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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Butterfly 101

Butterflies represent one glorious type of insect.

Insects are highly efficient and utilize amazing survival tactics.

All insects have 3 body parts: head, thorax, abdomen.

All insects have a water-tight exoskeleton that protects them and keeps them from drying out.

All insects have 6 legs.

All insects are marvelous for anyone with a keen eye.

Butterflies and moths make up the insect order Lepidoptera, scaly winged insects.

They live all over our planet, but different butterflies live in different places.

Not all insects have wings, but all butterflies have 4 wings. Moths and Butterflies are basically the same animal. Butterflies are day flying moths.

Butterflies have four distinct stages in their life cycle. Their life cycle begins as an egg.

A caterpillar (larva) emerges from the egg. All caterpillars are juveniles.

Caterpillars spend their whole existence eating their host plant, excreting and growing.

After lots of plant food and growing, caterpillars molt their skin to become a chrysalis (pupa). Inside of the chrysalis, the adult stage of the insect forms.

We call the adult stage a Butterfly. All butterflies are adults.

The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis and since it is an adult, it goes in search of a mate to do what adults do. Adult butterflies are either male or female. It is his job to locate and pursue females. Luckily he can “smell” her from a mile away.

Mating involves locking their abdomens together for several hours.

(cue Marvin Gaye here)

Once they mate, the female has fertilized eggs in her abdomen that she must lay. She must lay her egg on a SPECIFIC KIND OF PLANT.

Every butterfly in the world has one kind of plant that it lays its egg on. Each species of butterfly has a species of plant that it must lay its egg on.

Knowing which LOCAL butterfly uses which LOCAL plant is what unlocks the secret to having a successful butterfly habitat.

Different kinds of butterflies use different plants. Since there are well over 150,000 kinds of butterflies (and counting), and since every region on earth has different plants this can prove to be an interesting endeavor.

We call the plant a host plant because it hosts the young.

Mama can smell her host plant from up to a mile away.

Despite their finicky leaf diet as Caterpillars, all (adult) Butterflies are on a purely liquid diet.

Their mouth is a straw-like device that can only siphon liquid. They typically drink flower nectar, tree sap, animal excrement and sometimes from carrion. They only drink. Unlike caterpillars that eat only one kind of plant, adult Butterflies can drink nectar from many kinds of flowers.

Plants that feed adult butterflies with their flowers are called Nectar Sources.

While nectar sources are important, they are arguably not as important as host plants.

We could say survival hinges on host plants not nectar flower selection.

Butterfly Geeks spend their time observing, discussing and cataloging this stuff and some of us like to share our findings with others. That's what I do.

Once we know the plants for the butterflies that live in our neighborhood, we can plant them. That will attract butterflies and that is how we fill our gardens with flying friends.

Since plants are regional, so are butterflies. Different places have different butterflies.

People can be experts in their little corner of the world. But, if they go somewhere new, it's a whole different set of plants and butterflies. This makes it challenging and compelling.

Proper butterfly gardening should ALWAYS include a specified location because the same butterflies don't live everywhere. This is why general butterfly books and articles are not helpful. It is also how you can determine who is an expert and who is unfamiliar with the process.

If I communicated the ideas in this post effectively, you should be able to discern the answers to these questions.

If a butterfly repeatedly lands on the leaves a specific plant but does not seem to be drinking nectar from the flowers of that plant, what might she be doing?

If one butterfly is chasing another, why might he be chasing her?

Have you ever noticed mama Butterflies laying eggs, caterpillars eating leaves or a chrysalis dangling in stillness or do you mostly notice the adult stage of the insect (Butterfly)?

What is the difference between a host plant and a nectar source?

Unlocking the mystery,

Jessica Morgan McAtee

Most of my current resources are on Florida butterflies, but I will be sharing information about my experiences butterflying in the Pacific Northwest as well as the mountains of Appalachia as time unfolds.

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