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Butterfly’s contributions extend beyond beauty

By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Though the butterfly is fascinating and often breathtakingly beautiful, pollination may be its most valuable contribution to the ecosystem. The butterfly’s role in the pollination process is vital, for it enables flowering plants and trees to bear fruit, berries and vegetables. Approximately 80 percent of all flowering plants depend on insects for pollen transfer among blossoms, and only bees perform more pollination than butterflies and moths.

Pollination is the natural by-product of the butterfly’s manner of feeding. After the butterfly lands on a flower, it detects the blossom’s sweet nectar through taste sensors located on its feet. The insect then uncurls its proboscis, a long hollow tongue, and uses it like a straw to suck up the liquid nourishment. As the butterfly feeds, it inadvertently collects the flower’s tiny pollen grains on its legs, feet, mouthparts and wings. When it flies to other like flowers, the pollen can become dislodged and potentially launch reproduction.

“For this reason, insects - especially butterflies - are more essential to a healthy eco-system than human beings,” says “Butterfly Barbara” Wiederkehr, master gardener and Garden guide at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. “Humbling, but true.”

Butterfly Attractors
Recognized as a picky eater, the butterfly’s nectar preference is determined by several variables. Fragrance lures the butterfly – especially the sweet scents of lilac, lavender, alyssum, heliotrope and other highly fragrant plants. Brightly colored blossoms also draw the butterfly’s attention as specialized eyes extend its color vision into the range of ultraviolet light. Butterflies are known to have favorite colors, especially purples, whites and pinks. Other “nectar guides” that lead the insect to its favorite meals are flower patterns that point toward nectar-filled tubes and petals that serve as accessible landing and perching platforms.

Especially enticing is nectar produced by phlox, buddleia, milkweed, lantana and verbena, as well as other plants that similarly attract bees. A plant’s energy-rich nectar is composed of water, proteins, minerals, vitamins, lipids, antioxidants and up to 25 percent sugar. The amount and concentration of nectar varies with the climate, soil type and time of day, with native plants often performing better and producing more nectar. Optimal nectar output - and therefore maximum butterfly activity - occurs during the first half of the day when the weather is warm and sunny, making it also the best time for butterfly watching.

Other butterflies decline all forms of nectar, preferring rotting fruit, tree sap, carrion and dung as sources for their liquid nutrients and minerals.

The butterfly’s only interest in the rose and other nectar-less plants is shelter from weather and camouflage from predators.

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Q. It’s a short-lived insect – sometimes having only a one-week lifespan – whose life is a series of physical transformations. It sees more colors than any other creature, including humans. It tastes with its feet, and its feeding habits are critical to the reproduction of flowers, fruits and vegetables. What is it?

A. The butterfly.

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Giant owl (Caligo eurilochus) is a very large, slow flyer so it is an easy target for birds. Its markings resemble owl’s eyes to divert attacks from its predators, and it prefers flying at dusk when fewer birds present.

Blue morpho (Morpho peleides) enjoys an unsavory food source – juices from rotting fruits. Its lifecycle is extremely short, only 115 days from egg to adult, and it larvae are cannibals. It frightens predators by a rapid flashing of wings and group clustering in “mob” behavior. Its lovely azure coloring results from light diffraction off its wings’ millions of tiny scales.

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes) is also feeds on rotting fruit, dead animals and bat dung, as well as flower nectar. It is named for its bright green color, which is comparable to the hue found in the mineral malachite

Glasswing (Greta oto) feeds on the nectar of common flowers, such as lantana. It lays its eggs on toxic plants, and ingests alkaloids that make it distasteful to predators. The male converts those alkaloids into pheromones to attract females, and “leks” (Swedish word for “play”) in a competitive mating display.

Red cracker (Hamadryas amphinome), which feeds on rotting fruit, is named for the crackling noise its makes make during flight. The red cracker’s caterpillars live communally, while the adult butterfly perches on tree trunks with its head down and wings spread.

Grecian shoemaker (Catonephele) lives in wet forest habitats and eats rotting fruit and tree sap. The caterpillar’s hosts are woody plants with medicinal properties. This butterfly is a “sexually dimorphic,” meaning males and females look different.

Doris longwing (Heliconius doris) feeds on nectar from variety of plants and relies on pollen as a protein source. Since the Doris longwing lives a couple months or more, it is considered to have a long-lived lifespan.

Julia (Dryas Julia) Passion vine leaves are a favorite of the Julia caterpillar, while the nectar of lantana and shepherd’s needle attract the adult. The Julia is a fast flier that frequents clearings, paths and woodland margins. The male is easier to spot since it is brighter orange than female.