Curious Nature: Butterly fans online
February 23, 2013
In our neck of the woods, we don’t really think about butterflies during the winter. Butterflies remind us of mountain summers – short-lived, but brilliant. But there is one strong little butterfly that braves even the Colorado cold.
This fascinating insect goes dormant and hides through the worst of the weather, only waking up to bask in the brief warmth when the sun shines.
This unobtrusive but delicately beautiful butterfly is known as the mourning cloak. It is one of the longest-lived of the species and one of the few known to be able to withstand winter temperatures as an adult.
I found some interesting posts when I Googled “mourning cloak butterfly.” The first was titled “attack of the mourning cloak butterfly larvae” and it was followed by some heated discussion.
It seems that the initial author was having difficulties with some of his favorite trees being overrun by black spiny caterpillars (the larvae of the mourning cloaks).
Caterpillars, of course, are one of the necessary evils of butterflies. With voracious appetites and four stages of shedding their skin, these crawling critters can quickly defoliate the trees they call home. After trying to eliminate them with spray cleansers, the author finally cut off the tree limbs with the biggest masses of caterpillars, bagged them, and tossed them into the trash.
The responses to his action, as you might imagine, were varied. The first came from a Buddhist in Massachusetts.
Surprisingly, she wasn’t upset that the caterpillars had been killed, but she wanted to buy them to release at a funeral. The initial “murderer” was shocked and appalled at this response!
He articulated in great detail how difficult it would be to ensure the timing so that these butterflies could have appropriate food and water to survive until their release as “living confetti.”
But, never fear, lurking in the shadows, a caterpillar dealer posted his address saying that he could get all kinds of caterpillars for the Buddhist funeral. American capitalism was alive and well.
Another post was from the author of a poem who found the blog after Googling her own name. She talked about how these butterflies are widespread throughout Britain, where they go by the name Camberwell Beauties, and told a story of her favorite author carefully saving a cocoon so that it hatched in her home.
In fact, these butterflies are relatively easy to rear, and can be collected as caterpillars after the adults mate and lay eggs in early spring.
But be prepared, of course, to feed them lots of their favorite foods, which include foliage from aspens, cottonwoods and willows.
Some even claim that they can be kept over the winter as adults, kind of like geraniums, in a cool dark room, as long as you provide water and food in the form of fermenting fruit. Just be careful collecting the caterpillars, as their spines can irritate your skin.
The mourning cloak’s ability to withstand winter’s freezing temperatures derives from the same physical mechanism shared by other wildlife. The butterfly finds a protected spot, usually under flakes of tree bark or in a pile of rotting leaves.
From this point, their body chemistry gradually changes and the butterfly produces sugars and alcohols, which function as antifreeze in their bloodstream. This is a gradual process, though, and butterflies captured in the summer will die if you freeze them!
Coming back to our online caterpillar drama, the caterpillar killer was now counseling a woman with a severe caterpillar problem, advising her on how to keep the caterpillars alive and healthy.
Ironically, he advised her to curtail her outdoor activities to make room for them, and she eventually ended up corralling as many live caterpillars as she could in a butterfly enclosure to protect them from her dog and kids.
So, of course, the question arises: Where was all this concern and care when the caterpillars were in his yard?
It’s not always easy to see beauty in ugly things like spiny caterpillars eating the beautiful spring foliage, but if caterpillar killer can realize this lesson, so can we.
Beauty is everywhere – we sometimes just need a little patience to see it.
Jaymee Squires is the graduate programs director at Walking Mountains Science School. Jaymee is eager for any and all signs of spring, including those that crawl.