Archive for the ‘Butterflies’ Category

Graffiti for Butterflies

April 5, 2010 @ 6:59 pm | Filed under: , ,

Another tidbit from The Dangerous World of Butterflies:

[Elliot Malkin of Brooklyn, NY] worries that migrating Monarch butterflies, in search of their plant food milkweed, will find a dearth of the needed vegetation in the urban reaches of New York City. Intent to do what he can to help, he placed potted milkweed plants on the balcony of his apartment. Concerned that it might be difficult for the butterflies to locate his few plants in the asphalt jungle, two ideas came to him: paint giant pictures of milkweed adjacent to the real plants to alert the flying Monarchs, and then paint them with sunblock.

“Milkweed flowers,” says Malkin, “have natural ultraviolet patterns that are recognizable to Monarch butterflies. These patterns are invisible to us because we can’t see light in the ultraviolet spectrum. So Graffiti for Butterflies uses sunblock to pain the graffiti in a way that mimics these natural ultraviolet properties.” Sunblock is a perfect medium, he says, because it reflects ultraviolet light. Malkin considers his work “the equivalent of a fast-food sign on a highway, advertising rest stops to Monarchs.”

Malkin can’t say conclusively whether his sunblocked paintings are responsible for attracting the butterflies to his rooftop garden, but they are indeed visiting his milkweed plants. Here’s Malkin’s website.

In other news, our milkweed is blooming.

(Photo of last year’s crop.)

Booknotes: The Dangerous World of Butterflies

April 3, 2010 @ 4:31 pm | Filed under: , ,

The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists by Peter Laufer. Lyons Press, 2009.

We heard about it from our friend Sarah (this Sarah), who correctly supposed it might be interesting to Jane and me. Jane read it first and loved it. Of course, her fascination with butterflies goes way back. I’m about a third of the way through the book and had to stop and jot down some notes. It’s that kind of read. (My favorite kind.)

Peter Laufer is a journalist and the author of several books about serious, even grim topics: Americans in overseas prisons, immigration, the Iraq War. During a Q-and-A period following the publication of his book on the latter, someone asked him what topic he was going to tackle next. Joking, Laufer suggested he might take a break with something less weighty: “butterflies and flowers,” perhaps.

An American ex-pat in Nicaragua saw the exchange on CSPAN and emailed Laufer an invitation to visit her butterfly reserve; she thought it might be a peaceful respite for him. And thus it came about that Laufer’s lighthearted remark became reality: he became interested in butterflies and the lively subcultures they have inspired—the collectors, the breeders, the “butterfly huggers,” even butterfly smugglers.

A few quotes:

Heading down the mountain [after a butterfly-spotting hike] I realize I’ve gone native to a certain extent. It was exactly what Glassberg suggested it would be: a Zen-like moment in the now. Nothing else was going on for me while I was searching for the Golden Hairstreak and spotting the California Sister. There was something pure about not chasing them with a net, just searching and observing. It reminded me of the license plate game my sister and I played while driving with my family across America. Look! There’s one from North Dakota! Rare is valuable, but not vital. If you’re in North Dakota, there’s another and another. But the sightings still can amuse those of us lucky enough to be in touch with the childlike parts of our minds.

The excitement was real. It was impossible not to be seduced by the focus of the moment, the pristine beauty of the rushing Cedar Creek with its towering pines and the burly oaks. The satisfaction of seeing the fluttering rare Golden Hairstreak and the glamorous common California Sister was real. I was an observer in this odd subculture but at the same time an active player delighting in the moment, not just observing as a news reporter.

Another passage quotes a Robert Graves poem:

The erratic-looking flight of the common Cabbage White butterfly can be attributed in part to buffeting from the wind. However, Professor Dudley [of Berkeley] says when researchers fly Cabbage Whites in still air, the erratic patterns do not disappear and are used for defense. “If you swing a net at them and miss, they’ll start doing it faster. That’s an intriguing feature that distinguishes butterflies essentially from all other flying insects, the high degree of erratic, seemingly unpredictable flight.”

That lack of predictable pattern adds to their aesthetic appeal to us, he and I agree, and inspired Robert Graves when he wrote his ode to the Cabbage White, the poem “Flying Crooked…”

And here’s that:

Flying Crooked
by Robert Graves

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has—who knows so well as I?—
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the acrobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Here’s something I did not know:

Inside the hard chrysalis the transformation is in progress. “All of their body parts, every cell, liquefies.” It is, as [biologist Rachel Diaz-Bastin] said before, science fiction. “This is weird stuff. All of their cells differentiate and begin forming the adult butterfly. It’s basically this big butterfly soup inside.”

Were you to cut the chrysalis at this stage, you would find nothing resembling a caterpillar and nothing resembling a butterfly: only liquid…What exactly goes on in the soup to make the change remains an unknown to scientists…

Only LIQUID, seriously? Who knew! I think I’d always supposed it was more of a tadpole-to-frog gradual transformation.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten. More to come, I’m sure.

Related posts:

Butterflies, or: the benefits of strewing
“A little egg lay on a leaf”
Our backyard gave us a going-away present
The tragic tale of Homer the Caterpillar, parts one and two

“A Little Egg Lay on a Leaf”

July 23, 2009 @ 6:18 am | Filed under: , , ,

How many times have you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud?

It’s got to be in the hundreds for me. Seems like every single one of my kids has had a time when that book was the favorite above all others.

But in all these years, I’ve never actually seen a real caterpillar egg—until now.


Can you see it? The little white dot on the underside of the leaf, quite near the stem. I watched the butterfly lay this egg and immediately afterward I ran inside for the camera, so this photo was taken no more than two minutes into the egg’s existence.

I hope the other caterpillars don’t eat that leaf. They are munching away and growing quite fat. We’ve counted up to eleven at one time but it’s likely we’re missing a good many. Counting callerpidders has become Rilla’s favorite thing to do. Mine too!


Butterfly watch: two monarchs, a tiger swallowtail, several painted ladies, and assorted sulphurs and cabbage whites. Also a possible viceroy sighting but Jane, my resident expert, wasn’t there to confirm.

As for our blue flower…Jenn, I was sure it was a cornflower too, but the rest of them are coming up—



(The color’s a bit washed out in this photo. The flower is really a soft shade of pale pink. Hmm….)

Must Get Milkweed, Stat!

February 23, 2007 @ 7:02 am | Filed under: ,

I just read the latest Journey North Monarch Migration update:

Right Now… Monarchs Are on the Move!

It’s too early for spring migration, but the butterfly colonies are moving now. The butterflies are spreading down the arroyos  (streambeds) in search of water. Mexico is nearly 5 months into the dry season now, and water is scarce. These early signs of colony break-up mean the wintering season is coming to a closeand  the journey north will soon begin!

And it struck me (this keeps on striking me, and will take us all a while to get used to) that OH THAT’S RIGHT, WE ARE IN SAN DIEGO NOW, and Mexico is about fifteen minutes away. Not that the monarchs’ wintering spot is right near our border, but still…we are so much farther south now, it won’t be long before those butterflies will be passing through here, looking for a place to lay their eggs.

We filled our Virginia garden with milkweed and were dazzlingly rewarded. Looks like I’d better start scouting out a west coast source.

(You Easterners can find everything you need at

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Our Backyard Gave Us a Going-Away Present

October 4, 2006 @ 2:53 am | Filed under: ,

It’s a good thing I don’t have much time to write today, because I would no doubt get all weepy on you. Today is loading day. The truck will be here in a few hours. But I had to tell you. It wasn’t long after we moved here that I discovered Jane’s undying passion for butterflies. The two of us conspired to create a butterfly garden on our little slope at the edge of the yard. We planted butterfly bushes, asters, bee balm, coneflowers, turtlehead, fennel, cardinal flower, and a whole bunch of other plants, including—and most important— milkweed.

Milkweed is the only host plant for monarch butterflies, the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. A monarch butterfly might stop to sip at your flowers but unless you have milkweed, she’ll never lay her eggs in your yard. And since monarchs migrate to and from Mexico each year, they need lots of milkweed along the route for each successive generation of travelers. But as more and more housing developments (like ours) are built, there is less milkweed growing wild in meadows. And hardly anyone plants milkweed on purpose.

But we did. We ordered it from and planted it all around the yard, and we waited. And waited. And waited.

For four summers now, we have watched for monarchs. Jane has inspected our milkweed for caterpillar eggs or big fat green caterpillars, but we never found any. Now and then we’d see a monarch (or was it a viceroy?) flutter past, but there was no indication that our little garden was serving as a stopping point on the great Journey North. Or South, for that matter.

Until—oh, it was breathtaking. A few days ago I walked out onto back deck and looked down the hill at my little trees grown so tall, and the street beyond, and the meadow beyond that, and beyond the meadow, the Blue Ridge: the gorgeous vista that sold me on this house. And just in the nick of time before the tears welled up, I saw something. Around the enormous clump of asters, a fluttering, a flash of orange. Many flashes.

I walked down for a closer look. Oh! How can I tell you how my heart leapt at the sight! Dozens of monarchs, more than I could count, lighting on the asters beside the bees.

They came.

There must have been eggs on this year’s milkweed, there must have been caterpillars, but we were packing and we missed them. But we saw our monarchs, a whole flock of them—I can’t say "a rabble," which is the proper collective noun; I prefer the Deputy Headmistress’s coinage: a fluttering of butterflies. And oh that’s what it was. The purple flowers, the orange wings, the green jungle of neglected but dearly loved garden: my heart fills up all over again to write it.

Of course I called the girls, and of course Jane (and everyone else) was over the moon with excitement. We tried to get pictures but I never got more than five or six in the shot at once


and later that day a storm blew in, and afterward the great fluttering was gone. Perhaps they have journeyed on south.

But all the rest of this week we’ve seen monarchs, not in a flock (a fluttering, a rustle, a blessing!) but singly, flashing through the air past us, and we’ve known—how deeply gratifying to know this—that we did it, we brought the monarchs to our neighborhood, and they will be here after we are gone.

Which is to say, tomorrow.


I Hate to Have to Tell You This

June 30, 2006 @ 5:23 am | Filed under: ,

Herodotus is no more.

At least he didn’t suffer Herod’s gruesome fate. He just simply stopped munching. We don’t know why.

This hasn’t been our year for butterflies.

And there are no signs of life from the caterpillar-husk we thought The Monster was pupating inside, nor any other indication that the ravenous worm-thing exists in any form.


Can You See the Caterpillar in This Photo?

June 12, 2006 @ 3:37 am | Filed under: ,


No? Me either. Nor in the 176 other photos I took. Nor can I spot the little beast in actual real life. But we know he is there. He is apparently some kind of phantom ninja caterpillar. Or possibly a young Snuffleupagus. We are not sure, as he has not stayed visible long enough for us to make a positive identification.

When we started this venture, there was no mystery. The kids found two black swallowtail caterpillars on Jane’s parsley plant. We dug out our old butterfly jungle (thanks again, Grandma) and made them a nice comfy home. With sticks! And fennel! It’s like a Barbie Dream House for caterpillars. And for three or four days they milled around, chomping happily, or at least we assumed it was a happy kind of chomping. There was, for example, no belligerent waving of tiny black feet. (Side note: did you know that a caterpillar only has three pairs of legs? Just the three pairs closest to the head. All the rest, so Jane tells me, are not true legs. They are, and I quote, muscular warts. Muscular. Warts. Ew.)

So all was blissful in the suburban butterfly jungle, and as a testimony to his happiness, Caterpillar #1 (Homer to his friends) pigged out on so much fresh-picked fennel that he could continue no longer in his present state of six-legged-many-muscular-wartedness, and he hung himself. From a stick, I mean, as happy caterpillars do.


The next day he looked like this:


Meanwhile, Happy Caterpillar #2 (aka Herotodus) continued his milling and munching. Second-favorite pastime: scaling invisible walls. Occasionally he would grow bored with the fennel and, for a diversion, burst out of his skin and eat the old one. (Photo mercifully unavailable.)

Thus far, no mysteries. A degree of grossness, perhaps, but my younger children seem to believe that is the Best Part of adopting caterpillars. Look! Five hundred tiny balls of poop! Jane tells them that no, the miracle of metamorphosis is the Best Part, but Beanie remains staunch in her conviction that butterflies are nice, but they are simply not as riveting as Creatures Who Eat Their Own Skin.

Anyway. Now we come to the mysterious part. Rose was the first to spot a third critter in the jungle. There was a skinny little wormish looking thing lurking on the branch near Homer. Pressing our noses to the plastic wall, we decided the Little Thing was another caterpillar, an itty bitty one, possibly just hatched. Perhaps, we surmised, he had entered the jungle as a stowaway on the most recent fennel delivery. I ran for the camera, hoping the zoom function would help us to make an ID.

But he was gone. I swear, only thirty seconds had passed and we were all right there talking about fennel and butterfly eggs. One moment we saw him, and the next, he was nowhere to be found. We peered into the jungle, searching every inch. No wormy thing.

Over the next day, I bet I spent a combined total of two hours hunting for that thing. We scrutinized every bump on the branches, every shadow among the feathery fennel leaves. Nada. Maybe, Rose suggested, he had crawled out one of the airholes in the top. After all, he was small enough to fit. This is the point when Scott decided it would be funny to tickle the back of my neck with his fingertips. Ah ha ha ha. You will be relieved to know that caterpillars appear unaffected by high-pitched human shrieking even when it occurs two feet from their teeny tiny caterpillar ears. Also, any partly deaf toddlers in the vicinity will be highly amused.

Did you say something, Mommy?

So: for some thirty-six hours, the searching and the shuddering. And then suddenly, there it was. Still teeny tiny, still hanging out by Homer. On Homer, actually. Homer has a groupie! Because, you know, metamorphosis is cool.

This time I was the sole witness of Wormish Thing’s reappearance. I had to show the kids. Once more I sprinted for the camera. Twenty seconds later I was back, already zooming my lens.

And it was gone. Again. Gone! Poof! Forget metamorphosis, this creature can teleport!

Later in the day, Rose spotted him halfway down Homer’s branch. Her story is uncorroborated, but I believe her.

He’s toying with us, I know it.


After I wrote all this, I happened to be passing by the butterfly jungle, pointedly not looking for the Thing, when a tiny wiggling caught my eye, and there he was again. Back at his favored post, on top of poor old Homer. Who has yet, by the way, to shed that last caterpillar skin and be a really truly chrysalis. Frankly, I’m a little concerned. I cannot help but suspect the Thing of nefarious purpose. What if he is not a baby caterpillar at all? What if his affection for Homer is not fraternal but rather the sort of affection I feel for, say, chocolate? Is it possible that in addition to his ninja powers he possesses a taste for Pupa?

(Herodotus: run!)

Well, this time I was too quick for him. If he is up to no good, I’ve got a photo ID. Police detectives still carry magnifying glasses, right? Because they may need one in order to penetrate his Cunning Disguise. Ha HA! I will hide as a bump on a twig! Their Giant Human Eyes will never spot me! *click* Curses! They have a zoom lens! Crafty humans…


Thus ends the first installment of The Great Caterpillar (or Possibly Not a Caterpillar) Mystery. Next chapter to come when someone metamorphosizes or pupates or gets eaten or something. UPDATE: Part Two is here.

Herodotus says: Look, Ma! No hands muscular warts!

A Rabble of Butterflies

April 25, 2006 @ 6:16 am | Filed under: ,

Did you know rabble was the collective noun pertaining to butterflies? According to this site, swarm also applies. Neither one quite fits, if you ask me. Hmm…a blessing of butterflies? A rustle of butterflies?

Whatever you call it, Cindy’s got it. She found some forty-odd monarch butterfly chrysalises (and correspondingly bare milkweed plants) outside her home yesterday. Neat pictures, especially the last one.