Butterfly Garden

I love butterflies. This is no surprise given the title of my blog. Those who loved these glorious winged creatures and marvels of nature, welcome again. I have much to share. Today I want to tell you about a butterfly sanctuary a few hours away. The visit was inspiring and one of the best experiences of my life. It is a two-part compound and one of the best places for viewing for miles around. One section is a fenced in areas of trees that draw the amazing monarch in droves at certain times of the year. The foliage is dense so you have to have keen eyes to detect them when they are at rest.  After a spin in the garden when your eyes are nice and dilated, you go into a huge greenhouse-style structure to see more at close range.

As if you could top the outdoor fantasy, inside you have the privilege of butterflies landing on your arm or leg. If you stand still and are super quiet, they will come to you. I don’t know why, but it happens. With all the visitors, they must be used to humans. Otherwise, you walk around various exotic plants and see the monarchs (and other species of the area) testing out their assorted roosts. They stay for a while and then flit away—just like that. They are flighty to say the least as if intimidated by the breeze. I loved every single minute of the day. I dreaded the ride back in the car. Not only did I want to continue to witness my beloved butterflies, but the friend who accompanied me smoked all the way. Of course, she repeated her nasty habit on the way back. By the time we got home I was nauseated and coughing. Then there was the matter of the stale-smelling car.

The first thing I did was to air it out by opening the doors and windows. I even opened the trunk just in case. Ha! Seriously, I had a problem and no idea how to get the smoke smell out of my car. I resorted to what I have seen on TV—a huge dousing of Febreze deodorizing spray. It helped but I needed a bit more treatment. I hung a scented air device in the most innocuous “flavor.” Now the car smelled like cinnamon spice. What was worse: that or the cigarette odor? Ha! The last resort was a special detailing at the car wash and I was smoke free at last.

The moral of the story is to ask friends not to smoke in your car if you are not a smoker yourself. You will be sensitive to it and the ashy smell will linger in your car seats and rugs for days. It helps if they open the windows, but frankly the secondhand smoke permeates anyway. You may not keep this friend, but that may not be so bad after all. What I had hoped to be the perfect trip, was marred by cigarettes. Next time I will go alone.

Minor Upgrades to the Garden Today

If you child pins butterflies to a board for display, stop this practice right now. I know it is common with curious youngsters, but why encourage the destruction of such beauty. It should no longer be a childhood hobby. I grew up loving the ephemeral creatures, but stopped at capturing them for eternity. As I matured, I incorporated my fixation into my fondness for gardening. If I can help preserve the butterflies while I produce fresh crops, it is so much better. In other words, I grow flowers and plants that support the native butterfly population. You can stop applauding me now. I do it out of love. These winged insects merit every effort to safeguard them.

I have my regular gardening practices. I plan out my space very carefully when various factors in mind. I research the subject and follow the recommended instructions as to what I need to plant and during what season. Right now, I am adding mulch and plant food to the soil. I hope it will help make the garden visually appealing with no weeds in sight. Nothing spoils a plot of land more than those ubiquitous and ever-present weeds. It is a daily chore as the plants turn from seeds to seedlings. Sometimes I spill a bit of potting soil in the garage as I carry an open bag outside. It’s a good thing I have a handy shop vac to tidy up when I’m finished in Woodwork Nation. Outdoor spills can be taken care of with a rake and a shovel. Yes, I am a bit of a neatnik as you might surmise. That’s why I bought the battery-operated vac in the first place. I use it all the time. I spill kitty litter, odds and ends from the trash, and sometimes seeds. I want nothing to mar the pristine beauty of my garage floor. Nor do I want anything to mar the pristine perfection of my garden—hence my obsession with weeds. I do it all by hand so as not to use any nasty toxins that could seep into the soil.

Now that my garden work is done for the day, I get out my digital camera and look for stray butterflies. Over the years, I have been able to capture many in flight. Real excitement comes when I capture more than one. If I get a good close-up or something captivating, I post it on Facebook and Instagram. I am gathering other butterfly-loving followers. I enjoy seeing their photos. Many are taken in backyards, but I love the ones in open fields. I collect these photos and have created a special butterfly album. Some are special such as those taken in the garden with butterflies on the wing right above. When one settles down, I approach it cautiously so as not to scare it away. It is a precious experience that makes my day. Gardening is practical, but butterfly gazing is an art.

Discovery in the Community Garden

For centuries, literally from the beginning of time perhaps, gold has been coveted as a precious metal. It is the preferred metal for jewelry as you may know, and is also collected in bars and coins for an investment. While it has had its ups and downs as a commodity, over time it has increased in value enormously. Any retirement portfolio becomes diversified and well-rounded if it includes more than stocks and bonds. I am telling you this not because I have started to amass a collection, but because recently I found a gold ring buried in the dirt while planning in a community garden project.

It was a surprise and I imagine it had been there for some time left by an earnest volunteer who probably didn’t realize the loss until she got home. I do hope it was not an engagement or wedding band. That would make me sad. There is no way to find the owner given the public nature of the garden. I didn’t even know if it was real gold or clad. It is pretty enough in any case. The first thing I did was to check for an engraving. This is not usually done on gold-filled jewelry. I found a tiny set of initials but no other hint as to the owner. I still had to test it.

I went searching online and discovered on a Facebook page that people sell their antique jewelry and cast-off gold items at coin dealers who have a magnifying glass that detects the gold mark. I should do this because other methods of testing don’t tell you if it is 10K, 14K, or 18K (the most valuable). I want the fun of trying using a magnet and water. I am not going crazy and getting a spectrometer. It would be most accurate, but let me tell you what I did. First, I bit down on it to determine the hardness and density. It passed the test as far as I could tell but I wasn’t convinced it was fool-proof. I found a strong magnet (forget the weak one on the fridge) in a hardware store.

The point of this test is that gold is not magnetic, so if the found ring pulled toward it, or stuck to it in anyway, it would be a fake or counterfeit. With jewelry, this means it is “costume.” Guess what, the magnet didn’t work so the ring was indeed gold. You don’t call it “pure” as there is always another element. There is less of it in 24K gold for example.

For my little DIY experiment, there was one left. I filled a vial with water and recorded the volume using the millimeter markings on the side. I then immersed the ring and took note of the difference. There is a formula to use to determine density which involves mass/volume displacement. If it is near 19 ml this would indicate real gold. Again, it is not fool-proof as scientific as it is, but fun to do in any case.

I was satisfied over all that the ring was real and ended the testing here. I just enjoy looking at the ring although I haven’t dared to wear it as yet.

New Addition to the Garden

I once took a course at the local community center on conservation and recycling. I thought it was the appropriate thing to do. I already separate plastic bottles and aluminum cans in my trash, but I never knew that you could repurpose so many things at home. Now I thoroughly believe in double duty. Most of what we learned was to reupholster old furniture, fix broken caning on chairs, to replate old silverware for years of additional use, and to make sculptures with wire hangers and small tools. If anything could find a new home in the garden, I would be thrilled. It is my personal paradise as it attracts many beloved butterflies. I spend a lot of time fixing it up. An old metal coffee table (sanded and repainted green) became a garden seat so I could rest my legs during my hours of observation. This happened at certain times of the years when the butterflies were visiting. Some old can lights from the den became outdoor fixtures complete with colored lamps. It made for a mighty pretty environment.

The recycling didn’t end here. A new addition to the outdoor space was part of an old tank from a defunct water heater. It died an untimely death, but in keeping with what I learned about conservation, I wasn’t about to toss it away to become fodder for the overfilled junkyard. That would not be very green of me. I am now an environmentalist to the bone. After pruning the top of the tank down several feet, I had a readymade, perfectly utilitarian garden receptacle. Given the price of large ceramic pots, I was glad to save the money and still get ample space for some trailing flowers. They would grow like a vine and cover most of the white tank. Every time I go out into the garden, I am on Water Heater Watch, looking for butterflies in the flowers that I planted in the old unit. I thought about painting it, but changed my mind. I wanted people who visited my garden to give me credit for my ingenuity. I must tell the conservation course instructor to add this idea to her extensive recycling list. Who knew that a water heater could be a planter?

I now have a tankless water heater and despite of my newfound conservation orientation, I don’t see any way to reuse it when its time has come and gone. But I could hardly have purchased a bulky tank water unit again. I have already repurposed its space and have put in shelves for storage. I will no doubt find many other things to recycle and find a new life. It is a great way to promote family craft time. Each family member can look around the house and find things to refashion into something decorative or useful. Get out the wire cutters, glue, saw, and screwdriver. Add some colored construction paper and crayons for the little ones. The winner gets a prize. Just be sure little Johnny doesn’t raid mom’s makeup kit or little Susie doesn’t take the dog’s collar.

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

My flower garden is my prized possession. It is a breeding ground for my precious butterflies that populate the space during certain times of the year. You can therefore imagine my chagrin when my flowers were mangled recently by a stray basketball. A what? Yes, a basketball of standard size. It became a destructive weapon. It started out as an implement of sport for my next-door neighbors who have an in ground basketball hoop in their driveway. I understand the appeal of being able to play at home, especially after school for kids. I believe in healthy exercise when and where you can get it—but it can’t violate my plantings. I know it wasn’t intentional and the ball simply got away from the players and crashed through my flowers. They are like my children and their death was painful and unpleasant.

I got back to the garden immediately to make some repairs. I added a few new plants to fill the empty spaces. I then went to talk to my neighbor who is generally very nice. I started out angry, but soon lost my intensity. The children are just too cute and they love playing “hoops.” My neighbor volunteered to pay for my new plants and to help weed on weekends to atone for his kids’ actions. He promised that they would be more careful in the future and watch where they threw the ball. They would try not to toss it wildly in my direction. Over time, they adhered to their promise and our friendliness grew. In fact, our relationship was so warmhearted that I was invited to a game of basketball followed by dinner.

I am not gifted at this sport, even though it is appealing to more and more women these days. I gave it my all and had great fun with the kids who were giggly and sweet. We all enjoyed a barbecue together in the backyard, I could see that they didn’t have many flowers not to mention butterflies. Let’s have a planting party I suggested. Let’s make a wonderful garden. I got a rousing yes as a response. I’m in each one crooned. The next weekend, I went to the nursery and bought enough plants to fill my idea of a garden. I wanted to line the stone walkway that led to small man-made fishpond at the back of the yard. I hoped that the mature plants would be a display of lush color. I taught the kids how to prune and weed and how much water to use on a weekly basis to keep everything growing well.

After a few weeks, the garden was in full bloom, just like mine. I taught the young ones how to take photos with a digital camera and post them on Instagram for their friends. Soon I noticed that more children began to visit the home and go out back to admire the flowers. From time to time, I caught them weeding. Imagine that! There was less time with the basketball now. This was good news.

Gardening for Butterflies

I am not sure if my love for gardening is separate from my love of butterflies or if one developed from the other. By planting butterfly-friendly plants and flowers in my garden, I attract more butterflies and caterpillars. Then I get to indulge my love of butterflies. It is a win-win for me.

The first thing you have to learn is about which butterflies are native to your area. You can have all the plants necessary for your favorite butterfly to enjoy but if they are not present in your area, you will have wasted a lot of effort. Here is a handy map you can use to find the butterflies most likely to visit your yard. This way, you can plant accordingly.

There are two methods to attracting butterflies, although you can use a combination of the two. You can plant the things that caterpillars like to eat, which will attract butterflies to your yard to lay eggs. You can also plant flowers that will attract butterflies to their nectar. If you plant a combination of the two, you may be able to observe the entire life cycle of a native butterfly right in your backyard!

Butterfly host plants, or what I call caterpillar food, are the ones butterflies will lay eggs on. I recommend only the stout of heart gardener tolerate host plants because you have to not mind the fact that your plants being chewed on! There are a few varieties of caterpillar that enjoy willow or alfalfa. If you stick with native plants, they will be easier to take care of.

If you only want butterflies, or if you want the caterpillars to remain in your garden, you need flowering plants to provide nectar. Many people like butterfly bush for this purpose, but it is not native to the United States and it can overrun not just your garden but the yards around you. However, flowers like butterfly weed (not actually a weed), zinnia, marigolds, lavender, cosmos, sunflowers, asters, thyme, sage, and even oregano will attract butterflies to your garden. You will likely find one of these more native to your area and easy to grow. Aim for your flowers to be blooming in mid to late summer, when butterflies are most active. For a much more extensive list that is broken down by the butterflies they attract, you can look here. Personally, I like a combination of herbs and flowers in my yard. This way not only does it look pretty but it tastes delicious too.

If you plant the host plants near the flowering plants, you will create a perfect habitat for butterflies to live out their entire lives inside your garden. You will also have a beautiful garden for yourself to enjoy!

The Mighty Monarch

Monarch butterflies are a personal favorite of mine. I especially love their colors. I like the yellow, black, and white stripes of the caterpillar and I love the orange and black of the butterfly. The green chrysalis is pretty cool, too. But the thing I like most of all about them is the amazing journey that they take. Since I find it so interesting, I thought I would write a special post dedicated to the king of the butterflies. Maybe you will find it interesting too.

At the end of winter and very early spring (February and March), Monarchs come out of hibernation in their warm climates to look for a mate. Then they migrate north to find a place to lay their eggs. Monarchs prefer milkweed plants, which grow in much cooler environments in the spring and fall. They have to get the eggs where there is a ready food supply for the larvae.

These eggs hatch in the spring, sometime between March and April. The caterpillars will eat the milkweed leaves for about two weeks. During this time, they grow and grow. They start out quite tiny and grow to about two inches long. Once they have reached their full size, the caterpillar will look for a place to turn into a pupa. Usually, they will find a stem or a leaf and hang upside down from it. It will transform itself from a striped caterpillar into a green chrysalis. I think it is green mostly to blend in with its surroundings so that it can remain undisturbed while it undergoes some big changes.After about ten days, the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis. These butterflies will fly away to find a mate, feeding on the nectar of flowers and pollinating gardens as they go along. These particular butterflies will live about two to six weeks, which is pretty long for a butterfly but not as long as later Monarchs! They will lay eggs for the next group of butterflies.

This next generation of butterflies is usually born in May and June. Their cycle is similar to that of the ones born in early spring. This group of butterflies will lay their eggs toward the end of June and in July so that the next wave of Monarchs can hatch around July/August. These Monarchs will also follow the same path, going through the same stages, but this time they do their egg laying in late summer.

It is this last round of Monarchs that are different from the rest. Because they are born in early fall (typically September or October), they actually migrate once they become butterflies. They will fly to warmer climates like California or Mexico. Usually, they go to whichever warm locale is closer. They live much longer than those who came before them, too, surviving as long as six to eight months! These butterflies will hibernate on trees. Although it is a completely different group of butterflies who make the trip every year, they tend to pick the same trees to hibernate on. They will remain in hibernation again until it is time to head back east, where the milkweed plants are growing once again.

And that is the busy life of one of the coolest butterflies around, the Monarch!

Fun Facts about Butterflies

Butterflies are some of the most interesting insects around. Here are some fun facts that I have learned over the years about them:

  • Butterflies have very cool eyes.They can see in a mosaic type of view around them. They can see red, green, and yellow. They are also very good at sensing light and dark, which is helpful when trying to avoid prey. They can sense a shadow and get out of the way! They also see each other in a UV pattern that is invisible to humans. It helps them choose a mate.
  • Female butterflies are capable of recognizing plants by their leafshape and color. This helps them when they are laying eggs so that they can provide a good location for their babies to find food. This will give their caterpillars a larger chance for survival.
  • Because they are insects, butterflies have three pairs of legs. You often have to look closely near the front of their bodies to see the first pair of legs. Some species have developed these legs so that they are very tiny and useless as legs, but they are still there.
  • Butterflies can feel vibrations in their legs. This acts as an early warning system if animals or birds are approaching. Most will fly away, but some have markings on their wings that look like eyes that they will display if they feel threatened. These markings trick predators into thinking that the butterfly is something else and is much larger.
  • Many types of butterflies can taste with their feet. This is another way they can make sure they lay their eggs on the right plant.
  • Butterflies use their antennae for a few reasons. They can detect scent. The males can use them to find the pheromones in potential mates. They can also use their antennae to find nectar. Butterflies also put their antennae onto soil or leaves. This helps them detect the minerals in the ground. The males need sodium, which they will then pass on to the females. They may be able to use antennae to communicate with other butterflies.
  • The tongue of the butterfly is called a proboscis. It looks like a long, curled-up straw that they can unravel and ravel up again. It is actually made up of two channels that link together to form a tube. Drinking from flowers and fruits can be sticky, so the butterfly can actually separate the sections and clean them!
  • Most butterflies will drink nectar from flowers or fruit. However, there are some butterflies in more tropical climates that will actually drink from carrion—the bodies of dead insects or animals.
  • Sometimes you can spot butterflies drinking at the edges of rain puddles. They get minerals this way. They can also drink from urine puddles or even dung.

Every fact that I have learned about butterflies has made them even more fascinating to me and I will continue to find out cool things about them to share on this blog! If you know any other facts about butterflies that you would like to share, let me know!

Raising Caterpillars and Butterflies

Did you get to raise a butterfly in your elementary school classroom like I did when you were a kid? I think it was one of the highlights of school for me. If you weren’t so lucky to do this at school, or if you just want to do it again, there are kits online that you can purchase, either from the company directly or through retailers like Amazon. These are typically painted lady butterflies, which are found in most areas of the United States. You will not usually find an exotic butterfly raising kit, as introducing new species into an area is not advised.

Your butterfly kit may come with the caterpillars or it will have a voucher you can use to sent away for them. If you have to send away for them, never fear. They arrive quickly and as very small caterpillars.  They will be housed in a special container which prevents their escape into the house. These kits are self-contained so you do not have to grab the right kinds of leaves for the caterpillars. They will eat the nutrition solution at the bottom of the container. It is also a good idea not to open the container until all of your caterpillars are safely in the pupal stage. You can watch the caterpillars as they grow and molt, and witness their ascent to the top of the container where they will form their chrysalis.

Once they are in the pupal stage, you can safely move them to the mesh container provided with your kit. Day to day, it won’t look like much is going on, but inside those chrysalides, there is amazing work going on. The entire caterpillar will change as it turns into a butterfly.

It is very cool to watch the caterpillars emerge from their chrysalis. If you are afraid you will miss it, train a video camera at the butterflies and film it. Once the butterflies have arrived, you can add flowers or soft fruit to the container for the butterflies to drink.

However, after a few days, it is best for you to release the butterflies out into the world. They will need to find mates and lay eggs, and it is difficult to tell if you have enough males and females. Also, the butterflies would not want to lay their eggs in that mesh container because there is no food source. They will also lay more eggs than you are equipped to handle, even if your caterpillars did not eat all of the food in their container. So you should really let them go.

Releasing your butterflies is a sad thing but is the right choice. You should release them preferably somewhere that they will have a ready source of nectar. It is good to release them when it is over 55 degrees and sunny as well. It will give them their best chance of survival.

Most places offer a “refill” kit that is cheaper and only contains the live caterpillars in their container. This way, if the weather is cooperative and you want, you can raise more. Once you start, it is hard to stop!

Lifecycle of the Butterfly

The lifecycle of a butterfly is rather amazing. All species of butterfly go through a “complete metamorphosis,” meaning it completes four stages of development. These stages are the egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

 

The first stage is the egg stage. Butterfly eggs vary in shape from rounded to cylindrical. The shape of the egg depends on the butterfly that laid it. If you are very determined and observant, you may be lucky enough to find some butterfly eggs. They are usually laid on the leaves of plants, but they are very small. If you happen to find some, you will be able to see the tiny creatures growing inside.

 

Once the egg hatches, a caterpillar is born. The only job the caterpillar has is to eat! The first thing that caterpillars eat is the leaf that they were born on. When they are very small, it is hard for caterpillars to travel, so they eat what is closest to them. Therefore, it is very important that the mother butterfly lay her eggs on the type of plant the caterpillars will want to eat—believe it or not, each type of caterpillar prefers certain leaves. They are pretty picky eaters! With all of the eating the caterpillars do, they grow very quickly. Their bodies do not grow along with them like yours does, so they shed their skin several times (in a process called “molting”) as they get bigger. Some can grow up to 100 times their size! Can you imagine how big you would be if you grew that fast? The caterpillar stage does not last for very long—usually only a week or two.

 

Once a caterpillar has grown to its full size, they form themselves into a pupa—or chrysalis. It is like an envelope that the caterpillar forms around itself. It is usually hanging upside down on a leaf or a branch during this time but some bury themselves underground. It looks like nothing is happening, but this is where the magic of a butterfly takes place. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar is undergoing a metamorphosis, or transformation. The duration of this metamorphosis depends on the type of butterfly. Most take a few weeks but some take a month. There are a couple of species that stay in the pupal stage for two years! Caterpillars don’t have wings but their bodies and tissues are slowly forming the features we will recognize as that of a butterfly when it finally emerges.

 

Finally, when the caterpillar is done changing, it will emerge from the pupa as a beautiful winged butterfly. The job of the butterfly is to find a mate and to lay eggs. Some butterflies have a long tongue that they can use to feed on nectar from plants and flowers, but others don’t eat anything at all! Most species of butterfly live for one to two weeks. However, there are some species that hibernate during the winter—and those species can live for several months. The females lay their eggs and it starts the lifecycle all over again!