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Among My Dearest Friends Since Childhood: The Natural Order of Lepidoptera

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“Butterfly tell me, pray, what you do all the day…” Perhaps it started when we  sang that song in Kindergarten, many years ago, and I cannot remember a time when I was not ‘hooked’ on butterflies.butterfly

My parents had a magnificent garden when I was little, and it went down quite a distance, right down to the neighbouring fence, so, if I wanted to hide from the rest of the world (e.g. when the school nurse or the equally terrifying dentist came to our school which was only across the street) I was able to do that. Completely shielded by the salvias, honeysuckle and other sweet-smelling blooms, I had only the butterflies as my companions, and I grew to be so passionate about them that after years had gone by, when my father was no longer alive, and we (my mother, my sister and I) lived in an apartment in the city, I had the nerve, at the age of nine, to enter a province-wide essay-competition – and I WON!

Lepidoptera Migration

Lepidoptera Migration is a biological phenomenon whereby populations of butterflies or moths migrate long distances seasonally.

How I dreaded this time (while living in Johannesburg) when dozens of these gorgeous little creatures, having flown miles and miles before reaching the city, were dashed to death against unfamiliar obstacles, splattering their tiny bodies over windshields of speeding cars. I shudder when I picture this! Those delicate, transparent little wings broken against that glass!

I consider butterflies to be the most colourful and vibrant of all insects, and also the most fragile. A butterfly wing is formed by layers of chitin, the protein that makes up an insect’s exoskeleton. These layers are so thin you one can see right through them. Thousands of tiny scales cover the transparent chitin, and these scales reflect light in different colors. As a butterfly ages, scales fall off the wings, leaving spots of transparency where the chitin layer is exposed.

Adult butterflies can feed only on liquids, usually nectar. Their mouthparts are designed to enable them to drink, but they can’t chew solids. They have a ‘proboscis’ (something like a drinking straw) which is curled up under their tiny chins until it finds a source of nectar or other liquid nutrition. It then unfurls the long, tubular structure and sips up a meal.

A butterfly that can’t drink nectar is doomed, so one of its first jobs as an adult butterfly is to make sure its proboscis works. One may see a newly-emerged butterfly curling and uncurling the proboscis over and over, testing it out. But it cannot live on sugar alone; it needs minerals, too. I have never seen this, personally, but I’ve read on the Internet that, to supplement its diet of nectar, a butterfly will occasionally sip from mud puddles, which are rich in minerals and salts.

A Never-to-be Forgotten Experience

I now live on the second floor of a large apartment building, and, three days ago, when I went into my living room, I was horrified to see what must be the tiniest butterfly on earth, frantically dashing its little body against the closed windows in a effort to escape. I had no idea how that had come to be, but I could not let it continue, so I opened a fanlight and, gently flapping a tissue at my terrified little visitor, tried to coax it to make its exit – to no avail. Finally, as it was too dreadful to witness the obvious panic of this tiny, pale-yellow little creature, I took a chance, caught it up gently in the tissue, and praying that I had not harmed it, flung it through the open French door onto the balcony. To my delight and enormous relief, I saw it fly off to freedom.

Next Day, To My Indescribable Delight, It Came Back!

I was sitting on my balcony when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it land on one of the flowers on the table beside me and I spoke gently, welcoming it, blessing it and praying for it. There was not a doubt in my mind. This was indeed my special little friend.

Yesterday it came again. This time, while yet another friend was sitting on the deck with me – and scoffing at the very suggestion that it was more than coincidence – it was a great disappointment when it flew away, but wonder of wonders, when it came back it brought a friend! And that was not all. A little while later it was accompanied by four more!

Butterflies Can’t Fly if They’re Cold

Today I am comforting myself with the conviction that it is due to the weather that no little friend has been here. Butterflies need an ideal body temperature of about 85ºF to fly. Since they’re cold-blooded animals, they can’t regulate their own body temperatures. The surrounding air temperature has a big impact on their ability to function. If the air temperature falls below 55ºF, butterflies are rendered immobile, unable to flee from predators or feed. When air temperatures range between 82-100ºF, butterflies can fly with ease. Cooler days require a butterfly to warm up its flight muscles, either by shivering or basking in the sun. And even sun-loving butterflies can get overheated when temperatures soar above 100ºF, and may seek shade to cool down.

In case you are wondering how it will find me if it comes again, it’s by smell. A butterfly’s olfactory system, or nerves of smell, are quite marvelous!

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Richard Seymour

    What a delightful story!

  • bliffle

    Excellent article!