Let's Go Butterflying

The Essays of Frances Williams ~ July, 1989

Published Oct 1st 2017 in , Animal Behavior, Invertebrates

It’s easy to find butterflies, isn’t it? Just go walking wherever there are flowers – right? Up to a point that is true, but it turns out that butterflies are choosy about which flowers they visit. They don’t care at all for roses, geraniums, petunias or any double ornamental hybrids. They do like “weedy” roadsides and vacant lots where they can find thistles and yellow daisies of almost any species. The brilliant orange flowers of Lantana and the showy purple spikes of Vitex are frequently visited by butterflies, but a Wolfberry bush with its hundreds of tiny, inconspicuous, greenish flowers may host up to 50 butterflies of a dozen species all at once. During the annual July Butterfly Count, good spots to find butterflies are fields of wild sunflowers, mats of frog fruit near playas, and alfalfa fields.

If flowers are scarce, what then? Half of a watermelon attracts many species – and if it ferments a little, that’s all the better. It is reported that fallen fruit of almost any kind is attractive to butterflies, but in our climate such fruit just dries up rather than fermenting to a nice juicy brew. Mud puddles, stream banks and lake edges are other good sites. Here butterflies by the hundreds come to drink from the moist ground. Called “puddle clubs”, these groups are usually composed of sulfurs and blues, but many species join the clubs.

Butterflies are far from being gourmets. They, like Turkey Vultures, gather at road kills, the smellier the better. The tale is told of a lepidopterist who disappeared while visiting Venezuela. It was feared he had been kidnapped, but he was found in a pasture in the blazing tropical sun, sitting by the reeking carcass of a cow, ecstatic with the hundreds of butterflies gathered around it. Fortunately, such activity on the part of butterfly watchers is optional.

Butterfly watchers in cattle country find that places where they would rather not step are also places where butterflies gather. Another tale frequently related where lepidopterists congregate concerns a city-bred woman who was driving through the Ozark backcountry. At one spot there was a cloud of butterflies. After she enjoyed their beauty awhile, she wondered what was attracting them. Her companion pointed out that the cabin nearby had no electricity, and probably no plumbing. And did she see that white bucket on the porch?

After shattering your image of butterflies as dainty beings, sipping nectar from lovely flowers, it’s time to take up what Robert Pyle calls “one of the most elegant, delicate scenes in nature butterfly love.” Butterfly males have three ways of searching for a mate: “patrolling”, “perching” and “hilltopping”. Swallowtails are great patrollers – they fly around and around the yard, following the same route each time, taking about 15 minutes for each trip. If one finds another male, he drives it off. If he finds a female, he will endeavor to mate with her. Red Admirals are perchers. They find a high perch in the open, especially in the late afternoon, and await a passing female. They use a different perch each day. Other species fly to the top of a small hill and mill about; the females expect this, and go to the hill when they are ready to mate. Due to the scarcity of such “prominences” in Midland County, a specific example cannot be given.

When a male finds a receptive female, they being “dancing”. Each species has its own choreography. The dance may involve circling flights or pirouettes on the ground or both. Chemical communication is also involved, as the males emit invisible perfumes called pheromones, which attract the female. To mate, the male curves his abdomen 180 degrees to grasp the female, then turns away from her while he injects a spermatophore into her mating tube. Mating is a leisurely process which may continue up to several hours, and they usually continue flying about while copulating. In some species, the female does the flying and them male remains passive with his wings folded; in other species, the reverse is true. It takes persistence to see the complete procedure. Be patient and you may even smell the pheromones.