Butterfly Diary 2020, #1

Swallowtail butterfly in a chrysalis case

A swallowtail friend in the chrysalis case last Wednesday. Dow Gardens had to close the Butterflies in Bloom exhibit to the public through April 5, so I’ll be dribbling out the photos I took on the only volunteer shift I was able to get in. Gardens staffers are tending the insects in case the Gardens and Conservatory can reopen for the last two scheduled weeks of butterflies.

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 2016, Week 1

photo of several rows of chrysalises of different types
photo of longwing butterfly
This small postman decided the outside of the case was a fine to place to chill, thank you.

It’s time for the best 8 weeks of volunteering I will spend all year: tending baby butterflies.

This is the quietest week of Butterflies in Bloom, because the exhibit isn’t open to the public yet. Friday morning it will be; get all the details at www.dowgardens.org/butterflies.

What is there to do with no visitors? The usual: check the chrysalis case for parasites, check further to see who has emerged and if anyone is in trouble, then water the floor. Seriously, because so many of the species we get are jungle and rainforest dwellers, we keep the humidity in the conservatory cranked, so in addition to running the misting fans, we water the floor, which is mostly brick.

photo of humidity gauge reading 99.9 percentThis puppy at left (haha!) displays the humidity inside the chrysalis case, with readings updated every 15 minutes.

I release butterflies when they are flying about quite actively, practically beating the glass. How long this takes is closely tied to size. Smaller butterflies might take a couple of hours to fully extend and dry their wings, while some of our largest varieties can take half a day.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story, but if you have questions, by all means ask in the comments. And check back the next seven Wednesdays for more butterfly photos.

photo of several rows of chrysalises of different types
A view of the “ceiling,” that is, the underside of a shelf. When a chrysalis doesn’t have silk sticking out of it to pin through, we glue on a tuft of cotton. They change appearance as the occupants grow. For example, just before emergence, those green chrysalises will darken until they appear nearly purple.

photo of an underdeveloped brown clipper butterfly clinging to a luna moth chrysalis

This guy bummed me out because I don’t think he’s going to make it. This is a brown clipper that got stuck emerging, so the wings were out and starting to dry, but they weren’t completely unfolded because the abdomen was stuck in the chrysalis. I watched him struggle for several minutes, wishing our fabulous entomologist would walk in and save the day, but she didn’t so I unpinned him and gently scraped away the paper-thin trap. Unfortunately, the struggle might have exhausted him, because he didn’t move much after that, although I did see him uncurling and curling his proboscis about an hour and a half later just before I left. (I’m saying “he” but truly I don’t know. Some are easier to tell than others.)

photo of a black and white butterfly



At right, this black and white butterfly resting near the conservatory walls had a silhouette effect.


photo of a swallowtail butterfly resting on a stem near the ground




Some butterflies prefer being close to the ground, like this swallowtail at right. As long as this doesn’t place them near the emergency exit, which carries a wicked breeze beneath it this time of year, near or even on pavement is fine.




photo of three emerged paper kite butterflies clinging to chrysalises
This is a view of recently emerged butterflies taken through plexiglass, hence the reflection. (Sorry, but humidity means keeping the case closed as much as possible.) The three black and white creatures just left of center are paper kites, true to the tag at the end of their row. The one second from left had emerged just a few minutes prior, hence the fatter body. To the right is a leopard lacewing.

photo of a hybrid longwing butterfly


Some of our butterflies are hybrids of two varieties, like this longwing at right. This is near the small pond, home to a pair of quite old frogs who have learned to love this annual exhibit.




photo of a leopard lacewing butterfly on a light pink flower
This might be tough to decipher at first. This leopard lacewing is clinging to the flower, not flying. The redder coloration to the left is the underside of its wing.


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.

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!