Butterfly Kisses (despite Covid)
Not much about the last eight months has been predictable except that nothing will be predictable for a while. Plans have been torched, travel postponed (multiple times), and families have been kept apart. Thankfully, my butterfly garden and its inhabitants have been predictable and consistently busy maintaining their normal activities, unaltered by Covid.
My butterfly friendly nectar and host plants attract and nourish butterflies of many kinds, particularly Gulf Fritillaries, Zebra Longwings, and Monarchs.Nectar plants provide food for the butterflies; butterflies lay their eggs on host plants so their larvae (caterpillars) are well fed from birth.
Butterflies can be delightfully distracting while on Zoom and Teams calls. My butterfly garden is purposefully located outside my office window.
By the end of this season, I will have released 250 butterflies. Thanks to them, I have learned a few things.
Don’t waste food. Caterpillars devour their host plants such as purple passion flower vine and milkweed. Nothing is wasted. Zebra Longwing butterflies even lay their eggs on the newest growth of the passionflower vine so the newly hatched have the juiciest morsels before working their way down the vine.
Families form a bubble and need to stick together. Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary butterflies lay their eggs together and the tiny caterpillars eat, sleep, and move about as a group, even evolving into their chrysalises at the same time in close proximity.
Life can be short. Live it big. Most butterflies have short lifecycles (except when they are migrating). Monarchs live two to four weeks after emerging from their chrysalises and Gulf Fritillaries may live a bit longer. Zebra Longwings live longer still – sometimes months. As caterpillars, they live to eat. As butterflies, they live to eat and reproduce.
Looks can be deceiving. While monarch caterpillars are super cute, looking a bit like clowns in striped pajamas, Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary caterpillars have bristles and look very unapproachable. Monarch chrysalises are jade green with gold flecks. Fritillary and Zebra Longwing chrysalises appear to be dead leaves; unless you look closely, you will miss their gold flecks. They are all beautiful when they emerge as butterflies.
Plan ahead. Caterpillars in search of a place for transformation tend to move high for protection and enough space to hang dry and move their wings when they emerge from their chrysalises.
Friends are good for warmth and protection, especially when you are vulnerable. As the weather cools, the smaller caterpillars stay closer together. Even as adult butterflies, Zebra Longwings often roost together at night.
Humans can unknowingly be harmful. Pesticides can kill caterpillars and butterflies. Herbicides may eliminate their food sources. If your neighbor uses pesticides, or herbicides, it is highly likely to affect your garden, insects, birds and mammals that eat insects, and you.
Intervention by humans can help sometimes. Butterfly enthusiasts protect caterpillars, and even butterfly eggs, in order to improve the chances of live births and butterflies. In Florida, butterflies have many predators including ants, wasps, lizards, and birds. Studies show that 90% of monarchs do not survive the egg and larvae stages in the wild. While I cannot improve statistics after butterflies are released, only about 1 in 10 of my caterpillars have failed to mature. Once they are ready to fly, I release them in the garden.
Natives rule. Florida’s state butterfly, the Zebra Longwing, has several unique characteristics and behaviors.
· They live up to several months compared to 2 to 4 weeks for monarchs.
· Zebra Longwing caterpillars eat plants that contain bad tasting chemicals, making them undesirable to predators.
· Their mating behaviors are peculiar. Inside their chrysalises, females begin giving off a scent that attracts males that will surround the chrysalis and wait for the female to emerge. When they mate, the male marks the female with a chemical that repels other suitors.
Butterflies and gardening have been a delightful diversion during this time. If you are interested in planting your own butterfly garden and helping encourage and sustain butterflies where you live, contact your local Extension Service.
Beloved former Nassau County (Florida) Extension Director and Horticulture Agent, Rebecca Jordi, was an inspiration and teacher for many. Before she passed, she wrote and published a book, Zoe's Mission, about a Zebra Longwing and her other butterfly friends. For more information and information about how to get a copy, click on the book below.