I only see one at a time so chances are slim that there’s a reproductive pair lurking in the shadows.
Butterflies can be few and far between. You almost never see bunches of hem. The most common ones on the South Fork, except when migrating monarchs are passing through, are the cabbage whites. They are one of the few invasive butterflies, as they are interlopers from Eurasia and, like their vernacular name, produce larvae that feed on members of the brassicas or mustard family. During this millennium they have become more and more common along the edges of many local roads, perhaps because the equally invasive Eurasian garlic mustards have carpeted many of those roads’ shoulders in the same space of time.
There are “butterfly years,” certain years when this or that butterfly species is commonly seen. In late May and early June there were an awful lot of red admiral butterflies around. Many pairs were mating across Barcelona, for example. Their larvae feed on nettles, false nettles, and hops, the last two of which are found here and there on the South Fork. Chris Roberts tells about the time some 25 years ago when he was sailing on Gardiner’s Bay and red admirals were flying across in droves. That must have been a red admiral butterfly year.
The first butterflies to emerge each spring are the ones that overwinter in leaf humus, the mourning cloaks. They come out as early as mid-March in some years. They are large and obvious and the only butterflies seen when they first appear. Their wings are dark with yellow trailing edges and blue spots between the dark and the yellow.
Tropical butterflies are even larger and more colorful, but ours don’t have to play second fiddle to them. Why is one group of the lepidopteran family so gaudy and bright, while the other group, the moths, are comparatively drab? It’s probably because butterflies are most active during daylight hours, when colors and bizarre patterns can be seen from a great distance, while moths are mostly nocturnal.
But bright and gaudy colorations can be protective as well. Think about the many species of coral reef fishes and their dazzling colors and patterns. Some reason that it is precisely these colorations that protect them from the likes of groupers, snappers, and barracudas. They are so obvious that they fake out the would-be predators, dashing away before the bigger fish can draw their guns from their holsters.
We know that the bright colorations of some butterflies protect them from predator birds. Monarch larvae feed on milkweeds, the sap of which can be toxic. They store the poisons up and they are incorporated in the adults during metamorphosis. The bird or toad that bites into the monarch gets a toxic hit, as it were, enough to remind either not to do it again should a similar opportunity arise in the future.
The wobbly flight that butterflies are famous for also gets them out of many predatory situations. It’s hard to home in on something flying through the air bobbing up and down, turning quickly this way or that. Whether it’s due to its color or wobbly flight, the butterfly outsmarts the predator more times than not.
Butterflies are generally much scarcer than birds and moths. But it only takes one or two to light up one’s day. As summer winds down and fall approaches, how many of us turn our attention to the migratory flight of the monarchs? It’s been a good year for milkweed; maybe it will be good for monarchs as well. Can you imagine? Crossing Long Island Sound and flying all the way from Canada to the middle of Mexico, then rendezvousing en masse on a special mountain there? Nature is full of such near-miraculous goings-on. Butterflies play leading roles in many of them.
In the meantime, visit the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, and you’ll be treated to a spectacular display of both variegated tropical fish and equally variegated butterflies flitting about above them. It’s a must!