A Day in the Life of a Butterfly
IF YOUR daily routine seems stressful and difficult, spare a thought for the hardworking butterfly. At first you may think that a butterfly’s work schedule looks like a dream vacation. Flitting from flower to flower, supping a little nectar here and there, basking at will in the sunshine, the butterfly appears to be the epitome of the carefree life-style.
But in the insect world, things are not always what they seem. Butterflies are busy creatures who perform a vital service while constantly working against the clock. Let’s join a butterfly on a typical workday.
A Sunshine Breakfast
Do you wake up feeling groggy? Early morning blues are endemic among butterflies. Some mornings they can’t get going at all—literally. Their problem is body temperature, which fluctuates according to their surroundings. After they spend a cold night perched on a leaf, their blood is so cold they can hardly move, much less fly. So they must wait for the sun.
When the sun rises, the butterfly opens his wings and angles them toward its warming rays. The outstretched wings, acting like miniature solar panels, soon capture the necessary heat, and off the butterfly sails. But what if the sky is cloudy? In cool temperate regions, butterflies must stay put—immobilized on a convenient twig or flower—until the sun shines. This is not laziness. It’s sheer necessity.
If the day is not too hot, the butterfly pauses from time to time for further sunshine therapy. Like a car refueling at a gas station, he needs his fill of solar energy. In the tropics the butterfly may need to bask only first thing in the morning or after a shower of rain. Generally speaking, the cooler the weather, the more time he spends basking. Once his energy is restored, he continues with the work at hand.
‘Love at First Scent’
The most urgent task is to find a mate. With a life expectancy that rarely exceeds a few weeks, there is no time to lose. And finding a mate in the butterfly world is no easy job—it requires heroic patience and persistence.
“Love at first sight” is unknown among butterflies. They are notoriously nearsighted, and more often than not they mistake a different species for one of their own. This leads to many a fruitless chase that comes to naught when the butterfly suitor finally realizes his eyes have deceived him.
To make life even more difficult, the female usually isn’t receptive. The ardent male flies persistently around her, in a type of high-speed aerial waltz, hoping that she will eventually relent. But these spectacular butterfly ballets usually come to an abrupt end when the female flies off, leaving the hapless male to continue his search.
Surprisingly enough, the female isn’t that fussy about the fancy colors of her male consort. Although Darwin blithely assumed that butterflies’ brilliant colors provided some ‘evolutionary advantage,’ the evidence has not been forthcoming. In one experiment females of the North American species Anartia amathea mated quite happily with males whose bright crimson and black wings had been painted black all over. What seems to matter most is the male’s flight pattern, his persistence, and, above all, the unique “love-dust.”
The love-dust carries a pheromone that is the male’s trump card. It is a heady perfume, tailor-made to affect the females of his species. During courtship he attempts to dust her with this “superscent.” Although the love-dust is no guarantee of success, it works wonders when a willing female is finally found.
A Taste of Nectar
All the energy expended in this search for a mate must be replenished. Hence the butterflies’ taste for nectar. Flowers advertise this high-energy food by means of attractive shapes and colors. Once he alights on the flower, the butterfly deftly sucks up the nectar with a long tubelike proboscis, which he pokes into the base of the flower.
While feeding on the nectar, the insect gets a dusting of pollen on his hairy body, thus taking the pollen with him to the next flower he visits. During a typical workday, hundreds of flowers are pollinated. In tropical forests, however, flowers do not abound. What do tropical butterflies usually drink?
Tropical butterflies like nothing better than gorging on rotten fruit. The overripe fruit that falls to the ground provides them a plentiful source of sugary energy.
Butterflies also like salt. They may often be found sucking up the salty moisture from a patch of wet ground or occasionally the perspiration on the hand of a human admirer. The intrepid flambeau butterfly has even been spotted drying the tears of the caiman.
While busily looking for a mate, pollinating flowers, and keeping well fed, our winged friend must also keep an eye out for enemies. He may look defenseless, but he has several tactics to avoid capture.
Keeping Danger at Bay
A gaudy butterfly fluttering over a meadow would presumably be a tempting morsel for any insect-eating bird. But the butterfly’s haphazard, jerky flight makes catching him a very tricky job. Most birds give up after a few tries. Even when a bird does catch a butterfly, the insect may succeed in escaping by leaving behind a portion of his wing in the bird’s beak.
Eyesight is another protection. Although butterflies are nearsighted, their compound eyes are highly efficient at detecting movement. They will dart away at any hint of danger, as anyone who has tried to photograph a butterfly knows only too well.
Some slow-flying butterflies have another safety device—their nasty taste. It is caused by their feeding on poisonous plants when they were caterpillars. Once he has bitten such a butterfly, a bird will usually shy away from a second encounter. Often these foul-tasting butterflies—like the monarch—are brightly colored, a visual warning that apparently reminds the bird to keep clear.
The World Book Encyclopedia notes that most butterflies do not live longer than a few weeks, but that some species may live up to 18 months. Some are dormant during the cold winter months or during a prolonged dry season in the tropics.
But despite their short lives, butterflies can accomplish amazing feats. Last century the monarch butterfly crossed the Atlantic in sufficient numbers to establish itself in the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa. Another great traveler, the painted lady, regularly journeys from North Africa to the north of Europe in the summer season.
During their brief life span, the tireless butterflies do a vital job pollinating flowers, shrubs, and fruit trees. And much more than that, their presence adds a touch of beauty and delight to the countryside. Summer would not be summer without them.
[Picture on page 16]
Sunning in early morning
[Picture on page 17]
Drawing nectar from a flower
[Picture on page 18]
Extracting moisture from the ground
Courtesy of Buckfast Butterfly Farm