I am happy to report that we now have white morphos (Morpho polyphemus) in the Butterflies & Blooms exhibit! This ghostly beauty is native to Mexico and Central America including Costa Rica, like its relative the common morpho (Morpho peleides).
The white morpho gets its scientific name from the small eyespots on its wings. Polyphemus, a character in Greek mythology, was the one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa.
Our white morphos can be spotted drinking rotten fruit, which they prefer over plant nectar. This extremely beautiful, iridescent butterfly is not to be missed. She is truly stunning and worth coming out to see!
The mocker swallowtail (Papilio dardanus) is the newest and perhaps most fascinating butterfly here at Butterflies & Blooms.
Native to Sub-Saharan Africa, this beauty is truly one of a kind. The male mocker swallowtail is monomorphic, meaning he always looks the same. In this particular case, he is a gorgeous, butter yellow with hints of black, and two distinct swallowtails.
The female, however, is polymorphic and has the ability to mimic up to 14 different butterfly species! The species she mimics are all native African butterflies that are known to be either distasteful or poisonous to predators. Her looks have great variation and can range between all white and black, orange and black, orange with black and white, and many more options! The female form also rarely has an actual swallowtail. There are some photos below of a few of her forms.
The mocker swallowtail is particularly active in the early morning and is extremely alert, so trying to get close to these beauties is difficult. Because birds (a.k.a. predators) are also active in the early morning, this is presumably a defense tactic used by these bright butterflies. That doesn’t mean you won’t see them in the display, though! They fly around all day long, so you will definitely be able to spot a few.
Visit Butterflies & Blooms to see the swallowtail in a habitat filled with hundreds of live butterflies.
The African moon moth (Argema mimosae) is another spectacular large moth found at Butterflies & Blooms this summer. Slightly smaller than its cousin, the Giant Madagascan moon moth, or comet moth (Argema mittrei), it can be well-camouflaged among the branches in the exhibition because its bright, bright green color blends in well with new leaf growth. The four “eyespots” on the moon moth’s wings mark it as a member of the Saturniidae family—moths with concentric spot designs that mimic the rings on the planet Saturn. Saturnid moths also use a pheromone mating system in which female moths release a chemical scent trail for male moths to follow.
As a caterpillar, this native of South Africa prefers corkwood (Commiphora), marula (Sclerocarya birrea), and tamboti (Spirostachys africana), but it does not eat during its lifespan as a moth. It trades mouthparts for wings in its transformation. It also trades its green caterpillar body for a beautiful, furry coat!
Find male moths in the exhibition by checking their antennae—male moths have thicker, more strongly feathered antennae.
Butterflies are beautiful, magical, and mysterious creatures.
They have to be one of nature’s greatest achievements. Their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly is truly mind-boggling when you really think about it. Seeing one is a joy. Seeing hundreds at one time is truly amazing! I had the pleasure of photographing butterflies at Butterflies & Blooms last summer. I had a wonderful time, and was just thrilled with the variety of butterflies and the quality of the plantings.
When photographing butterflies, I like to look for fresh specimens on pretty perches in a well-lighted area. Even though there are a lot of butterflies there, finding one you like sitting still on an attractive surface might take some time. One approach is to find a flower that you like and position yourself ahead of time. First, set up your camera. Then, make sure there is nothing distracting in the background, and wait. Usually within just a few minutes, a butterfly or two will land in the area. Another option is to look for the kind of butterfly you like already perched on a flower or leaf. Most newly hatched butterflies will stay still on flowers or foliage while they dry, giving you an excellent opportunity to photograph them.
Since this is an indoor exhibit, the structure of the building and the people walking around can often complicate shots. My favorite lenses for photographing butterflies in this situation are my 105mm and 200mm macro lenses. They allow me to be a comfortable distance away from the butterflies, get excellent details, and also keep the background soft.
As with all wildlife, I always focus on the eyes. It is human nature to look at the eyes first. If they are in focus, then the whole photograph will have a more satisfying feel. If you are photographing the side of a butterfly, get parallel to the wings to keep your plane of focus aligned with entire length of the butterfly. That way you can get more of the wing details in focus without having to increase your depth of field (aperture) which would mean a slower shutter speed and possibly a soft photo. While there is plenty of light, the screen mesh does cut down the available light, and shaded areas cut the light even further. It will take some experimenting to find settings that work for you when balancing your shutter speed, ISO, and aperture to get sharp, interesting photos.
To keep from getting in the way of other guests, I leave the tripod at home and handhold my camera. This means that I search for butterflies on flowers in the sun, so that I have a fast enough shutter speed for sharp photos. My most successful images come from observing the butterflies for a while and seeing what flowers seem to be the ones that get a lot of attention. There always seem to be a few plants that have more activity than others. If I’m lucky, one or two of those plants will have some nice light on them. Then I wait, enjoying the butterflies that land on me instead, eventually being graced by a few that choose to stop by and allow me to photograph them.
A walk in McDonald Woods in late winter or early spring might be uninspiring to many people because of the drab gray trunks of dormant trees and seeming lack of activity. You might see the occasional black-and-white flash of a downy woodpecker flitting from tree to tree, or spot a white-breasted nuthatch as it navigates upside down, probing for whatever bits of protein it might have missed on earlier explorations.
But who would expect butterflies? After all, 80-degree days and abundant flowers overflowing with nectar haven’t even awaken in our minds. But they are here, at least those few species that spend the winter, hidden away as adult butterflies under loose bark, inside piles of brush, or maybe in an old woodpecker nest or hollow log.
Even though I know they are here, it is still a surprise the first warm day in March when I spot a mourning cloak basking in the strengthening sunlight. As I approach for a better look, it is likely to spiral upward, erratically flitting off to another patch of sun.
The mourning cloak, eastern comma, and question mark are three of the common woodland butterflies at the Garden that generate a brew of chemical antifreeze earlier in fall that allows them to survive the coldest weather winter has to offer. Instead of migrating like the monarch or spending the winter wrapped in a chrysalis, these three are adults, wings at the ready to take advantage of the first warm weather of spring.
The lack of nectar-producing flowers this time of the year does not deter them as they are perfectly happy to feed on sap from any of the branches that may have been damaged during winter storms, or drink the fermented liquid oozing from an injured willow or oak tree. Although butterflies are a generally short-lived organism, usually living only a few weeks, these three can survive for eight to ten months.
The dark, purple-brown color of the mourning cloak gives it an advantage at this time of the year. Those richly colored wings, held out to the sides, act like solar collectors absorbing the sun’s energy and passing it on to the body where it raises the temperature of their muscles enough to allow them to fly.
The comma and question mark utilize a similar basking strategy. They often posses sun-absorbing, dark-colored under wings, which, when held closed against their bodies and perpendicular to the sun’s rays, elevate their temperature. The thermal boost gives this group of insects a head start on the season by allowing them to exploit a habitat at a time of the year when there are few other butterflies around to compete for precious resources.
Although these three butterflies are insects, and as you know all insects have six legs, these three belong to a group known as the brush-footed butterflies. They have modified fore legs that are smaller than their other legs and cannot be used for walking.
If you get a chance to get a close look at one of them, you might be surprised to see that they are only standing on four legs. The other two are tucked under their heads.
Next time you think of taking a walk in the dormant woods, pick a sunny day when these not-so-fragile gems might be out and about, soaking up sun and supping on sap.