Butterflies, or: The Benefits of Strewing

March 17, 2006 @ 2:58 pm | Filed under: ,

Clearwing1My sweet friend Chari forwarded these incredible pictures of a clearwing butterfly because she knew that my resident lepidopterist and I would enjoy them. And how.

Clearwing2Butterflies are one of Jane’s passions. I discovered this quite by accident about three years ago, when she was not quite eight years old. If I’d had a blog at the time, I would certainly have written a post about it, but lacking one (and very likely never even having heard of weblogs at that point), I wrote an email to a dear friend instead—part of which, thanks to the miracle of hard drives, I shall now hijack for this post.

April, 2003

Yesterday I took Jane to a native plant sale at a nearby nature center while the other girls were napping. It took us forever to even get into the building where they had the plant sale, because there were a lot of booths set up for various nature clubs and societies, and she was fascinated by all of it. At every table she struck up a conversation with the people running the booth. The old lady at the Invasive Plant Display could not have been more delighted to have this little kid seeming so genuinely interested in how to avoid nasty invasives like multiflora rose and ailanthus tree. The lady gave us a really nice booklet with color photos, saying, “I don’t usually give these out to people, but you really seem to care!”

But the topper was the butterfly table. There was a man with three or four trays of butterflies under glass—unlabeled. Now, two weeks ago, I bought a field guide for insects and left it on the kitchen table. Another strewing success! I knew Jane had looked at it, but I had no idea how much. The butterfly section is just one small part of the book, but she must have studied it carefully. She pointed to a yellow butterfly in the case and said, “Is that a clouded sulphur?” And the butterfly man lit up and said, “Close! It’s a cloudLESS sulphur—see, this one here with the black markings on the sides, that’s the clouded.”

Jane furrowed her brow. “Hmm, that’s odd,” she said. “I have a book at home which has a picture of a clouded sulphur, but the black markings are only about half as thick as these.”

The man beamed at her again. “Right! That’s the FEMALE! I don’t have one here.” And they launched into this conversation that was totally over my head about the intricacies of male vs. female butterfly markings. The thing is, Jane completely knew what she was talking about. And I had no idea. We might as well have been at a Star Trek convention with the two of them speaking in Klingon.

They proceeded through a discussion of swallowtails and—see, I’m drawing a blank, I can’t even come up with the names. But she knew them. In a feeble attempt to join in, I pointed to a row of three orange and black butterflies and said, “Look, aren’t these monarchs?”

Jane smiled at me with affectionate condescension. The man gave me an encouraging nod, sort of the way you encourage a preschooler when she almost sounds out a word correctly, and said, “Yes, the two big ones are. This smaller one is—”

Jane jumped in. “It’s a viceroy, Mommy,” she said gently, obviously not wanting to embarrass me more than I’d already embarrassed myself by this display of ignorance.

I just stared at her. A lady who had been browsing at the booth but was now just standing there listening to the exchange shook her head wonderingly. The butterfly man grinned. Clearly he had found a kindred spirit.

“That’s right,” he said. “A viceroy.”

“Viceroys benefit from looking like monarchs,” Jane told me. (It sounds like I’m making this up but this is literally what she said.) “You see, Mommy, monarchs have a rather unpleasant taste to birds, and when a bird has once tasted a monarch it tends to avoid them altogether for the rest of its life. It avoids viceroys, too, which is unfortunate for the bird, because I believe viceroys actually taste quite pleasant to birds, isn’t that right?”

The butterfly man nodded, eyes shining. I think he was ready to adopt her.

“How old were YOU when you got interested in butterflies?” she asked him.

“Three,” said the man. “You’re getting a late start.” They both cracked up. Ah, lepidopterist humor.

He explained that he had older brothers who caught butterflies, and that’s how he got interested. She explained that she was the oldest child—thus her delayed education. He showed her a Golden Guide to Butterflies and Moths that he’d had since he was her age. She flipped through it with great interest, commenting approvingly on how it showed the caterpillars alongside their butterflies.

“Mine doesn’t do that. And yours has a lot more species. Mine only has THREE kinds of moths!” (This in a “Can you believe that? What an outrage!” tone.) They shook their heads in mutual disgust at the inadequacy of such a book. How dare it call itself a field guide?

“You should get her this book,” the man told me gently, speaking with delicate sympathy for my cluelessness. “It’s still in print.”

“I will,” I muttered, dazed.

“Look, Mom! A spring azure!”

She went back to the butterfly table three times over the course of our visit. Mr. Butterfly (very nice man, by the way, with two daughters running the lemonade stand) explained that he leads butterfly walks once a month at the nature center. Needless to say, we’ll be attending.

It’s just incredible, isn’t it, how your kids can constantly surprise you? I spend so much time with this child, and yet here’s a side to her I had no idea was there, this deep and absorbing knowledge of butterflies. I mean, we’ve been planting butterfly-and-hummingbird-attracting flowers, but I wouldn’t know a viceroy from a sulphur, much less what they taste like to birds. I didn’t even know there WERE viceroys and sulphurs.

You learn something new every day. Eighty or ninety of them, if you’ve got inquisitive second-graders around. 🙂

Back to the present. Jane’s enthusiasm continues unabated. We have a yard full of butterfly-attracting plants now, including a caterpillar nursery with fennel, parsley, and rue for the larvae of the black swallowtail, and a clump of milkweed for the prized monarchs. Every summer Jane grows broccoli to feed the caterpillars of cabbage whites—which means, yes, we are the only people in the neighborhood who encourage pests in our vegetable garden.

We also have several enormous butterfly bushes (shh, don’t tell the Native Plant Society), one of which was a birthday present to Jane from Mr. Butterfly and his daughters, the summer before last. His monthly butterfly walks are a highlight of Jane’s year. I trail along behind, usually toting a baby in a sling, listening with bemusement to the conversations of my young viceroy expert and her comrades-in-lepidoptery. I can more or less follow the drift of their discussions, now, and though I’d need to see a viceroy next to a monarch to be able to tell them apart, I’ve come a long way. (Just please don’t ask me to distinguish between a male and female clouded sulphur.)

See, this is another reason why I homeschool: because I get to learn so much.

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13 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Mary G in Greenville says:

    Lissa — thanks for this article! What a wonderful example of how homeschooling (particularly unschooling) works. I love this! May I quote it on my blog?

  2. Karen E. says:

    Pure delight, Lissa. Thank you for many smiles this morning.

  3. Mrs. Happy Housewife says:

    Thanks for the great post. My children and I enjoyed reading it and looking at the photos. My own resident lepidopterist pointed out the butterlies’ proboscis, which I had to look up to pronounce correctly. Isn’t homeschooling wonderful?!

  4. sherry says:

    Loved, loved, loved this post. It is so amazing how much we TEACHERS learn alongside our kids! (And I am hs’ing a KINDERGARTENER! lol)

    Homeschooling is a beautiful thing!

    Thanks for sharing,


  5. Mary Beth Patnaude says:

    My oldest son is in 1st grade. Early last fall, they caught some Monarch caterpillars to watch(they are everywhere up here in Maine). One day while waiting for the bus, my younger son and I found some caterpillers in our yard. My son, being 3, thought it would be fun to feed them some leaves. When my oldest son got home from school, I asked him what Monarch caterpillars eat. He said: “Mommy, obviously they eat milkweed!”

  6. Theresa says:

    Fantastic article, Lissa! Very inspiring! Isn’t it a marvelous life we homeschoolers lead?

  7. Love2learn Mom says:

    What a beautiful post and those clear-wing butterflies are so amazing! I never knew there was such a thing!

    Do you know of a good site or book for finding plants that attract butterflies (and perhaps hummingbirds)well? We are finally working on planning our garden (maybe it’s good that we have a little more time, we had a little spring weather last week, but are expecting a huge snowstorm tomorrow – great day for garden research!)

    We moved into our current house just two years ago – our old yard (the house was 100+ years old and the previous owners had lived there 51 years – sadly it was too small and there was absolutely no room for adding on) was overflowing with overgrown perennials which I appreciate even more now in my bland 1970s house with lovely trees, but very little garden. (By the way, we were also very inspired by your strawberry post).

  8. Alice Gunther says:

    LOL! Would it be bragging to step forward as the recipient of the original email? : ) : ) : )

    This story is still the best!

  9. thebizofknowledge says:

    I stumbled across your blog while I was doing some online research. All those years of watching National Geographic specials, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen or even heard of this type of butterfly! How beautiful!

  10. Maria says:

    Love this story, Lissa!

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