Wings of Change

Reader Contribution by Lois Hoffman
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Usually the only people who like insects are entomologists. However, the one exception that pretty much everyone can agree on is butterflies, especially the monarch butterfly.

It is one bug that doesn’t “bug” people. It doesn’t bite, swarm, nor eat crops or flowers. Quite the contrary is true, it helps flowers pollinate, eats weeds and is a food source itself for other animals.

Butterflies have long been deep and powerful representations of life. Many cultures associate them with our souls. For Christians, they are a symbol of resurrection.

Around the world, people see the butterfly as a creature of endurance, change, hope and life. It has earned its idyllic symbolism for life after death because of its metamorphosis, its ability to transform from a caterpillar that crawls on the ground to a beautiful and almost ethereal creature that flies.

A butterfly’s life cycle consists of four parts: egg, larvae, pupa and adult. It begins when an adult female lays eggs on a leaf. Soon, these hatch into caterpillars or larvae, which start feeding on the leaf on, which they were laid.

This is the eating stage where the larvae eat so much that it outgrows its own skin and must shed its skin four or five times while it is growing. When it is done growing, it makes a chrysalis where it will rest inside until it changes into a butterfly and finally emerge.

When the adults first emerge from the chrysalis, they are wet and cannot fly immediately. They will wait for a few hours to dry off and for their wings to fill with blood, which enables them to fly. Then the adults will mate and the cycle begins anew. This whole metamorphosis is completed within 10 to 15 days.

There are 20,000 different species of butterflies in the world and 575 various species in the continental United States. They exist on every continent except Antarctica. The cabbage white is the most common species found in the states.

Photo by Getty Images/borchee.

Although they are often grouped together, there are distinct differences between butterflies and moths. Butterflies antennae are long and slender and are club-shaped at the end whereas moths’ antennae are feathery and saw-edged.

Butterflies rest with their wings closed and moths rest with them open. The other distinction is that butterflies fly during the day because their eyes are made up of 6,000 lenses, which enable them to see ultraviolet light, and moths take flight at night.

Butterflies feed on the nectar of certain flowers and their taste receptors are on their feet. They have long, tube-like tongues called proboscis, which allow them to soak up food. Adults use up all they eat for energy so they do not excrete waste. Ironically, males drink from mud puddles to extract minerals. This is sometimes called “puddling.”

The bright, mesmerizing colors of butterflies are really illusions. Their wings are clear and the colors and patterns are made by the light reflecting off the long scales covering the wings.

When in flight, the wings move in a figure eight motion. Wing spans range from a half inch across to 12 inches across. Most fly between five and twelve miles per hour. Certain types can even outpace a horse.

It is amazing how monarch butterflies can migrate so far each season to escape the cold. It is the only insect in the world that will travel an average of 2,500 miles each winter. After migrating south, the female will lay eggs. The new generation will make the trip back north to complete the cycle.

In order to survive, monarchs are dependent on the conservation of their habitats. The milkweed plant is the only plant on, which they will lay their eggs and then they further depend on its flowers for nectar and food.

Because of advances in herbicides and better weed control, farmer’s fields have fewer weeds, which is good for crop production but bad for monarchs. Unfortunately, this is true for the milkweed, which is vital to their survival.

This food chain must exist all along their migratory path from Canada to Mexico, which necessitates that all three countries work together. The Monarch Joint Venture is a partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations and academic programs all working together in the lower states to ensure their survival. No other species better emphasizes the ecological links between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

In many areas of our country, farmers are paid to grow butterfly habitats. Usually, this is on rolling ground that is harder to farm so farmers can get paid to also help preserve wildlife habitats. Anyone can join in this mission to save them by simply planting milkweeds.

There are different areas around the country where a special ecosystem is created in an enclosed space to support many different species of butterflies. It is a great way to watch these beautiful creatures, to film them and to learn about them.

One such place is the Wings of Mackinac, which offers visitors a unique assortment of hundreds of butterflies. It also has an emergence viewing area where you can witness adult butterflies emerging from their chrysalis.

No wonder butterflies are a universal sign of hope, rebirth and life itself. In different cultures, various colored ones take on different meanings. Generally, green ones symbolize powerful change and growth; yellow ones bring guidance and a sign of hope, happiness and the good around you; brown ones, when they enter a house, signify souls of departed loved ones and blue ones are signs of joy and a change in luck.

Whether you look to butterflies as symbols of hope and life or merely enjoy them for the exquisite creatures that they are, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that they definitely bring a little bit of beauty and grace to our world.

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