On Delicate Wings Through Life
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
IMAGINE, if you can, a delicate display of colors fluttering from blossom to blossom. The rays of sunlight play on its silky blue wings as it settles on a large hibiscus flower. Nearby you might overhear a discussion such as this:
“What does it do on the flowers?” young Mary asks.
“Watch closely and you will see,” replies Uncle Will.
While still hovering just above another blossom, the insect unrolls its slender coiled tongue, lowering it deep into the nectar container of the blossom.
“Why, its tongue is just like a tiny hose,” exclaims John.
But not really. It is split in half. Located between the two bulging eyes, it is coiled like a watch spring when at rest, but extends straight out when in use. The suction, incidentally, is performed by a pump much like a bellows.
As you watch this dazzling winged jewel, the Brazilian Blue, various others appear on the scene, all busy refueling. Young John runs after one and soon comes back, holding it by the wings.
“Now your hands will be full of fine ‘dust,’ John. Look here! I brought along this pocket microscope. Put some of the ‘dust’ from your fingertips on the slide. Do you see the shape of the particles of ‘dust’? They are actually minute scales. In different species the shape of these scales varies. Often they are arranged in regular rows on the wings.
“Now you know,” Uncle Will continues, “why butterflies and moths get the scientific name, Lepidoptera—a word derived from Greek words, lepis (scale) and pteron (wing), that is, ‘scaled wings.’”
“What wonderful blue!” exclaims John.
“And so fragile!” adds Mary.
“Well, actually, on both counts appearances are deceiving,” explains Uncle Will. “Seen under the microscope, the color is plain brown, but the transparent scales on top interfere with the light rays in such a way as to make the color appear different. And these creatures are not really as fragile as one might imagine. The legs are tubular parts of the skin, which serves too as skeleton, affording protection and resistance. Also, within the body, composed of head, chest and abdomen, there are a heart and a stomach.”
An Amazing Transformation
“Tell us, Uncle, how butterflies are born,” Mary begs.
“Well, little one, first the male and female butterflies must get together. For this purpose the males are equipped with a pair of antennae made up of many tiny segments, and with this they can detect the presence of a female at great distances, even several miles away. Perhaps odor is the secret, for the male always has his antennae turned to the wind.
“When the male approaches the female of his choice, it is said that he displays all his colors in a kind of fluttering dance. After fertilization the female secretes some substance with which she covers herself in order to repel any other male. Then she lays her eggs, perhaps as many as a thousand. Having achieved her purpose in life, she refuses to eat, lives only a few days and then dies. The male, too, soon dies.”
“Then what happens, Uncle?”
“The eggs hatch, and out come caterpillars, hungry caterpillars, Mary. This usually occurs eight to ten days after the eggs are laid. And they don’t need mother to feed them, for they come equipped with strong jaws and eight to ten eyes with which to search for food. Juicy green leaves are their bill of fare. Observers once noted that during a fifty-two-day period one caterpillar devoured 120 leaves, drank fifteen grams of water, and grew to 86,000 times its weight at birth!
“Caterpillars are quite vulnerable to enemies,” continues Uncle Will, “so they have to watch out. Some feed only at nighttime; others on the underside of leaves; still others hide in webs or tubular retreats made of twisted leaves. Others have the most amazing ability to camouflage. The reflection of light from their immediate environment produces a nervous response, resulting in a change in the color. For example, the larvae of the red underwing moth, when subjected to green surroundings, become bluish green, and in a dark-colored background they become bluish gray.”
“What finally happens to the caterpillar?” John asks.
“Well, one day, it instinctively retires to a hiding place, spins out some silky threads into a cocoon, and enters into its last stage, the chrysalis—something that looks like a horny, cylinder-shaped wrapping. This stage can last from one week to several years. Inside the cylinder a real miracle takes place, the remaking of the body of the caterpillar into another creature. Then, one warm day, the tight shell bursts open, and what do you suppose emerges?”
“I know, I know,” bursts out Mary. “A butterfly!”
“That’s right, a butterfly or a moth, whatever family the egg belonged to. But imagine! No longer a slimy caterpillar, but a breathtakingly beautiful, winged creature—and perhaps a very colorful one. It spreads its wings, injects into them a fluid from its inner body, and when the wings dry it is ready for its maiden flight.”
“Are there many kinds of butterflies?”
“Well, Mary, counting butterflies and moths, at 80,000 species have been described, and it is believed that some 120,000 species exist. Brazil is understood to have the greatest number. One naturalist observed in the Amazon region seven hundred in the space of just an hour.”
“So can they be seen in all parts of the world?” queries John.
“Their range is practically the same as for flowering plants. Only the very cold regions such as around the poles are avoided. At least forty-six species extend within the Arctic Circle. But no resident butterfly is known in Iceland. The most beautiful ones live in the tropics.
“Fossil butterflies have been found, too,” notes Uncle Will, “such as those embedded in Baltic amber. Yet such ancient samples exhibit no material difference from those fluttering around today. There are no traces of development over the thousands of years. They were evidently made by God according to their kind on the fifth creative day, to which the Bible refers.”—Gen. 1:20-23.
“But Uncle, do butterflies travel far?” “Yes, John. Here again, though, there are wide variations. Most species live but a few days or weeks and stay in one locality. Others live for months, and fly thousands of miles either alone or in large groups. Take the monarch butterfly, for instance. In summer it is common in northern latitudes as far north as Hudson Bay. It winters in California or Mexico, each successive generation returning to the same locations. In spring this butterfly has a new lease of life and takes to the air for the long trip north again. By June it arrives there, lays its eggs and dies.”
“How are they able to migrate to the same locations, Uncle?”
“God gave them that ability, Mary. It has been suggested that scent plays an important role here. Each hind wing of the male monarch has a dark spot, and the scales on this spot are black and hollow. They give off a perfume faintly resembling that of the honeysuckle. It is used mainly in connection with mating, but it could be that they also leave a scent trail behind when traveling in large masses.
“Of course, not all species fly in the same direction. In Africa, masses of butterflies headed in different directions have been observed meeting and crossing paths, so to speak. But each kind keeps to its own course. Not even a rainstorm deflects them. And some of their swarms are huge. One band was observed in Europe that was forty miles wide and took three days to pass over a given spot at a speed of six miles per hour. The number in the swarm was estimated to be about three billion.” “Is that their usual speed?”
“Not necessarily, John. Research into the matter has produced some really astonishing facts. Butterflies observed in England were clocked at forty-two kilometers per hour. One, followed by a helicopter, flew 220 kilometers in 4 hours 42 minutes. And these insects do not burn up anywhere near the fuel used by man’s flying machines. The helicopter consumes 4 to 5 percent of its weight in fuel in a one-hour flight; an airplane uses 12 percent. But the butterfly in the same time uses only six-tenths of one percent of its weight.”
“How big do they get Uncle,” Mary asks.
“There are some really big ones. The female Troides Alexandre of New Guinea, for example, is ten to twelve inches across. The Ornithoptera Cassandra of North Queensland, Australia, is six and a half inches, and another species in Borneo is seven inches across the open wings.
“Then, too,” continues Uncle Will, “there are the ‘skunks’ of the butterfly world. These give off an obnoxious odor to ward off enemies—mainly birds. Also, their wing designs are often well calculated to provide camouflage. In one type the wings look like the eyes of an owl; another looks like a dry old leaf; yet another has a design similar to the number 80 or 88 on the underside of its wings.”
“So what is the difference between moths and butterflies?”
“Generally speaking, John, butterflies fly by day, moths at night. But there are exceptions. Indeed, you have probably seen moths flying around in daylight. When at rest the butterfly usually keeps its wings, the front ones at least, closed and vertically erect. The moth leaves its front wings open, obliquely inclined. And then, too, moths do not as a rule sport such vivid colors as do butterflies.”
“One more thing, Uncle. Are butterflies useful for anything?”
“Yes, they are, Mary. In addition to being a delight to the eyes of appreciative people, they also perform an important function in behalf of plants. They carry pollen from one flower to another, in this way making possible the reproduction of the plants. Also, you have heard of the silkworms. They, too, become moths, but in the larva stage they spin cocoons of pure silk, which man uses for his own purposes. But now, children, the sun is going down and it is time to be on our way.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” says John, “for telling us all about the lepi . . . what was that again?”
“Lepidoptera. Remember? Scaled wings.”