July 29, exactly one week ago, was definitely the most exciting day for me at the Butterflies & Blooms exhibit this year!
On July 3, we received what looked like “naked” pupae. These were the pupae of the bull’s eye silk moth, or African emperor moth (Gonimbrasia zambesina). Aside from a very slight wiggling the first day or two, the pupae just sat there in their box. Then, on Wednesday morning, I checked on them and noticed one of the pupae looked like it was broken open like an empty eggshell…but I couldn’t find a moth or anything else—until I looked up and saw it hanging in the top corner of the display! It was fabulous. I literally ran out to the volunteers to tell them the good news! (They ask, “Are there any new moths?” on a daily basis, and I usually have to say no.) I brought it out and placed it in the safest place I could think of, while still being easily visible to guests. I personally didn’t take a photo, but all the volunteers did—so that’s what you see here. It’s been a dramatic week!
As far as the native butterflies and moths in our exhibition right now, we received 30 white peacocks, 12 buckeyes, and 8 gulf frits. I’ve never seen a gulf frit, so I’m looking forward to those pupae hatching. They came in on July 28, so I expect them to emerge any time now. (The smaller butterflies seem to emerge the fastest.)
Monarch butterflies have left their overwintering sites in Mexico and are heading back toward the Midwest, including the Chicago area.
Unfortunately, far fewer monarchs will be making the northward flight this year and the chance to see large numbers of these beautiful butterflies in your garden or flying across a prairie is becoming less certain.
In the 1990s, hundreds of millions of monarchs made the journey each fall from the northern plains of the United States and Canada to forested sites north of Mexico City. In western North America, more than a million monarchs made a shorter flight to tree groves on California’s coast. However, monarch numbers have been declining for more than a decade, and this year scientists documented record low numbers. We have seen more than a 90 percent decline.
Why is this occurring? We don’t know for sure, although there are several factors that are likely contributing. Habitat loss due to urban development and large-scale agriculture are key concerns. Farms now cover vast areas and many grow genetically modified crops that allow herbicide applications to be used on and around the crop, including in areas where milkweed—the one plant that monarch caterpillars need—used to grow. These “Roundup ready” crops have been identified as a major cause of milkweed loss throughout the Midwest. Additionally, millions of acres of farms and urban land are treated with toxic insecticides. The loss of forest habitat in Mexico and the decline of monarch groves in California may also be playing a role. In the West, severe drought is likely contributing to reduced monarch populations. These threats are compounded by climate change.
We do not have to sit and watch these declines continue.
We can provide these butterflies (and other wildlife) with high-quality, insecticide-free habitats. This is not something that needs to be restricted to a distant wilderness. Indeed, it is a cause in which everyone can take part. Homeowners and farmers can plant milkweed to support monarch caterpillars, and native flowers to provide nectar for adult butterflies, and work to limit the impact of insecticides. Land managers can ensure that milkweed stands are adequately protected.
The Xerces Society’s Project Milkweed has been working with native wildflower seed nurseries, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and community partners to produce huge volumes of milkweed seed that are being used to restore monarch habitat. In just three years, this work has led to the production of 35 million milkweed seeds! As a result of this effort, milkweed seed is rapidly becoming more available in many regions of the country. To make it easier for people to find seed sources, we’ve launched the Milkweed Seed Finder, a comprehensive directory of milkweed seed vendors across the country.
In addition, the Xerces Society’s work with farmers and the NRCS has led to the creation of tens of thousands of acres of wildflower habitat that includes milkweed, across much of the monarch’s breeding range.
Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” For the sake of the monarch—and so many other species—it is time to heal as many wounds as possible.
You are a monarch butterfly. You weigh less than one gram. You are traveling 1,000…2,000…perhaps 3,000 miles on migration from Mexico to your northern breeding grounds. You are desperate for flower nectar; for the safety and shelter of shrubs and trees; for shallow, still water to “mud puddle” in; and for milkweed plants on which to lay your eggs. Suddenly you see a sea of color—a flower-filled yard in a yawn of lawns…
You are a hummingbird. You weigh less than a pencil. You have just flown 500 miles nonstop (not to mention crossing the Gulf of Mexico) in search of the perfect spot to build your walnut-sized nest. You need fuel: the nectar from tube-shaped flowers, and lots of it, as in sips from 1,000 flowers per day. Suddenly you see a mass of flowers below…
You are a homeowner with a yard. You are weighing a new approach to your landscape: you’d like to incorporate butterfly/hummingbird-friendly plants. You’ve heard about butterfly bushes, and you picture a yard filled with flitting and fluttering all summer long.
You need Tim Pollak. He’s the outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and he’s our resident butterfly guy, who teaches frequent classes at the Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden on the subject of attracting butterflies and hummers to your yard. Consider this a mini-class: in the video below, Tim brings you up close to flowering plants that are both butterfly-attractive and visually attractive to you and your neighbors.
The king cracker (Hamadryas amphinome) is our featured butterfly this week.
The king cracker is part of a larger group of butterflies called crackers because of the sound males make with their wings when they fly. You guessed it, they make a cracking sound! Only males can make the sound, but both males and females can detect it. We still don’t know why they make a cracking noise; perhaps it has to do with mating, or maybe to deter a potential predator. Regardless, it is fun to hear!
The king cracker is native to Mexico and Peru, but has been spotted in the southern United States as well. It has a very unique color pattern that is truly remarkable to see. On the top of its wings is a stunning blue and white calico pattern. Underneath is a brilliant brick-colored patch that gives the butterfly its other common name, red cracker.
The king cracker is a master of disguise. The mottled blue and white tones allow it to blend easily into the bark on trees. Tree trunks are a favorite resting spot for king crackers and they, unlike most butterflies, rest with their wings open; ready to take flight at any moment. Even the the pupae are disguised to look like withered leaves.
Another interesting fact about the king cracker is that it feeds mainly on decomposing fruit and not nectar. It is easy to spot a king cracker grabbing a quick bite on any of our four feeding dishes. So come on out to the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition and see if you can see or hear one today!
The pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is our featured butterfly this week. This beauty can be found in the southern half of the United States all the way south to Mexico. Occasionally it can even be found further north. In Mexico, pipevines can be found all year round.
Like many butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail warns potential predators with its bright colors that it is inedible. Caterpillars feed on the toxic leaves of Aristolochia species and become unpalatable, staying that way through their metamorphosis. Females even pass the toxins along to eggs, which then also become protected.
Another beautiful native, the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) mimics the pipevine swallowtail as a form of defense—the pipevine’s bad taste and toxic makeup are enviable traits in a butterfly! Though not toxic itself, the spicebush’s convincing disguise fools predators into thinking twice before snacking.
Like many other butterflies, the pipevine swallowtail gets its nutrients from “puddling,” in which a group of butterflies gathers at one location, such as a shallow puddle or a mud pile, and drinks any available liquid. This is a common way to supplement their primary diet of nectar with much needed salts and minerals.
This beautiful butterfly regularly visits our coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibition, and can easily be spotted. Make sure to check them out on your next trip to the Garden!