Sunday, June 8, 2008

Butterflies are much more than fluttering beauties

Simply Living

Butterflies. So many butterflies.

My office overlooks an impromptu garden -- a thrown-together assortment of colorful blooms. Despite being totally disorganized and untended, the garden attracts quantities of winged creatures.

A solitary red penta and three scarlet milkweeds are butterfly magnets. During daylight hours, scores of Lepidoptera -- the insect order that includes butterflies and moths -- are continually drawn to the red pentas and orange-scarlet blooming milkweeds. I've looked out upon this garden for several months but only recently, as the days have gotten hotter, have butterflies gathered in such unprecedented numbers. That's because butterflies need warm weather in order to fly. They're unable to be airborne until their body temperature rises to at least 86 degrees.

As I write this, two zebra longwings -- Florida's state butterfly -- and one Gulf fritillary are fluttering erratically around the penta blooms. A few minutes ago, a large black swallowtail alighted upon a scarlet milkweed flower followed by what I think was a tiger swallowtail. It's difficult to identify some butterflies. With wings flapping between five and 20 beats a second, there's little time to note distinguishing features.

I've always enjoyed watching these colorful fliers, but my knowledge of the order Lepidoptera was limited until I began gardening in Florida 21 years ago. Anyone who plants a garden soon will be rewarded by the flutter of wings. As long as your garden is pesticide-free -- chemical sprays will kill butterflies as well as harmful insects -- you will be rewarded with an ethereal parade of winged creatures.

Butterflies are dependent on certain blooms for food and habitat. Flowers provide nectar sources for mature butterflies and can act as hosts when it's time to lay eggs. Tiny eggs deposited on the stems and undersides of leaves eventually develop into leaf-munching caterpillars that make short work of their generous hosts. Although these hungry nibblers can reduce the greenery to a bare skeleton of itself, most host plants rebound when the munching ends.

Because butterflies can see only red, green, yellow and colors in the ultraviolet range, plants like penta, scarlet sage, porterweed, scarlet milkweed, coreopsis and firespike are among the many blooms they find attractive. When a butterfly senses a nectar source, it uses its feet -- all butterflies have six -- to "taste" the goods. If it likes what it samples, it settles in for a drink, uncoiling its long tongue or proboscis to sip the flower's nectar. But sipping nectar takes only seconds. Before long, the butterfly is off to another cluster of colorful blooms to slurp more of a flower's sweet juice.

Observing butterflies is always enjoyable, but it also can be memorable. My most unforgettable butterfly experience happened last year when Ralph and I were taking an evening stroll through the woods.

It was summertime, and we were taking advantage of the cooler evening hours for our daily walk. As we passed through one particular section of pine woods, I noticed a preponderance of zebra longwings fluttering about. Intrigued, I paused to follow their irregular flight paths up, down and around a particular stand of pines. Until I got closer, I had no idea why so many of these black-and-white-striped fliers were in one spot. Only then did I realize they were gathered together to roost. One thin pine branch was being used as a communal bedroom upon which at least two dozen zebra longwings already had settled. The butterflies that were still flying about were looking for a spot where they, too, could bed down for the night.

Until that time, I had never thought about where butterflies sleep. I certainly had no idea that the zebra longwing is such a, well, social butterfly. While most butterflies prefer solitary slumber, zebra longwings gather in groups, preferring the company of others during their nightly repose. Every day at dusk, a group of about 30 butterflies returns to the same spot to sleep. In the butterfly world, age has benefits. The oldest flutterers are the first to land, thereby securing the choicest perches. They are also the first to rise in the morning, and they dutifully waken the others with a gentle touching of wings.

Part of the fun of taking a walk through the woods is the possibility of making an exciting discovery. After that first spotting of a zebra longwing roost, I've been on the lookout for others and have since found two other locations where these winged creatures gather nightly. Now through the end of summer is the perfect time to seek out a butterfly slumber party in your own neighborhood. As daylight dims, lace up your walking shoes and take a hike. If you see black-and-white-striped wings flutter by, try to follow them.

Any garden that attracts zebra longwings is not far from a butterfly roost. The challenge -- and the fun -- is to find it.

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