Penetrating the Not-So-Secret Cult of Butterflies

Nobody hates butterflies. They bring pleasure and fascination to everyone. Yet we know enormously little about them, even today. What we do know has been assembled by Wendy Williams in The Language of Butterflies; an unabashed fan, talking to unabashed fanatics with credentials.

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Butterflies come in about 20,000 varieties. Moths come in 260,000. Butterflies are generally far more colorful, making them the objects of adoration. Moths are perceived as a pain. Such is the fickle nature of glamor.

If you’ve ever touched a butterfly’s wing, you know there is a fine powder that stays on your hands. That powder is actually the microscopic scales that make up the colorful patterns on butterfly wings. The wings themselves are not colored; there is a covering layer of scales hanging onto them. As butterflies live their lives, they lose scales, giving them a washed out look. The scales hang on (even tinier) hooks, and the whole system looks like a tiled roof — under a microscope. The brilliant blue morpho that absolutely everyone loves, is not a product of a blue pigment. Its color actually comes from light. Its scales diffract and scatter all other wavelengths except the purest blue. As its scales fall away, it too looks old and washed out. Williams says its color is not meant to attract other morphos; it is instead a defense mechanism. It so dazzles anyone or anything seeing it, that it can fly safely away before they recover their senses and try to capture it.

Much of the book is given over to monarchs, which are the focus of extreme passions all over the continent. All kinds of people have implemented tagging programs, asking finders to contact them so the flight path of the butterfly can be elaborated. The tagging itself is a bit of a miracle, as monarchs without tags weigh less than a paper clip, Williams says. Some migrate from as far as southern Canada to northern Mexico. Others stay put. Some of the migrants lay eggs while making that pilgrimage. Most don’t. Unlike other butterflies, monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed. No milkweed, no new generations. Monarch caterpillars ingest the poisonous latex that gives milkweed its name. It makes monarchs poisonous to birds, so birds leave them alone.

The proboscis of a monarch is not a sipping straw for nectar. It is more like a paper towel, sopping up the fluid in the flower by laying in it. Sucking it up would take more energy than the nectar would provide. Monarch antennae are not just for touch purposes. Monarchs actually smell with them.

Though their brain is the size of a pinhead, butterflies can learn. Given the right nectars, they will go to imitation flowers, even if they’re painted green, which would normally mean nothing to a butterfly. In other words, they’re trainable.

Women have played an outsized role in understanding butterflies. Two notables, Maria Sybilla Merian in the 1600s, who studied them and painted them in all their stages of life and habitat, and Miriam Rothschild, the world expert in them in the late 1800s, are the subjects of deeper profiles in the book. Both women were denied an education, being just girls. Merian was the first to connect caterpillars to butterflies. Until that time, less than 400 years ago, everyone “knew” they were two different animals, one pretty, one disgusting, and no connection between them. The women went on to earn the respect of the scientific community, publishing world-beating books and scientific papers. Another woman, in Colorado, is responsible for the singularly most amazing fossils of butterflies ever found. She supplied endless examples to scientists everywhere, saving them decades of work.

Among the legions of fans, some have understood far more than others. Kingston Leong of California has figured out what makes an attractive and successful wintering area for monarchs. The requirements are complicated, requiring a long period of study of the elements that might go into it. He has helped businesses implement them, such as golf courses and even a housing development, which now attracts thousands of them every winter. It has made itself successful by marketing that feature, even putting monarchs on bathroom walls to reinforce the connection.

Some caterpillars are worshipped by red ants. The ants carry the caterpillar back to the nest and feed it. When it comes out of the chrysalis as a butterfly, they carry it out again and launch it on its way. Why? The caterpillar mimics the smell of a queen ant, and has even mastered the sound she makes. This subterfuge doesn’t work with all varieties of red ant. If the ants realize their error, the caterpillar provides a lot of food for the colony.

People can actually help cover for the loss of habitat that is making it nearly impossible for butterflies to migrate. They will stop at apartment balconies and backyard gardens that present flowers and especially milkweed, hopping from charging station to charging station on their route south or north. Putting out the proper attractions is very rewarding for butterfly fans. It’s a win-win. It also means huge conservation areas are not necessary. An acre here and an acre there are sufficient to keep butterflies healthy.

However, it also takes a lot of research to do it right. Williams gives the wonderful example of a conservation area, strictly fenced off from interfering cattle. It attracted no butterflies. The reason: the cattle kept the grasses in check, allowing the local wildflowers to thrive and be noticeable. Without the cattle, everything else grew too big and dense for butterflies to work the field.

There is so much more as well. Williams’ book is an easy read. She is a storyteller, and has involved herself in her stories. What with the automatic prejudice in favor of the subject matter, The Language of Butterflies is a pleasure to read.

David Wineberg

(The Language of Butterflies, Wendy Williams, May 2020)

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Author, The Straight Dope, or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. 16 Essays. Free with Prime www.thestraightdope.net

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