Archives For butterflies

At Butterflies & Blooms on Monday, I saw something I had never seen before in my five years as a butterfly wrangler at the Chicago Botanic Garden. I noticed that a leopard lacewing’s right wings were bright orange, just like any other male of the species, but the left wings were beige—only females have beige wings. This lacewing was half male and half female, or a gynandromorphic butterfly.

Underside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Underside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Topside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

Topside of the gynandromorphic leopard lacewing

That morning, when I had discovered the male-female lacewing, butterfly visitors had been waiting for me to release butterflies from the pupae chamber. So I packed up the lacewing, with all of the other newborns. I then released each of the two dozen butterflies that had hatched that morning, saving our special discovery for last. I got everyone’s attention and announced, “This is extremely rare! As a butterfly wrangler, I have released many thousands of butterflies, but this is the one and only butterfly that is literally half male and half female!” The visitors were fascinated by the lacewing, which sat on the tip of my finger. Then it took flight and was free in the blink of an eye. Luckily, one of our volunteers snapped some beautiful photos.

Later, it occurred to me that this specimen could actually be a valuable contribution to science, and if nothing else, something that everyone should get a chance to see. I tried to find and capture it so an expert could take a closer look. A full day went by without anyone seeing it. I was afraid we had missed an opportunity to contribute something special to the scientific community, but our luck was about to change. 

On Wednesday morning, I was chatting with a young butterfly enthusiast about the gynandromorphic lacewing. I asked him if he could keep an eye out and possibly help me find it. He said, “Oh, you mean like this one?” He turned and pointed to the rare creature, which was sunbathing just behind his head. I couldn’t believe it. I offered to name the butterfly after him, but he modestly declined. I’m still trying to reach out to experts. Meanwhile, after that, I brought the special butterfly back into the pupae chamber, where it has been on display to visitors. I have been feeding it by hand, using a piece of foam dipped in fruit juice and Gatorade, which the butterfly seems to love.

Here is a little information about gynandromorphism. Gynandromorphs are very rare, but can be found in birds, fish, crustaceans, and butterflies, among other organisms. Usually, gynandromorphs have an uneven mixture of male and female features, but our special butterfly has an even rarer form of gynandromorphism because the male and female traits are bilateral, meaning they are split perfectly down the center of the body. How rare are we talking? In a 1980s study, only five out of 30,000 butterflies displayed gynandromorphism.

So how does gynandromorphism occur? There are several possibilities having to do with mishaps that occur during early cell division. Butterflies have a W and a Z chromosome for female and male, respectively. Sometimes, the W and Z chromosomes get stuck together during cell division, resulting in a mixture of male and female traits. In another scenario, the embryo is “double fertilized,” resulting in both female and male nuclei throughout the organism. The causes include bacterial or viral infections, ultraviolet radiation, and other environmental factors that can alter an organism’s DNA during division and growth.

In any case, it’s cool to have a butterfly with such a rare deformation that is still fully able to exist as a healthy adult, sipping nectar and basking in the adoration and fascination of its fans. We have not yet named this butterfly, so please leave some suggestions. The typical lifespan of an adult butterfly is about two weeks, so drop by Butterflies & Blooms and say hello to our newest celebrity.


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On a typical day in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, you will see our butterflies flying, sunning themselves, or resting in the foliage.

If you happen to come to the exhibition just after a rain shower, and the sun is shining, it’s your lucky day, because love is literally in the air.

PHOTO: Butterflies mating.

Warm temperatures after a good rain seem to encourage butterfly mating. Photo © Andreas Krappweis

I remember one day in the exhibition when the weather was lousy. It had been raining all morning. While the volunteers and I huddled around in our ponchos, the butterflies were fine, hanging out in the trees, awaiting the sun. Around noon, the rain finally stopped and the clouds parted, saturating the exhibition with hot, bright sunshine. The exhibition had become a steamy hothouse. At that moment, almost every one of our 200-plus butterflies started flying. They had been waiting all morning for this.

The air in the exhibition was laced with pheromones from many different butterfly species, driving the males into a frenzy. I looked around and watched as male butterflies slammed into one another as they were in hot pursuit of a lone female. Even when two butterflies paired off, there would be a jilted male who wouldn’t give up trying to separate them by trying to knock the pair apart.

I was stunned at the variety and complexity of the courtship dances and rituals being displayed. A pair of Junonia iphita, or chocolate pansy butterflies, would fly to about 5 feet, at which point they would descend in a perfect interlocking spiral, straight down until they hit the ground. They would repeat this courtship ritual over and over again. Another incredible display was the Graphium agamemnon, or tailed jay butterfly.

PHOTO: Graphium agamemnon (Tailed jay) butterfly by Anne Belmont.

Tailed jay (Graphium agamemnon) butterfly by Anne Belmont

One tailed jay would fly in a straight line, while a second one (assumedly the male) would rapidly orbit around the first one, sort of like the moon orbiting the earth as it flies through space. This little trick just blew me away. I then noticed butterflies were mating in mid-air. One butterfly would do the flying, while the other would be hanging precariously below. This stunt was made possible by the male’s “claspers.” These claspers work exactly as they sound: they grab hold of the female, making sure that they remain together.

Papilio lowii (Great yellow mormon) butterfly by Anne Belmont.

Great yellow mormon (Papilio lowi) butterfly by Anne Belmont

PHOTO: Cethosia cyane (Leopard lacewing) butterfly.

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane) butterfly by Robin Carlson

There were many more amazing acts of nature going on during this incredible spectacle. Some butterflies would attempt to mate with a different species. Sometimes males would try to mate. I even spied a trio of butterflies interlocked, forming a tangle of wings pointing in every direction. Two were a pair of Papilio lowii, or yellow mormon butterflies, while the interloper was a Cethosia cyane, or leopard lacewing. Now I thought I had seen it all. These butterflies were making human relationships seem tame. Visitors were enjoying the show, too. They would say, “This is supposed to be a ‘family’ exhibit!”

Females who had already mated or just weren’t impressed by the males would sit on a leaf with their wings spread and their abdomens held high in the air. This made mating impossible.

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides) by Bill Bishoff

Then, I saw something really baffling. To this day, lepidopterists know very little about the courtship of everyone’s favorite butterfly, Morpho peleides, the blue morpho. It started when one blue morpho clung to the netting of our enclosure.

Next, almost a dozen other morphos came over and began to form a very tight swarm around the morpho hanging on the netting. The group formed a writhing cloud around the butterfly on the netting, bumping into each other and circling around the individual. I did not see any of them pair off and mate. They just danced frenetically around the center morpho.

Was the center morpho somehow the only female, and all the males were simply trying to mate with her? I doubt it. We usually have an even ratio of males to females in the exhibition. Perhaps the center morpho acted as a beacon, releasing pheromones so that her kind would gravitate toward her designated “mating area” and mate with one another. She was the orchestrator of the ritual, silently sitting and directing her kin to carry out their biological imperative.

PHOTO: Large tiger longwing (Lycorea cleobaea) butterflies mating in the exhibit

Large tiger longwing (Lycorea cleobaea) butterflies mating in the exhibit; photo by Jill Emas Davis

The moral of the story is this: run to the butterfly exhibition if it has recently stopped raining. You might get a chance to see some amazing butterfly mating behavior.

Butterflies & Blooms is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through September 5, 2016. Bringing the family? Our Summer Family Fun Pack includes parking and five tickets to Butterflies & Blooms and the Model Railroad Garden.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Here at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Butterflies & Blooms, we have a variety of butterfly species that fall under the genus Heliconius. This fascinating group is commonly referred to as the longwings.

Longwings are native to the tropical and subtropical regions of the New World. This includes South America, Central America, and the southern United States. Florida’s state butterfly, the zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia), has been found as far north as South Carolina.

Zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charithonia)

Zebra longwing butterfly (Heliconius charithonia)

Despite their diminutive size, zebra longwings are noted for their long lifespans, which can be several months rather than several days or weeks. This is thanks to their ability to use pollen as a food source. Unlike nectar, pollen is rich in protein, and this healthy diet allows them to remain fertile for a longer period of time.

Mimicry in butterflies illustrated on these plates showing four forms of Heliconius numata, two forms of H. melpomene, and the two corresponding mimicking forms of H. erato. Image by see Source, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mimicry in butterflies illustrated on these plates showing four forms of Heliconius numata, two forms of H. melpomene, and the two corresponding mimicking forms of H. erato. Image by see Source [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

Heliconians are also known to be very “intelligent” and social insects. They roost together in large groups, respect their elders by giving them the best roosting spots, and even wake each other up in the morning by gently nudging one another. At Butterflies & Blooms, you can usually find them comingling in loose groups called “flutters,” roosting in long rows on our serviceberry trees, or even mating.

Like Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos Islands, the Heliconians have provided evolutionary biologists with a wealth of information and are studied more than any other butterfly. In the Amazon, Heliconians hybridize, form subspecies and local phenotypes, and mimic one another, confounding even the most seasoned lepidopterists.

Longwings have a unique and bizarre mating tactic called pupal mating that is not seen in most butterflies. Males will seek out female pupae and insert their abdomens into the chrysalids, fertilizing the females’ eggs before the butterflies finish emerging from the pupal stage. Scientists are currently studying the evolutionary effects that this tactic may have.

A Heliconius erato male is attracted by pheromones of a female pupa. He waits until she starts to emerge to attempt mating. Photo ©Holger Klee via Flickr.

A Heliconius erato male is attracted by pheromones of a female pupa. He waits until she starts to emerge to attempt mating. Photo ©Holger Klee via Flickr.

At Butterflies & Blooms we always have Heliconians flying around. You may find the postman, zebra longwing, Doris longwing, and many others. Ask us where to find them and we’ll point you in the right direction. Until next time, enjoy the gardens and keep your antennae up for future updates.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

This weekend, the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition opens for its fifth season.

Early in the year we need to place our chrysalis orders with our suppliers for the season. This was the first time I had placed the order, so it was fun to look through the lists—reviewing what had done well, and adding some that we haven’t had. A field trip to the butterfly exhibition at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum gave us a few new ideas to add to the list. Butterflies are so colorful, and their varied patterns make them a joy to watch and photograph!

Snow Peacock (Anartia jatrophae)

Snow peacock (Anartia jatrophae)

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)

Our first shipment of pupae has just arrived. It includes North American species gulf fritillary, painted lady, and white peacock—see them at Butterflies & Blooms.

Most weeks we receive approximately 200 pupae, which are mounted on dowels in the warmth of the exhibition’s pupa room. Visitors thrill at seeing the butterflies and moths emerge from the pupae (or cocoons for the moths). Some emerge relatively quickly while others take longer.

The pupae are all ordered through butterfly suppliers; none of them are collected in the wild. The suppliers receive shipments often from all over the world from the “butterfly ranchers” who specialize in raising butterfly pupae and moth cocoons. They are shipped overnight to us in that state, so all the butterflies can emerge on site.

Get a ten-punch pass for Butterflies & Blooms and the Model Railroad Garden and plan a trip with friends! Passes are available at the exhibition kiosks.

Butterfly species are seasonal—the chrysalides for a species are not available year-round. Our supplier ships us a variety of pupae each week based on what we have requested, but also based on what is available at that time. Some butterflies are more consistently available during the months our exhibition is open, such as the popular blue morpho (Morpho peleides) and giant owl (Caligo memnon). Others may come and go, which is a perfect reason to come to see Butterflies & Blooms more than once during the summer!

Here is a sneak peek at more of the butterflies and moths gracing the exhibition this season:

Blue Morpho (Morpho peleides)

Blue morpho (Morpho peleides)

Giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Giant owl butterfly (Caligo memnon)

Small Blue Grecian (Heliconius sara)

Small blue Grecian (Heliconius sara)

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)

Malachite (Siproeta stelenes)

Pink Rose (Pachliopta kotzebuea)

Pink rose (Pachliopta kotzebuea)

Great orange tip (Hebomoia glaucippe)

Great orange tip (Hebomoia glaucippe)

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Leopard lacewing (Cethosia cyane)

Silver spotted flambeau (Dione juno)

Silver spotted flambeau (Dione juno)


Butterfly photos ©Anne Belmont, William Bishoff, and Robin Carlson
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The Magnificent Owl

Patrick Sbordone —  September 1, 2015 — 3 Comments

Greetings from Butterflies & Blooms! I have great news for my fellow Lepidoptera enthusiasts! We have a very interesting new species in the exhibition. Meet Caligo atreus, also known as the yellow-edged owl, or our favorite: the magnificent owl. 

PHOTO: Caligo atreus ventral wing spots.

When resting, the eyespots of Caligo atreus are clearly visible. Photo by Stuart Seeger via Wikimedia Commons

This blue beauty is in the genus known as the owl butterflies (Caligo). They’re called owl butterflies because the markings on the undersides of their wings have large black eyespots that resemble the eyes of an owl. (You will typically see the eyespots when the butterflies’ wings are closed.) This is thought to help them ward off predators. Caligo translates to “darkness,” which corresponds to the fact that they prefer to fly in the early morning before their predators are out and about. They are native to the tropical forests of Central and South America, and are among the world’s largest butterflies!

PHOTO: A dorsal view of Caligo atreus, showing off its beautiful markings.

A dorsal view of Caligo atreus, showing off its beautiful markings

We also have a few other species in the owl genus, including the giant owl and the forest owl. However, the magnificent owl is aptly named, as it is much more colorful than its peers—its dorsal side has deep blue striping on the top part of the wing and bright yellow on the bottom half of the wing. During most of the day, you can find them hanging out on the fruit trays or resting in the shade, but if you come early, you’ll have a good chance of catching these graceful giants dancing around the exhibition, showing off their beautiful coloration.

Join us for our final week of Butterflies & Blooms, open through September 7. See you next season!


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org