Complex eyes protect butterflies

Published 3:33 pm Saturday, June 10, 2017

Did you ever wonder why it is so hard to catch a butterfly? I remember as a child, I would think I almost had one in my grasp and then it just flitted out of my reach. What I did not realize then was their two compound eyes are composed of thousands of separate eyes. They are so elusive because they see us coming.

I once watched a video that traced the life stages of a zebra butterfly. An ugly little caterpillar hatched from tiny butterfly eggs laid on a leaf. Close-ups of it looked like something from a horror movie. I was amazed how God made such a thing of beauty emerge from a repulsive-looking wormlike caterpillar.

That ugly thing had a ravenous appetite, chomping away at leaves to sustain itself for its next stage of life. It shed its skin five times before turning into the pupa. Within the pupa, which is a case or cocoon, big changes take place to form the butterfly. Then the insect that was first so ugly and destructive turns into a thing of beauty. It no longer chomps on leaves or harms anything. Rather, it does good because it is an insect that takes pollen from flower to flower.

Why, we might wonder, are the beautiful insects called butterflies? Some believe it is because so many of them are splashed with a buttery color in their wings.

During some camping trips, I saw groups of butterflies gather to sip water from puddles. Watching them, I decided they must be social creatures. Not all of them were alike. Gathered at a puddle, some large, colorful ones joined some little yellow ones. I later read that these gatherings are nicknamed “mud puddle clubs.”

Butterflies have enemies just like other insects. Some of them never make it past the caterpillar stage. Flies and wasps actually lay eggs on the caterpillars. When the larvae hatch, they eat the caterpillars.

Spiders stay on the watch for butterflies. They capture them in their webs or lie in wait for them in flowers. Dragonflies, frogs, lizards and birds also feed on them. Birds shun the beautiful monarch butterflies because they eat milkweed. It gives them an unpleasant taste. Other butterflies with markings like the monarchs escape attacks by birds because of that characteristic.

God also gave some butterflies disguises to help them hide from their enemies. Some have bright colors on the upper part of their wings with dull brown or grey underneath. They land on twigs or dead leaves and fold their wings over their backs, showing the dull side, which blends in perfectly with their surroundings.

These days I don’t try to catch butterflies, but I enjoy watching them. I have occasionally tried to photograph some gathering at mud puddle parties. When one landed on my colorful blouse one day, I held my breath and thanked God for the opportunity I had at that moment to get a good look at one.


Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.