I find it funny that if you ask most people their opinion on insects they often will say they find them gross. However, if you ask the same people if they like butterflies, most will say "yes I love them!" Even though butterflies are insects, they get special treatment due to their beautiful coloration and propensity to feed on the nectar from flowers. Although this seems all sweet and beautiful, their choice of food is actually integral to their own survival and to the greater ecosystem.
Swallowtail rests on a leaf
It is always hard to say where the cycle starts, the chicken and the egg conundrum. However, here let's start with the egg. Butterfly eggs are always laid on a specific plant. Generally these plants are specific to each butterfly. For example monarchs always lay their eggs on milkweed. Why milkweed? (you may ask).
Monarch caterpillar with its famous stripes
This is because when the eggs hatch, the caterpillars, which are the larval butterflies, always feed on milkweed. Since a caterpillar is a slow lumbering creature it needs to hatch directly on its food source. The role of a caterpillar is just to eat. They need to grow as quickly as possible and build up their nutrient reserves to have the fats and proteins available to metamorphosize, grow wings, and become a butterfly. If you look closely you can probably find a metaphor in the metamorphosis.
Common buckeye, fools predators into thinking its much larger than it is with the fake eyes on its wings!
Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed, so if you want a pro tip, plant some milkweed in your garden and you surely will have monarchs flying around soon! The reason the monarch caterpillars feed on the milkweed is because there is a chemical called cardenolide in the milkweed that the monarchs are adapted to absorb. You or I couldn’t absorb cardenolide, for it is poisonous. That is exactly why the monarch caterpillars eat it. The chemical builds up in their bodies and makes them poisonous.
This way they are completely protected from predators by being poisonous! If something eats a monarch it will also perish. Monarchs have a pretty interesting strategy to let predators know they are poisonous. They are colored bright orange which makes them pop out and be easy to spot by all potential predators. This strategy is known as aposematic coloration, making sure predators see you and see that you are poisonous.
The caterpillars hatch on the plant and then eat its leaves and stems, which at a certain point damages the plant. It can be particularly damaging if many caterpillars are on one plant as they can almost eat the whole plant! This can happen with other insects as well, check out this video below of an alder tree riddled with an unknown species of beetle larvae.
See the eating power of larvae on display
Although caterpillars can completely destroy a plant, or even an entire tree, once they become butterflies they have the opposite effect. Trees and plants have to mate and breed just like animals, and often will be gendered male or female. However, as I am sure you know, plants can’t exactly walk over and take another plant out to dinner. So how can they swap genetic material? The secret solutions are the plants bridesmaids, the pollinators.
Admiral showing its gorgeous coloration
Butterflies are some of the most important pollinators across the world. They feed on the nectar stored deep inside of flowers. To get this nectar they extend a long proboscis, which is essentially a tongue in the shape of a straw. They stick this into the flowers and drink the nectar out. While this happens, they get a little bit of pollen stuck to their bodies. So when they head over to the next flower, the pollen from the previous flower gets transferred. Pollen is the genetic material of plants and when transferred between flowers creates a baby plant.
Monarch collecting pollen, look for its probiscis extending into the flower to suck up nectar
This baby plant generally comes in the form of a fruit or something with a seed inside. The seed is the baby and this will ultimately grow into a new plant. Plants will suffer from caterpillars eating their leaves and stems, but in the end they rely on the butterflies to pollinate and help them continue their lineage. Nature is full of these fascinating cycles, keep an eye out and you may just discover one yourself!
Stunning photos all by Alex Havasi, video by Isaac Yelchin
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions