Zoo to You

Saturday, March 14, is Learn More About Butterflies Day. Butterflies play a vital role in agriculture and in the continued survival of wild places. They fill the important role of a pollinator as do bees, bats, and moths. While they dine on the nectar of a wildflower, they are also pollinating the flower (leaving behind pollen picked up at another flower and picking up more pollen to carry on to another). Such pollination leads to the production of seeds, which later may become new plants.

Caterpillars (larval butterflies) provide an essential food source for songbird chicks. Butterflies also serve as an indicator species, the “canary in the coal mine,” for our ecosystem. It’s a signal that something in the ecosystem isn’t right if butterflies are having trouble. Beyond those essential roles, watching a butterfly flutter by can bring a smile to your face, and that’s often invaluable.

Butterflies are an insect that primarily flies during the day. Their wingspan can range from inch (western pygmy blue) to 11 inches (Goliath birdwing). A butterfly’s lifecycle consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The adult life stage can last a week or a year, depending on the species.

Butterflies have been around for more than 50 million years. There are more than 20,000 types worldwide. Many butterflies migrate over a long distance, including the monarch butterfly, which migrates about 2500-3000 miles from Mexico to the northern United States and southern Canada. Forty types of butterflies are found in Kansas, including hackberry emperor butterflies, American lady butterflies, cloudless Sulphur butterflies, American copper butterflies, and monarch butterflies.

Butterflies are often confused with moths. Both belong to the order Lepidoptera and share some characteristics, but there are several differences too. Generally, moths are active at night, while butterflies are active during the day (there are some exceptions to this). Moths keep their wings flattened against their bodies or spread out in a “jet plane” position when at rest. Butterflies usually close their wings by folding them back when resting. Butterflies are generally more colorful, and their antennae are long and thin. Moths, on the other hand, have shorter feathery antennae. Moth cocoons are wrapped in silk coverings while butterfly chrysalises are smooth and hard (no silk).

Butterflies and other pollinators, including honeybees, are facing a problem. At least part of the problem is a lack of habitat. As people have developed the land, the plants many of the pollinators count on are disappearing. The monarch butterfly provides a perfect example. The population of monarch butterflies has drastically dropped by approximately 90% since the 1990s. While adult monarch butterflies feed on the nectar of many flowers, they need specific types of milkweed if their species is to survive.

Milkweed plants are where monarchs lay their eggs. It is also the exclusive food for the monarch caterpillar (the larval stage of the monarch butterfly). Milkweed contains a toxin that prevents most animals from eating it, but monarch butterflies are immune to it. By eating the milkweed, they end up tasting terrible to many potential predators. Hence, the milkweed not only sustains the baby but also protects the adults. Without milkweed, the monarch butterfly population continues to decline.

Spring is just days away and offers a great chance to give pollinators a helping hand as we consider what to plant in our yards. Consider adding nectar-rich wildflowers to your landscape to support your favorite butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, or other pollinators. If you already have such plants in your yard, consider adding some host plants like milkweed if your goal is to have a complete butterfly environment. Showy milkweed and whorled milkweed are two of the milkweed plants recommended for our region. Milkweed comes in different colors, a range of tolerances for shade and preferences for dry or wet soil. It’s also helpful to provide a shallow source of clean water for the butterflies.

Several local or online garden suppliers, as well as organizations supporting butterfly conservation (Monarch Butterfly Garden, Save Our Monarchs Foundation, etc..), offer milkweed plants and seeds for sale. If you’re looking for more information on monarch butterflies, check out the Xerces Society, Monarch Watch, and National Wildlife Federation.

Kristi Newland is the director at Lee Richardson Zoo.