There are butterflies in almost every part of our world. And, there are few other insects with as much variation in colors and combinations of colors and with the perfect symmetry that makes up a butterfly’s wings. Each wing is a perfect copy of the other. Butterflies are much like small children dressed in bright-colored clothing, flitting from flower to flower with grace and enthusiasm. These beautiful insects live only a short while, from a few hours to possibly a few months so all their living must be done quickly. Butterflies need plants to lay their eggs on and to flowers to drink the nectar. As more and more natural, unspoiled areas are being taken up for human developments; it becomes almost essential that people who enjoy gardening and nature provide butterfly habitats as part of their landscaping plans. Not only will the butterflies benefit but those who provide a habitat for the butterflies will be rewarded by watching these lovely creatures as they emerge from the chrysalis and begin their journey, however long or short. As they are often territorial and particular about what they drink and what their developing larvae eat, it is necessary to understand their life cycle to understand the importance of closely following the steps to creating a successful butterfly garden
The butterfly’s life cycle begins with mating, after which the female will soon look for just the right plant on which to deposit her eggs. Not just any plant will do. The female butterfly must be sure that the yet unborn caterpillar larvae will want to eat the leaves or grass on which they hatch. As butterflies taste with their feet, the female proceeds to make sure the plant to receive her eggs tastes right. On the ends of her hind legs are located a butterfly’s taste organs called “tarsi.”Scratching the plant surface by the female butterfly will release a chemical which will allow the tarsi to “taste test” to make sure her caterpillars will eat the host plant.
Several days after laying her eggs, usually on the underside of a leaf or blade of grass for protection, the head of the caterpillar is visible. The young caterpillar chews a hole in the eggshell and climbs out where it proceeds to eat the eggshell which is full of essential nutrients. Continuing to eat and eat the tiny caterpillar grows and grows, sometimes changing color as well as size, shedding its skin (molting) several times before making the final silken cover for the chrysalis. Spinnerets on the caterpillar’s lower lip will release a liquid which will become the silken wrapping for the chrysalis stage, the final stage where the mature butterfly will be formed.
The adult butterfly, or imago, emerges, usually in the morning when the sun is bright. A beautiful description of the emerging butterfly is given on page 25 of Matthew Tekulsky’s book The Butterfly Garden, The Harvard Common Press, l985. “Immediately after hatching, a butterfly’s body is immense and swollen, and its wings appear crumpled and deformed. A few minutes later, pumped up and flattened out by bodily fluids, the butterfly’s wings assume their full size, and its body shrinks to its proper proportions. A newly hatched butterfly holds its wings slightly apart for an hour or more, allowing them to dry before it makes its first flight into the world.” Almost immediately, the adult butterfly will begin to look for nectar from special plants which attract butterflies by the shape of the petal, size, fragrance, associability, and color. Not all butterflies are attracted by flowers; some prefer getting their liquid from other sources such as overripe or rotting fruit, mud, dung, or tree sap.
So, the butterfly is born and on its way to living out what time it has. Here is where it is important for the Gardner, desiring to develop a butterfly habitat, to follow the steps to success. In Part Two, the “how-to” of butterfly gardening will be discussed.