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Spring Brings butterflies, moths

As bluebonnets start popping open all over the Wildflower Center's gardens, two-legged admirers aren't the only ones fawning over them. Red Admirals, metallic blue Pipevine Swallowtails and other six legged lepidopterans have started to dart and flutter about as another sign of spring's arrival.

Wildflower Center visitors with keen eyes could view a dozen or more butterflies and moths this spring and summer in the main gardens and surrounding trails. Some of the insects are from among 24 species that will be hand raised by the Center's gardening staff in a protective shed called the insectary. Besides pollinating plants, the insects also provide visitors with another glimpse into nature's beauty and the interconnectedness of the living landscape.

A moth by any other name...

How can you tell butterflies and moths apart?
  • Butterflies and moths tend to have different antennas. On butterflies, you often see a knob at the end of the antennae that makes them resemble golf clubs; moth antennae lack these knobs, and instead may have feathering all along the long shaft.
  • Butterflies tend to hold their wings up, while moths tend to leave them down.
  • Butterflies’ scale-covered wings and bodies tend to be more colorful, whereas moths are more likely to be drab.
  • While butterflies are usually out and about in daylight, moths mostly prefer darkness for feeding, mating and other activities.

A case in point is the adult cecropia moth, 85 of which were released into the gardens in March from the insectary tucked into the southern edge of the Butterfly Garden. Most moths have simple grayish, brownish colors that help camouflage them from hungry birds. But cecropia are anything but typical in their beauty.

Their lifespan includes five chubby caterpillar stages. Several of these larval stages can grow longer than a finger and are decked out in bright yellow, green and other colors, as well as carrying multiple spiny, colored knobs. Adult cecropia are equally magnificent, with deep-red bodies anchoring membranous brown wings that can stretch two inches. Cecropia's wings contain stripes and spots, like butterflies, adding to their place among the more colorful moths.

"I love working with them, especially since they are our 'babies' that we raised from the third group of cecropia eggs we collected," says Samantha Elkinton, a horticulturist and insect caretaker for the Butterfly Garden.

Despite the moths' beauty, their life cycle reveals a sad truth. Adult cecropia moths live about 10 days -- just enough time for males to use oversized, feathered antenna to track down females, mate and lay eggs. Why such a short adulthood? Cecropia have no mouth parts, lasting only as long as energy reserves allow.

That energy was stored during their caterpillar stages, when the cecropia munched away on one of the few types of plants they eat. In the insectary, Elkinton provided cecropia caterpillars with Mexican plum leaves to dine on before the moths settled into big brown cocoons to enter adulthood.

Visitors in the early spring could sometimes see the night-flying moths hanging out in trees in the garden. Meanwhile, Elkinton and Wildflower Center volunteers have begun working with the small, tan eggs the moths left behind in the insectary. The eggs will be raised into caterpillars that will be on display through June. The eggs they've gathered are supplemented by eggs and caterpillars volunteers, staff and Center visitors bring to Elkinton to consider raising.

"We usually find the caterpillars near where they've been munching on plants, but a few volunteers have a careful enough eye to find butterfly and moth eggs," Elkinton notes.

    

    

The same process of harvesting eggs and nurturing caterpillar stages into adulthood will be done for Crimson Patches, Gulf Fritillaries and about 20 other butterfly species this summer and fall. By May, some of their chrysalids will be placed in wooden enclosures located throughout the Butterfly Garden so visitors can see the butterflies emerge.

While the latest butterflies and moths feed on flower nectar in the garden, visitors can read signage on site to learn what landscape elements attract these pollinators. On-site features include water trickling over flat rocks that butterflies can siphon for nutrients; shady bushes and trees, rocks with crevices for overwintering butterflies to snuggle into, and large groupings of favored plants.

"It's fairly easy to create a butterfly garden," Elkinton said. "Like growing plants, you just have to have the right food, water and shelter, and keep in mind that caterpillars and adults typically have a different food source."

The fluttering residents give back to the Center while nourishing themselves. They accidentally brush against pollen and spread it between bluebonnets and other flowering plants on site, helping pollinate them.

"Butterflies and moths are such a fun, essential part of what we offer at the Wildflower Center," Elkinton said. "I always look forward to seeing how visitors, especially kids, interact with them and with the pond and other elements we provide in the Butterfly Garden."

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