Have you ever tried to watch a butterfly fly? It is very difficult to do. Even the swallowtail, one of the slowest fliers, still flaps its wings in a figure eight pattern five times a second. That’s 300 times a minute! Only by using photography and slow motion video are we able to watch what is really happening.
Flight is achieved via muscles connecting the wings to the thorax. The muscles are tiny yet they can propel some Monarch butterflies on a migration of over 3,000 miles! That is pretty amazing to me.
Look at the King Swallowtail Butterfly in the background of this photo. You can see that there are really two sets of wings, upper and lower, each capable of moving independently. That wing design gives the butterfly the ability to hover or change direction very quickly. The King Swallowtail in the foreground is at rest appearing only to have a single pair of wings. Researchers have found that butterflies in flight make hundreds of tiny wing adjustments each minute. They do this to compensate for wind currents and the turbulence their own wings create. They are complicated flying machines.
This ultra-slow motion video of butterfly flight reveals the figure eight pattern we can’t see in regular speed.
Our butterfly season is nearly over here in Texas. The Monarchs are still moving through on their migration, and we have a few Gulf Fritillaries and Swallowtails coming through.
The Monarch Butterfly migration is underway! Monarchs are taking on nectar to build energy stores for the migratory flight to their winter home in Mexico. From Minnesota, Iowa and other points north, reports are that the migration has started. The good news this year is that the Monarch population appears to be on the upswing. That is very good news indeed. There was concern that recent population drops would become an annual trend.
You can help during the migration by making sure you have flowering plants available such as:
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia)
California Lilac (Ceanothus)
Daisy (Aster and Chrysanthemum)
Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa)
Rabbit Brush (Chryssothamnus)
Rock Cress (Arabis)
Star Clusters (Pentas)
Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia)
Wall Flower (Erysimum)
Zinnia (Zinnia) -list from the Monarch Program
Many of these plants are very easy to grow.
Use this link to track the progress of the migration.
Use this link for more information on the Monarch including gardening for Monarchs.
There is a lot more to see in a garden or field than just plants. Flowers are nature’s way of attracting a wide variety of creatures. Many plants need wildlife to help with pollination. A flower or vegetable garden or a field of blooming weeds is full of life. Some come directly to feed on nectar or collect pollen such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Others, like spiders, wasps, assassin bugs and praying mantis, are attracted to areas with flowers because the bugs they eat are in the plants. Then, larger animals such as lizards and birds are attracted to the area because of the variety of insects they can find there.
Hummingbirds are a special sight. They are fun to watch at a hummingbird feeder, but watching them feed at flowers is more fun to me. This little female Ruby-throat Hummingbird checked out every bloom in the garden. I was able to catch a picture of her feeding at the aptly named Hummingbird flower yesterday. She seems to prefer Hibiscus flowers too.
Some butterflies like specific flowers. The Monarch butterfly requires the Butterfly Weed, also known as Milkweed, to lay eggs.
The Monarch larvae or caterpillars feed almost exclusively on Milkweed as they grow and prepare to undergo metamorphosis into a butterfly. Other butterfly species have their preferred plants too. When you think about it, that helps reduce the new caterpillars’ competition for the same plants after the butterfly eggs hatch. Caterpillars have to eat a lot to grow and turn into a butterfly!
I have a wide variety of flowers in my back yard to hopefully attract different types of wildlife. It works beautifully most of the time. I have discovered that something must be missing though. A beautiful Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly passes through the yard several times a day without stopping. They like daisies. I have a daisy plant in a pot. Perhaps they require more than one pot of daisies to make it worthwhile to stop and feed?
A great place to watch for butterflies, insects and other animals attracted by flowers is at a garden center. The large concentration of flowering plants attracts a lot of attention from insects. And it is free to walk around! Some of the pictures for There’s a Bug in my Blossom were taken at garden centers.
We can enjoy all that nature has to offer whether in our own yard, at the park or a garden center. We just need to get out and observe. And yes, sometimes flowers attract all sorts of wildlife!
The next stage of butterfly growth has begun. This is day 4 since I saw the female Queen Butterfly lay an egg on this leaf. What we are seeing is the 1st instar stage of the new caterpillar. As you can see, it is very tiny. It is very hard to see without a magnifying glass. But it will grow rapidly and then molt (shed the old skin) into the next larger instar. The Queen Butterfly caterpillar will go through 5 instar stages before it goes into the pupal stage to complete the metamorphosis into a butterfly. I am going to continue trying to follow this caterpillar on its journey from egg to butterfly. Will he or she make it? There are many perils for small animals in the wild. Stay tuned!
A couple of days ago, I happened to see a lovely orange butterfly in the front flowerbed. But it wasn’t going to the flowers. It was landing deep in the plant. I thought that was weird. Normally the butterflies are flitting from flower to flower drinking nectar. What is that butterfly doing?
The camera was handy so I took a few shots. I wanted to identify the butterfly and maybe get a good picture. I didn’t have my best butterfly lens installed on the camera at that time so the pictures are not as good as I like.
What I did see in those pictures was the butterfly laying eggs.
That is what she was doing down inside the leaves of the plant! By the time I came back out with a good macro lens, she was gone. Carefully lifting leaves, I found several small single white eggs on the plant’s leaves. She had placed them one to a leaf.
It was time for some research on this butterfly. I am hardly an expert on insects. Each time I see something new I have to research it to understand what I have seen. That is part of the fun of doing wildlife photography. It is fun doing the research and learning about this wonderful world.
It was a Queen Butterfly that I had seen in my garden that day. I, at first, thought she might be a Monarch. But the Queen doesn’t have those dark black wing veins like a Monarch. Monarch wings remind me of a stained glass window.
I found out that the Queen Butterfly is found in many parts of the world with temperate climates. The milkweed plant she used to lay her eggs was chosen as a host because the Queen butterfly caterpillars or larvae feed on milkweed. This is a common tactic with many insects to assure the young have the correct food source. If you know the food source of the caterpillar or other insect young, you can usually find those insects. I also found out in my research that the Queen does indeed lay only one egg per leaf. This makes sense since the newly hatched caterpillars will have less competition for food on their leaf when they hatch. They also tend to eat other small caterpillars!
If all goes well, the caterpillar will emerge from the egg in another day or so. It takes 3-5 days for the egg to ‘hatch’. I hope to see and photograph the new caterpillar at that time. The caterpillars go through growth stages called instars. It will be fun to watch them eat, poop and grow over the summer.
A side benefit of looking so closely under the leaves was discovering the tiny Yellow Aphids. If they become too numerous they can cause the plant to die. The only safe method I can find to rid the plant of aphids without killing the butterfly eggs too is to dab each aphid with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. I may let nature take its course instead. I’ll find out pretty quickly if the young caterpillars will eat aphids.
Stay tuned. This is the first time I have tried following a butterfly life cycle “in the wild”. It should be fun!
One of the hard lessons new zookeepers must learn is how to catch animals. I was always amused to see it happen. The animal runs and the zookeeper chases. It is how we are wired. The animals zig and zag until the zookeeper is exhausted. It doesn’t matter if the chase involves a dog, zebra, goat or a butterfly. Catching up is very difficult to do. Four legged animals have a distinct advantage in speed and maneuverability. Flighted animals an even greater advantage. If you are starting in the rear you have already lost! You have to get in front of the animal to be successful. That is how cowboys would stop a cattle stampede in the early cattle drives. Cowboys would ride as fast as they could to get to the front of the stampede to try to turn the lead animals slowing the rest of the herd. It is impossible to stop a stampede from behind.
I sometimes find myself chasing after a photograph too. Trying to follow a flitting butterfly, a zooming dragonfly, a soaring eagle or even a sunset often ends in frustration. The trick is to observe, learn habits and place myself in the right spot at the right time.
Last Monday morning I was trying to capture a shot of this beautiful Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly in my brother’s garden in Memphis. The lure of the chase was strong and a natural instinct. I caught myself chasing. I would get tired of waiting only to move to another spot and see it feeding. I would then try to follow it as it flew around the yard. After a few minutes of no luck I stood back and watched. Soon the butterfly’s feeding pattern became apparent. There were two levels to the garden with zinnias blooming in an upper section and then down in a low area. This butterfly was flying a loop between the two areas. The flight pattern was not readily apparent because part of the loop took it over a back fence into another yard. The butterfly would disappear. It left the upper flowers, flew over the fence and then reappeared to feed on the lower flowers. It did this over and over. Being in the right spot with the camera was now much easier! When the butterfly flew over the fence at the upper level, I moved to the lower area and waited. It reappeared pretty much on schedule, and I got my photos. The butterfly also spent more time on the flowers in front of me, because I was already set up and part of the landscape.
Part of being a photographer, a wildlife observer or being a zookeeper is staying ahead of our targets. Take the time to learn animal habits, observe them in the wild and then go for the photograph. That pre-planning will pay off in the long run. Just remember, “Don’t chase the goats!”
“There’s a Bug in my Blossom should get even kids who hate or are scared of bugs looking in flowers to see who’s in there. There’s a Bug in my Blossom is both educational and a lot of fun, and it’s highly recommended.” – Readers’ Favorite