Monday, January 18, 2016

From caterpillar to beautiful butterfly

by Beth Sullivan
A very young friend of mine has begun a long treatment in a body brace. Years. As a spunky youngster without a clear concept of length of years ahead, she is facing this with optimism and a great deal of support and love. She has decided that the best way to pass the time and decorate her brace is with Butterflies. Maybe there is something symbolic there: the whole transition, metamorphosis and emergence whole and beautiful. Or maybe she just really LOVES butterflies. I am searching my files for photos for her. She can scrapbook, cut out, collect...whatever she chooses. As she gets older, she may really develop a desire to study them in greater depth. But for now they are cheerful and beautiful. Either way, it got me thinking about something “warm and colorful” on a bland gray January day.
Cecropia moths are in a cocoon all winter and when they emerge in the spring they have no mouth parts at all.

Amazing butterfiles

Butterflies are pretty amazing creatures in all stages. As caterpillars, their only job is to eat and grow. Not a bad life! They have chewing mouth parts that munch constantly and devour vast volumes of greenery. Some caterpillars are quite fussy and limited in their diets. Others are generalists. Some stay close to the ground; others are rarely seen as they spend their lives in the tops of trees. It depends on their food choice, and that food choice also determines where the eggs were laid. It’s all part of a very specific cycle.
As adults, most butterflies rely on nectar sources. But many branch out to take nourishment from other liquids: sap, water in puddles, mud and even animal excrement. Lots of minerals there! They no longer have chewing mouths, but a tongue, proboscis, that sucks up liquid as they find it. Many moths do not have mouth parts at all. They never feed, only mate, lay eggs and die.
The Butterfly cannot chew anymore, but uses its proboscis like a straw for drinking nectar.
At this time of year it is pretty obvious there is not much greenery or nectar sources. It is too cold for outside survival. So where are all the butterflies? There is not one single easy answer.

During the winter

Many moths and butterflies laid their eggs in the fall and then died. The eggs and cases remain outside until next spring when they hatch at a time when there is enough food to support the caterpillars. The invasive Gypsy Moth is the best example; their fuzzy tan-orange egg masses are visible on tree bark now.
The Gypsy Moth goes through several stages in one location. Old cocoons are visible on this tree while adult moths are laying eggs.

Many caterpillars went into pupa stage: cocoon or chrysalis, for the winter. They are usually camouflaged and attached to plant material, near or in the ground, or under rocks or logs. These too will be triggered to hatch when the temperatures are warm enough to ensure that there will be food sources for them.
This chrysalis is quite jewel-like but many are are camouflaged. 

Some caterpillars merely hibernated as is: Woolly Bears are curled up in leaf piles and in gardens and can be discovered at any time of the winter. They will awaken in spring to do their transitioning then.
The Woolly Bear hibernates as a fuzzy caterpillar under piles of leaves all winter.
Some of our Butterflies hibernate here and stay alive during the cold winter months. Mourning Cloaks and other Angle-wings, hibernate in crevices and cracks, in trees and stonewalls. Their body fluids do not freeze in the same way as pure water would in the winter temperatures. When there is an early spring thaw, they can be found out and stirring, and searching out dripping tree sap.
The Mourning Cloak hibernates locally all winter to emerge very early in spring.

Our beloved Monarch always has the best story. It is not the only butterfly to migrate south for the winter, but its journey is the longest and most celebrated. Our entire eastern population of Monarchs is in south, central Mexico now. Their story can be found  here.  one of the best Monarch information sites. They are being still and conserving energy. When temperatures and day length dictate, they will begin their journey North with their next generations arriving here in the spring. Their life cycle is studied by children of all ages! The transition from caterpillar to lovely butterfly is a miracle that all can appreciate.
The Monarch is everyone's favorite butterfly.
So as we face gray days of the winter, and a special young lady is “encased in her chrysalis,” we know there is spring ahead and know beautiful butterflies await us.

If you have butterfly photos you would like to share, you can post them with the hashtag #avalonialandconservancy on Instagram and I will try to capture them to pass on.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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