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All about butterflies

Published March 18, 2004

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Here are some of the common species found in the Tampa Bay area.
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Answers to some frequently asked questions about butterflies:

Question: Why do caterpillars turn into butterflies?

Answer: The caterpillar is the eating and growing stage for the butterfly, but it cannot mate or reproduce. The adult butterfly is both the mating and egg-laying stage. Also, adult butterflies can disperse by flight, sometimes long distances, to either colonize new areas with fresh plants or even migrate long distances to escape freezing winters.

Q: Are butterflies poisonous?

A: Butterflies such as the monarch and pipevine swallowtail eat poisonous plants as caterpillars and thus become poisonous themselves as adults. Birds learn not to eat them. Certain benign butterflies mimic the appearance of their poisonous relatives to be similarly protected.

Q: What do butterflies eat?

A: With a few exceptions, butterflies take in only liquids to maintain their water balance and energy. Most sip flower nectar, but others drink from sap flowers on trees, rotting fruits, bird droppings or other animal waste. Butterflies do not emit waste. Sometimes they'll drink so much that they emit a fine liquid spray from the tip of the abdomen, but it is almost pure water.

Q: How can I raise a caterpillar?

A: Raising a caterpillar to become an adult moth or butterfly is a great way to learn about insect metamorphosis. All you need is a caterpillar, some of its favored food and a suitable container. You can find caterpillars on most plants during the spring and early summer.

Put the caterpillar and a few fresh leaves in a wide-mouth jar or plastic shoebox. Cover the jar mouth with netting. Every day, change the leaves and provide dry paper towels to help prevent mold. You can put in pencil-size twigs, upon which the caterpillar can attach its chrysalis or silken cocoon (with the pupa inside).

The insect will hatch in 10 to 14 days, if it does not "overwinter" (become dormant through a cold season). Before releasing it, you can photograph your prize. Just don't be too creeped out if small wasps or flies hatch instead of a butterfly. These insects keep the butterfly and moth populations under control.

Q: Why do some butterfly wings have such brilliant colors?

A: Colors are used in courtship, so male and female butterflies recognize each other as the correct species to mate with. They also can protect some butterflies from predators, either by warning that a particular butterfly, such as a monarch, tastes bad, or by helping the butterfly blend into its background.

Q: Are there endangered butterflies and moths?

A: There are more than 20 butterflies and moths listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of these species are found in the United States and may become extinct due to loss of their habitat.

Q: How high and how fast can butterflies fly?

A: Some fast-flying skippers can reach more than 30 mph. During fall migration, monarchs have been seen flying by tall buildings such as the Empire State Building at more than 1,000 feet. Butterflies also are picked up by storm fronts and moved hundreds of miles, at altitudes of several thousand feet.

Q: How long do butterflies live?

A: The average butterfly has an adult life span of two weeks or less. One butterfly studied in Costa Rica had a life expectancy of about two days.

No adult butterfly can live more than a year, but the mourning cloak adult and some related tortoiseshells and anglewings may live close to a year. These species "overwinter" - go dormant through the winter - as an adult and then mate and lay eggs the next spring.

Q: How do caterpillars know when it's time to turn into a chrysalis?

A: Whenever a caterpillar sheds its skin and its juvenile hormone level remains high, it goes to the next caterpillar stage. When the juvenile hormone level drops, the caterpillar finds a site to make a chrysalis (or a cocoon if it is a moth).

SOURCE: Dr. Paul Opler, U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resource Division

[Last modified March 17, 2004, 13:41:11]

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