Floating gracefully on the breeze, like a ballerina swaying to nature’s tune, a spot of brilliant color shines against the bright blue sky. I watch, mesmerized, as the graceful dancer flits to and fro with its dance partner and hold my breath as the finale unfolds. The petals of a flower await, like a stage on opening night, as the dancer gently lands upon them like a whisper. I admire her gorgeous costume as she sips nectar before a new dance begins. Every day in the garden, there are performances, and I am ecstatic when I get a front-row seat.
Watching butterflies in the garden is magical, catching the attention and imagination of all who lay eyes upon them. This imagination has led to butterflies becoming the subject of many literary and artistic works. Author Robert Heinlein once compared butterflies to flowers when he wrote, “Butterflies are not insects; they are self-propelled flowers.” Even Robert Frost, a famed author, and poet weighed in on these winged beauties when he wrote, “Butterflies…flowers that fly and all but sing.” As stated above, I often imagine them as dancers performing on nature’s stage. No matter how we imagine them, there is no denying that butterflies have become cherished winged visitors in gardens worldwide.
As a child, I would often enjoy watching butterflies as I traipsed in the meadows around our home. They held a mystique and magic that captivated me, which they still do today. When I spot one floating on the breeze or landing on a flower, it always causes me to pause and watch, honing in on the beauty of nature at work.
In my garden, butterflies are always welcomed and encouraged by planting flower species that they enjoy and rely on at different development stages. Butterflies and moths, along with most flies, bees, and beetles, undergo a complete metamorphosis. This metamorphosis has four stages: egg, larva: the feeding stage (caterpillar for butterflies and moths), pupa: the transition stage, and adult: the reproductive stage. Many butterfly species are reliant on a single host plant on which they feed. These plants and butterflies have evolved together and often depend on one another for survival. By growing these plant species in our gardens, we not only invite pollinators such as butterflies to our landscape, but we help ensure that they will be around for many generations to come.
For something seemingly delicate and fragile, butterflies are surprisingly resilient. The monarch is a prime example, as it is the only butterfly known that has a two-way migration, just as birds do. Unable to survive the cold winters as larvae, pupae, or adults as some other butterfly species do, monarchs travel south for the winter. Traveling as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home, individual monarchs will fly 50-100 miles per day during their journey! Even more amazing is that this migrating generation has never been to the overwintering sites in Mexico and California. Yet, they all use distinct flyways that merge into a single flyway in Central Texas on the way to Mexico. When warmer and longer days arrive, it cues the migrating generation to finish their development that was halted before migration. They breed and lay eggs that will become the new generation that will start the journey back north. It will take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada once again.
Despite their miraculous resiliency, many species of butterflies and moths are in trouble. Dwindling habitat and loss of native species upon which they depend have caused drastic reductions in population sizes over the years. Not only are they important as pollinators, but they also support most bird species that rely on the larval caterpillars as a food source for their young. Over the years, I have noticed a drastic reduction in the number of butterflies I have seen in nature, and it saddens me. But, there is hope. With gardeners and organizations’ efforts across the globe who are planting gardens specifically with pollinators in mind, their numbers are once again on the rise.
This year, after planting several native and butterfly favored flower varieties, much to my delight, I saw more butterflies than I have in the past several years combined! “If you plant it, they shall come!” has become my new mantra, and the joy that watching pollinators visit my yard has brought me has also brought inspiration. In 2021, I plan on planting a “Pollinator Playground” garden bed in my landscape, filled with plants that pollinators both love and depend on. I am in the project’s design and planning phase, but stay tuned as I will share the entire process with you as it unfolds! Hopefully, it will bring many more of these beautiful winged visitors my way.
In this time of uncertainty, butterflies remind me to be resilient; after all, if something so small and delicate can have the strength and will to travel 3,000 miles, surely I can find the strength to get through these difficult times and those that may lie ahead. All of our lives have been drastically changed over the past few months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but when I see not only the butterfly’s ability to change but their dependency on change for their livelihood, it gives me the strength to accept the changes in my own life. Author Wendy Mass so eloquently stated, “If nothing ever changed, there would be no such thing as butterflies.” And I might add if there were no butterflies, what a sad world it would be.
Sources: U.S. Forest Service , The Academy of Natural Sciences
Photographs (top to bottom): Feature image: Cabbage white butterfly on Truffula Pink Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena pulchella), Photo 1: Monarch butterfly on Truffula Pink Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena pulchella), Photo 2: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Dappled Willow tree (Salix integra ‘Hakuro-Nishiki’), Photo 3: Spicebush Swallowtail on State Fair Zinnia, Photo 4: Silver-spotted Skipper on Truffula Pink Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena pulchella), Photos 5-6: Monarch butterfly on State Fair Zinnia, Video: Monarch butterfly feeding on State Fair Zinnias before the migration south Photo 7: Monarch butterfly on Agastache (Agastache foeniculum), Photos 8-10: Fritillary on State Fair Zinnia, Photo 11: Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on Salvia (Salvia officinalis)
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