Butterfly Diary 2017, 032517 edition

Costa Rican clearwing

Sadly, I am not volunteering as a butterfly caregiver at Butterflies in Bloom at Dow Gardens in Midland, MI. Work commitments made a weekly two-hour afternoon shift prohibitive this year.

I am cheered by knowing I made someone very happy with the opening of that shift, as the job always has people eager to fill it. I hope that next year I can return. In the meantime I still can visit, which is what I did Friday:

DG032417mating

DG032417leaf

DG032417orangecurly

DG03242017wetbutterfly

DG03242017ovalbananas

DG03242017black

DG03242017marigolds

DG03242017treebranch

DG032417malachitewrist

DG03242017ovalmorpho

DG03242017upsidedown

DG03242017dishquad

DG03242017pinkflowers

DG03242017paperkitediagonal

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Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 3

Four longwing butterflies in a feeding dish
Four longwing butterflies in a feeding dish
It’s butterfly Twister! A fifth one was in the same feeder just before I shot this (of course); three of these are small postman butterflies

We had a tough combination at Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom on Tuesday: lots of small children and lots of butterflies that wanted to hang out on the floor. Besides the obvious traffic hazard, the floor was a little chilly so I moved any butterflies that seemed inclined to linger there.

A green and brown butterfly hanging upside down
Not on the floor but near, upside down on the storage cabinet beneath the emergence case

One advantage of having lots of small children visit is that they are quite concerned about the welfare of the butterflies. Several of them called me over to look at an emerald swalllowtail that was motionless on a leaf. It was battered but not quite dead, so I gently scooped it up and promised to put it in a protected area (which I did), and reminded them that the butterflies don’t live a long time, so this one might just have been 85 in butterfly years.

Emerald swallowtail
This emerald swalllowtail likely did not live much longer; the varieties we bring in have life spans of only a few weeks

Just after this, a boy about first grade came up, softly took me by the hand and led me to the object of his concern, a black crumpled object in a puddle below a misting fan.

“That’s a dead leaf. It’s OK,” I told him.

“I thought it was a butterfly.”

“No, it’s a leaf, but thank you. That was important for you to tell me. Good job.”

A butterfly (sorry, ID is tough sometimes)
A clipper near the frog pond … but not too near

We also had a few butterflies that hadn’t developed properly, but were strong enough to fly around and find food. One orange Julia in particular was a bit wrinkled and a little slower than it should have been, so when I found one child preparing to hand it off to another, I pointed out how its wings were not quite as flat as they should have been and asked them to be extra careful.

The giant owl below was a worse off example, and it kept falling to the floor. I ended up moving it to our orchid room, where at least if it fell again it would land on dirt, not concrete.

Giant owl butterfly

Identifying butterflies as opposed to other creatures is especially interesting because they can offer two very different views, depending on whether you see the top or underside of their wings. One of the most striking examples we have is the blue morpho, which is brown with an outer row of spots on the underside, but a brilliant blue on the top.

(The most thorough ID site I have seen is at Discover Life, www.discoverlife.org/mp/20q.)

In the two photos below, you can see the underside, then the top side of the same zebra mosaic butterfly’s wings.

The very striped and patterned underside of a butterfly's wings

The top side of the same butterfly's wings, black except for a white nearly vertical stripe

We get visitors who are quite serious about photography, with equipment to match. I often ask them if there is any particular variety they are seeking, and usually they’re just looking for whatever is new.

One gentleman, though, was focused on finding a clearwing. I had seen one in the emergence case and when I was letting out numerous other small butterflies, I called him over and pointed it out on the underside of a shelf.

“Do you want to shoot it here before I let it out, so you can be sure you have it?” He shook his head and I realized he needed it in a natural environment, so I released it and we watched together to see where it landed.

(Just after that a 9ish boy on the opposite side of the case tapped the glass and asked me if I would get out the red and black swallowtail that was shivering there. “Sorry, that one’s not ready.” Case relocked.)

The clearwing conveniently landed on a plant just below shoulder height, and soon there were several photographers gathered, politely taking their turns at the angles they wanted. After a few minutes, the gentleman showed me one of the many photos he had taken of the clearwing and explained that he and another gentleman he had met about 20 years ago had started shooting butterflies at the annual exhibit at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, but then had started traveling to Midland as well.

“Mine’s better,” he said of his photo.

“Oh, so you compete to see who can get the best shot of each variety,” I said, smiling and nodding.

He wouldn’t confirm it aloud, but his sly smile spoke for him.

Four different varieties of butterflies share a feeding dish
Butterflies of different types often feed together, but this is the first time I’ve seen such a variety share a food dish.

Butterfly Diary 2016, Week 2

A little girl asked why one butterfly didn't have eyes and I said it did, but they were black ... like this one's

Butterfly on a tropical plant

This week I’ll largely post photos. That’s what most people want anyway.

There was a lot of emergence in this, the first full week of Dow Gardens’ Butterflies in Bloom. We also had three mating pairs, which I haven’t seen this early on. For the most part people kept a respectful distance, but one woman plucked a mating pair off a marigold when I was busy elsewhere and put them on her toddler grandson to photograph. SERIOUSLY? Like you’d want to be bothered that way. And no, they were not at all inclined to separate; I don’t know how long they go at it, but some of them remained fond of each other for my entire 2-hour shift.

Mating swallowtails
Mating great yellow Mormon and swallowtail
Mating swallowtails
Same pair, side view
A zebra longwing on one of the marigolds brought into the conservatory for the butterflies
A zebra longwing on one of the marigolds brought into the conservatory for the butterflies
A trio at one of the food dishes
A trio at one of the food dishes
A Mexican bluewing whose coloring is more of a light violet than the usual cobalt blue
A Mexican bluewing whose coloring is more of a light violet than the usual cobalt blue
A starry night cracker, one of my favorite varieties
A starry night cracker, one of my favorite varieties
A different starry night cracker, sharing a banana
A different starry night cracker, sharing a banana
Another of our smaller varieties, a buckeye
Another of our smaller varieties, a buckeye
Somewhat larger, a malachite
Somewhat larger, a malachite
A swallowtail without one of its telltale "tails"
A great yellow Mormon without one of its telltale swallow”tails”
Same variety, different specimen; note the two "tails"
Same variety, different specimen; note the two “tails”
A little girl asked why one butterfly didn't have eyes and I said it did, but they were black ... like this one's
A little girl asked why one butterfly didn’t have eyes and I said it did, but they were black … like this one’s
More flying critters
More flying critters …
Butterfly on foliage
… and another …
A butterfly on a flowering plant
… and another
Mating pipevine swallowtails; note the top one's wing is so battered you can see the yellow of the marigold through it
Mating pipevine swallowtails; note the top one’s wing is so battered you can see the yellow of the marigold through it

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 5: A photo gallery

My favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.
A spicebush swallowtail feeds on a zinnia.
A spicebush swallowtail feeds on a zinnia.

A sunny day meant lots of emergence for Butterflies in Bloom this week. When the temperature hit 85 in the Conservatory, the vents opened, so keeping the floors wet was a challenge this week. I still managed to squeeze in a few photos, and stayed after my shift to try for a few more.

This shows the underside of the wing of the butterfly pictured at top, the spicebush swallowtail. This one is hanging in our “nursery” Norfolk pine for some extra attention and drying time.
This shows the underside of the wing of the butterfly pictured at top, the spicebush swallowtail. This one is hanging in our “nursery” Norfolk pine for some extra attention and drying time.

 

A Mexican bluewing still in the chrysalis case. The dark spots on the TENA pad are meconium, or waste fluid, that the butterflies expel as they unfurl and flap their wings to dry while hanging. We put pads under each chrysalis shelf and spray them heavily to boost the humidity in the case.
A Mexican bluewing still in the chrysalis case. The dark spots on the TENA pad are meconium, or waste fluid, that the butterflies expel as they unfurl and flap their wings to dry while hanging. We put pads under each chrysalis shelf and spray them heavily with water to boost the humidity in the case.

 

A chrysalis for one of the owl butterflies, I believe the giant owl. See how it’s transparent at the top? The Dow Gardens entomologist, Elly Maxwell Grosteffon, said this one likely would be emerging within the next day.
A chrysalis for one of the owl butterflies, I believe the giant owl. See how it’s transparent at the top? The Dow Gardens entomologist, Elly Maxwell Grosteffon, said this one likely would be emerging within the next day.

 

I reached out to Elly for help when I couldn’t identify this while editing and she told me it is a lacewing. Many photos show the tops of butterfly wings, so identifying by the undersides is harder. It gets trickier still because so many varieties have duller undersides for camouflage, such as the popular blue morpho, which is brown with a line of large spots on the undersides, but a brilliant blue on the wing tops. The blue morphos also are notoriously uncooperative for cameras.
I reached out to Elly for help when I couldn’t identify this while editing and she told me it is a lacewing. Many photos show the tops of butterfly wings, so identifying by the undersides is harder. It gets trickier still because so many varieties have duller undersides for camouflage, such as the popular blue morpho, which is brown with a line of large spots on the undersides, but a brilliant blue on the wing tops. The blue morphos also are notoriously uncooperative for cameras.

 

A small postman.
A small postman.

 

A giant swallowtail.
A giant swallowtail.

 

A queen, which is the type, not the gender. It is somewhat battered, likely from courting rituals. I find the orange Julias and zebra longwings especially amorous, and sometimes gently shoo them out of the nursery when they try to mate with a new insect, such as the orange sulphur that crashed with its wings furled and had trouble hanging onto the tree at all. Sadly, it did not survive.
A queen, which is the type, not the gender. It is somewhat battered, likely from courting rituals. I find the orange Julias and zebra longwings especially amorous, and sometimes gently shoo them out of the nursery when they try to mate with a new insect, such as the orange sulphur that crashed with its wings furled and had trouble hanging onto the tree at all. Sadly, it did not survive.

 

A pipevine swallowtail.
Above, a pipevine swallowtail. Below, my favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.

My favorite photo of the week, a paper kite hanging from its chrysalis.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 4: Winter gives way to spring

The waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.
A newly emerged buckeye. While many have a mostly brown background, some breeders emphasize colorings that are purple or green, like this one.
A newly emerged buckeye. While many have a mostly brown background, some breeders emphasize colorings that are purple or green, like this one.

A sunny day in the Dow Gardens Conservatory meant lots of butterflies emerging this week. Visitors still were frustrated by the blue morphos, which seem to know when a camera isn’t ready to capture the striking blue topsides of their wings, and instead present the interestingly patterned but quite brown undersides.

I felt their pain. Among the varieties I saw but didn’t get were a queen (my own fault, I put one in the nursery tree but forgot to shoot it), Mexican bluewing, tailed jay and the tiny but striking Atala hairstreak.

Of course, the climate indoors and that outdoors were quite different.

The waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.
The waterfall near the entrance is much more liquid now.

 

As the stream by the Conservatory thaws, multiple layers of leaves that were frozen into it are revealed.
As the stream by the Conservatory thaws, multiple layers of leaves that were frozen into it are revealed.

The waning days of winter showed most of the snow pack gone, but the “pond ice is unstable” sign remains up to warn visitors.

The frogs LOVE the butterfly exhibit. It is tasty.
The frogs LOVE the butterfly exhibit. It is tasty.

Back indoors, one of the frogs came out to sun itself, which was fun to point out to the kids. Usually the frogs stay in the pond and are much harder to spot, although “Can you find the frogs?” is a great question to ask kids who can’t seem to settle down.

Among the largest babies of Butterflies in Bloom are the giant owls, below. The exhibit continues through April 19.

A giant owl on my hand, for scale. This variety has noticeable weight to it, and scritchy feet.
A giant owl on my hand, for scale. This variety has noticeable weight to it, and scritchy feet.

 

Another giant owl.
Another giant owl.

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 2: Lots of new friends

Sticking close to "home."
Resting above eye level.
Resting above eye level.

As opposed to the first week, when the bitter cold outdoors made it difficult to keep the humidity in the Conservatory high enough, there were lots of new butterflies emerging, perhaps a dozen just in the two hours I was there.

One of Dow Gardens' iconic red bridges.
One of Dow Gardens’ iconic red bridges.

That doesn’t mean the cold has passed. Far from it as you can see above, with snow surrounding the red bridge that leads to the exhibit. (Dow Gardens also has a fully barrier-free streamside path that leads to Butterflies in Bloom, but I alternate routes.)

Sticking close to "home."
Sticking close to “home.”

Sometimes even when butterflies are quite strong, they don’t go far after being released from the emergence case. This one decided that chilling on the case’s back door was just fine.

Noms. A blue morpho butterfly eating rotting kiwi.
Noms.

We had several blue morphos emerge, which made me happy because they are a visitor favorite. They are our largest butterfly; one is pictured above on a delicacy, rotting kiwi. When it opens its wings, the “top” sides are a beautiful blue.

A swallowtail butterfly taking a little recovery time.
Taking a little recovery time. (There are three other, blurry, partial butterflies in this shot: buckeyes at the bottom and at the right, and a blue morpho just off the “tail” of the swallowtail.)

Some species take longer than others to be dry and strong. Swallowtails, like the one above on the Nordic pine in the nursery area, sometimes shake as if they are chilly. Monarchs are notorious for crashing and needing quick rescue, and the blue morphos are so large that they make take half a day before they are ready for release, while some small species are vigorously flying about inside the case in two hours or less.

Got questions? Ask!

Butterfly Diary 2015, Week 1: Settling in

A recently emerged buckeye.
Butterflies this year include the chocolate pansy on the right, perched on the lock of the case.
Butterflies this year include the chocolate pansy on the right, perched on the lock of the case.

It’s butterfly time!

The annual Butterflies in Bloom exhibit at Dow Gardens in Midland, Michigan, is eagerly anticipated. Visitors range from classrooms of preschoolers to busloads of seniors, families to photographers. Unlike some other butterfly exhibits, visitors are allowed and even encouraged to touch the butterflies. With that in mind, a few quick guidelines if you go:

  1. Do not chase the butterflies.
  2. Do not grab the butterflies or touch their wings. Let them land on you, or put your finger in front of one and wait for it to crawl onto you.
  3. Do not bother them while they are eating. Seriously, I have to tell adults this, not just on flowers but on what could only be food dishes.
  4. Do not pout if a certain one doesn’t land on you. Some are more sociable than others; hold still and wait for a different one.

Last week I had my first volunteer shift of the season, before the exhibit opened to the public. The entomologist, the fabulous Elly Grosteffon, had told me that the bitter cold had made it hard to keep the humidity up high enough, so only about a dozen had emerged.

Inside the butterfly case.
Inside the butterfly emergence case.

Sure enough, there were only a few flying around the conservatory. I checked for the other expected occupants; the canaries and frogs remained, but when the canaries became noisy I couldn’t hear the Chinese quail calling in return, and learned it had died of natural causes. Another change from last year: no moths, taking a break.

With no visitors yet, I had essentially two jobs: monitor the case for emerging butterflies and water the floor. The conservatory is always warm and humid, but butterflies need insanely high humidity like 96 percent to thrive, so we do several things to help:

  1. Keep their case closed as much as possible. Even when there are several that are flying vigorously and seem ready to be let out, I do it in batches, which I think of as “Everybody out of the pool!” If you’re strong you’re coming out, if not you’re waiting.
  2. When we do open the case, spray the absorbent pads lining the bottoms with water.
  3. Water the floor. Water the floor. Water the floor, with a hose if possible or with watering cans if there are lots of visitors. Preschool girls in particular love to help so I let them, even though they can only lug watering cans that are half full.

There also are misting fans over which we have no control. We do NOT water the plants, which have their own tender. Yes, I am jealous of his cool job.

A recently emerged buckeye.
A recently emerged buckeye.

This little one was strong and ready to come out. It crawled onto my finger and got comfy, requiring some coaxing to leave for more appropriate plant material.

A crasher who sadly did not survive.
A crasher who sadly did not survive.

This one was not so fortunate. It was struggling to emerge and then fell to the floor of the case. Sometimes “crashers” can be placed in the protected area we have behind the case and do just fine. I gently scraped away the rest of this one’s chrysalis as quickly as I could and hung it in a Norfolk pine, where I kept watch but its wings remained crumpled. When I checked with Elly later, she proclaimed it done for, saying it had started emerging quite a while earlier but must have gotten stuck and had its wings start to dry folded; that can’t be reversed.

This one fared better.
This one fared better.

If we can retrieve them while their wings are still wet, their chances are good. That was the case with this one, which I saw fall as it emerged and scooped out right away.

Norfolk pine to the rescue.
Norfolk pine to the rescue.

I coaxed it into hanging and it immediately began the process of unfurling and flapping its wings, looking better quickly. If you see a “butterfly nursery” sign next to the case that indicates visitors shouldn’t move past it, these are the creatures we’re protecting.

And then there's this.
And then there’s this.

We also have to protect butterflies from themselves. Why? They can be stupid. Not only are some of them babies, but just imagine the brain size.

The one pictured above is a case in point. I looked at the tree and saw that someone I had placed there was missing. Sometimes they fall onto lower branches; nope. No, this one had gone as full out stupid as it could get and gone for the concrete floor. Stupid why?

  1. Cold.
  2. Wet. Not bad on a small scale, but this was puddle wet, enough to make wings waterlogged and useless.
  3. Ants. There weren’t any lurking this day, but if an injured butterfly stays on the floor long enough, ants might start into it. We keep parasites out of the emergence case, but we can’t keep ants out of the entire conservatory.
  4. IT’S. A. FLOOR. People expect to see butterflies flying, not crawling. Whenever there are large groups, we warn them to watch their step just in case.

I’m volunteering Tuesdays from noon to 2 p.m. through April 14, so if you’re visiting during that time say hi. You can’t miss me; I’ll be wearing a fluorescent green volunteer shirt with #DGBFLY printed on the front.