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  • Writer's pictureJessica Morgan McAtee

Hard Butterfly Truths

In the eighteen years that I have been cultivating a butterfly garden, I have learned much. Studying entomology and horticulture was helpful in making sense of it all. My passion is creation. It's where we meet God.

I help others attract, appreciate and notice butterflies and God in their gardens.

So while this post may seem harsh, it is not my intent to be cruel. Rather it aims to make us see honestly and ask questions.

Butterfly Gardeners become deeply involved with their habitats and consequently ask understandable questions about caterpillars, predators, injured butterflies, rain, exotics and failing host plants.

Below are questions that are so common they are worth reflection.

Is this a good caterpillar or a bad one?

What the person is typically really asking is whether or not the caterpillar will grow up to be a butterfly.

Caterpillars are juvenile lepidopterans. That means they can only grow up to be a butterfly or a moth. Caterpillars of all types are voracious eaters. They eat plants for survival.

There is no scientific difference between a butterfly and a moth. They are basically the same animal and serve the exact same functions in the ecosystem. As humans, we discriminate because butterflies are more colorful and visible since they fly in daylight.

How beautiful must a lepidopteran be for us to deem it good by our standards?

Am I overlooking the value other good things in my life because they don't measure up to my ideal?

How can I keep predators out of my garden?

The frustrated gardener may be referring to lizards, wasps, raccoons, birds, other insects or any other natural predator, of which there are many.

Most of these predators will be somewhat unavoidable as long as your host plants are outside in the open. Some of these predators can be avoided by bringing caterpillars inside to rear in cages. But certain predators (including microscopic ones) will still be present.

One of the most significant, if not THE most significant service butterflies provide to ecosystems (scientifically speaking) is food for other organisms. They are the bottom of the food chain. Approximately one in one hundred eggs laid by mama butterfly makes it to the winged stage of adulthood.

The flying few are the miraculous survivors. The one percent.

Why is it we think we should disrupt the prevailing system?

Am I sometimes so blinded by my agenda that I miss savoring the miracle?

How do I save a sick butterfly?

They cannot heal their wings or fly without them or survive (on their own) without flight.

If a butterfly doesn't molt correctly, including the final molt of the chrysalis, it will not survive. There is a very short window of time that they have to complete a molt before their new form hardens (is scleritized).

Sick butterflies are better off left alone. We can euthanize them by placing them in a baggie in the freezer. But if we do this, we steal them from the living ecosystem and nothing redemptive comes from their death.

There are rare instances where a butterfly can be helped.

Some caring folks have put great effort into wing repairs.

Occasionally, we can intervene, and if that's the case, I always do.

Last week a J-shaped caterpillar became detached from its substrate and I was able to suspend it and save it in time, but that's not how things usually go in nature.

Why is it so hard for us to accept the way the grand ecosystem currently works?

Where, in my own life, do I grasp the illusion of control?

My butterfly just emerged and it's rainy, now what?

Butterflies in the wild can time their emergence, within some boundaries, to external conditions. They wait until it's favorable.

Sometimes people raise them indoors and then become concerned about releasing them in the rain.

It is true that they don't prefer to fly in the rain, they seek cover. So, if you release a butterfly on a rainy day, put it in a tree, on a leaf or under a cover of some sort where it can hide and be protected from the rain. If it is a light drizzle, I let them fly to their own preferred spot.

They have been dealing with rain long before we were emerging them.

How could we forget that they have been successfully coexisting with rain (and hurricanes and blizzards and floods and every other natural peril) for ages?

Why do we create stress of situations that are as natural as the benevolent rain?

What plant can I use to attract Blue Morpho butterflies?

We visit butterfly houses and see exotic rainforest butterflies, like Blue Morphos. We ask about their host plants because we wish to attract them to our gardens.

Often, gardeners in temperate regions are disappointed to learn that the showy butterflies typically kept in exhibits are tropical species. This means that unless we are gardening near the equator, or in their natural range, we are not going to be able to attract them.

In nature, there is an ideal place for organisms. They don't just live anywhere. Each butterfly coordinates with its host plant and both thrive in a specific area. Remember, it's a system.

How can I honor the planet by going with the natural systems in my range rather than trying to go against it?

What unnatural elements do I try to force into my world rather than valuing what is naturally right next to me?

I planted host plants, why aren't butterflies showing up?

The response to this one can be complicated. Sometimes people don't have the correct host plants for the butterflies in their region. Assuming you have done your research, there are other things to look out for.

Butterflies go through cycles and also have seasonal changes in population. Nature is always in flux. Some species are quite common and others may be more of a rarity. This is why it is important to read books (shameless plug for South Florida Butterfly Bonanza or my Florida Butterflies ebook series) about which kinds to try for first.

Also, it is important to note that just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it's not

working. Different species fly at various times of the day. Maybe mama is visiting, but you weren't looking at that moment. Maybe her eggs got eaten. Maybe the babies are camouflaged and you are being fooled.

Relax and be patient. Gardening is not fast-paced, let's learn to slow down (I need this reminder more than anyone.)

Could the garden be functioning beautifully even when I don't notice it?

Is there more going on than what I can perceive?


The questions and lessons are endless.

I have observed nature

shrouded in mystery.

Nature reveals wisdom.

All truths are God's truths.

Therefore, we have seen God.

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