Carroll County Times

Keep an eye out for jewels on the wing

The always beautiful and increasingly threatened Monarch butterfly.

It's that time of year to see more than just birds flying through the air. I am not a fan of insects in general but butterflies are a special exception.

I've always wondered how the "butter" part came to be in butterflies. There are butterflies that have a lovely creamy yellow butter color but legend has it that these insects were really witches in disguise and stole cream and butter, hence butterfly. Go figure!

Believe it or not, butterflies can be a challenge to photograph, especially those that bounce around like stones skipping on the water. This is why I try to let the lawn grow a bit between cuts so that those frenzied butterflies might stop for a moment on a clover flower or buttercup and I can get a shot of them.

I'm sure there is some explanation for their erratic flying patterns, but I don't know what it is.

Every butterfly is a treat to see, especially if you photograph them up close. Their fuzzy, often striped chests and abdomens, intricate wing patterns, unique antennae, and drinking straw proboscises (the elongated tube that allows them to drink flower nectar) make them a perfect subject for amazing pictures.

Speaking of cameras, I personally use a Canon SX50 HS for all of my photography. It is a fancy point and shoot but simple enough for me to use without changing a lot of settings or carrying extra lenses. I am definitely a believer in keeping it simple! I also have a lot of patience when I'm shooting, a must if you want to capture nature at its best.

I've made a point of using as much native vegetation as I can to entice butterflies to our yard. Purple coneflowers and bee balm dominate the landscape. Butterfly weed (with the bright orange flowers) is another option but I never had luck getting it to survive. I also have butterfly bushes even though they are not native. I try to keep the bushes in check by cutting off blossoms before they go to seed so that they don't spread and become invasive.

The butterflies, as well as the hummingbirds really love them.

I also provide host plants. My favorite is swamp milkweed, which is used by Monarch butterflies for food and laying eggs. Their tiny eggs are fascinating under a magnifying glass. They look like little spherical spaceship capsules with ridges.

Once the caterpillars (or larva as they are scientifically known) hatch, they munch away on the milkweed, so much so that sometimes they run out of food. This year, I have extra milkweed plants to make sure that everyone has enough to eat and survive.

Of course, survival means not being eaten by other things. The caterpillars have a secret weapon to help them out. They store toxins from the milkweed to discourage birds from eating them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well for predators like wasps and spiders.

Last summer was the first time I actually spotted a Monarch pupa or chrysalis on one of my plants. It was surprisingly hard to find among all the leaves. Every time I looked for it, it took me a few minutes to find it again. It shows just how clever nature came be when it comes to camouflage. What a little green jewel it was with a tiny necklace of yellow and black dots near the top. It reminded me of a porcelain trinket box with a beautiful treasure inside.

As luck would have it, I missed that treasure inside when it finally sprang from the chrysalis. I didn't realize that as it turned almost black, that was the signal that it was ready to hatch. I actually thought it died. Next thing I knew, the butterfly was gone and only a clear cellophane version of the chrysalis was left. I carefully removed the now abandoned chrysalis and saved it in a tiny jar.

From beginning to end, what an incredible cycle this creature has.

Monarchs may be one of the more lovely butterflies around but there are many others that are equally beautiful. Swallowtails are another favorite of mine, perhaps because they are large and photo friendly. Last summer I was lucky enough to have a Giant Swallowtail in the yard for the first time. Its striking size, along with its bold yellow and black pattern, demands attention.

Red Admirals, Red-spotted Purples, Viceroys, and Fritillaries are among dozens of other butterflies that grace our yard. Even the tiniest ones like Sulphurs and Cabbage Whites offer a constantly changing landscape as they float among the flowers.

So while you're out there smelling the roses and wandering through the fields, take the time to watch and admire these winged jewels.

Their lives fill our souls with color and flights we can only dream of.