Butterflies Taught Me to Fly
Many of us would give anything to return to our childhood. However, despite progress this is still not possible for us. Nevertheless, it is possible for butterflies! During each life cycle butterflies recreate themselves. So with the butterfly season at its peak, the closest thing to childhood that we can offer you is to make close acquaintance with these colorful flying insects. Come and fly with us!
Spring is very short here. The intense heat has already arrived and just before the spring flowers give way temporarily to the dry summer landscape, it’s time to be amazed by dozens of species of butterflies at the peak of their activity. Dr. Racheli Schwartz-Tzachor, researcher and sustainability coordinator at Ramat Hanadiv, has been doing this every day for 15 years and her enthusiasm only keeps increasing. We met up with Dr. Racheli Schwartz-Tzachor for a chat and observational tour of her spectacular friends and we’ll say politely that we were flying high.
Go to the butterflies, see their ways and learn
“In Israel butterflies can be found all year round, but the peak, in terms of the amount of individuals and number of species, is right now. During this season we can watch an amazing show of butterflies near flowers in nature and in gardens,” Racheli, who began her research in 2002 completely by chance, and since then has not stopped learning from them.
But Racheli also discovered that through its habits, its life cycle, and the diversity of appearance among different species, this small and delicate animal can teach us a thing or two about the meaning of life. “Butterflies have taught me to fly,” she says.
It’s true that most people like butterflies. They’re small, spectacular in appearance, their quiet and effortless flight is hypnotizing and there is no need to be fearful of meeting them since they cannot harm us. Nevertheless, few of us are familiar with their habits and the way they recreate themselves with each life cycle. It turns out that despite human progress, we still have something to learn from them.
Metamorphosis as a way of life
Throughout our history, we humans have been occupied by death. Some of us believe that death is the end of us, while others believe that after our death our soul is revealed in someone else. For butterflies there is no question. All butterflies experience full metamorphosis – a life cycle in which they pass through different life forms, and at the end of each life cycle they recreate themselves. It’s true that their life cycle is short – from two weeks to a few months – but between you and me, who needs such a long life when you can recreate yourself?
The flying butterflies that we are familiar with are in their adult stage, but there are three previous stages to their life cycle – egg, larva (caterpillar) and pupa. A female butterfly lays about 100 eggs during one life cycle. Using her sense of smell the female chooses which plant to lay her eggs on – this ‘host’ plant will provide food to the larvae that hatch from the eggs. If she accidentally lays her eggs on another plant, the larvae won’t be able to develop. Often, the female will spread the risk by laying eggs on a number of plants. A few days after laying, the larvae hatch from the eggs. Usually the larva eats the membrane of the egg it hatched from and then feeds on the host plant. As it grows, its skin stretches, and when it is ready to burst, the larva sheds it and enjoys new, fresh skin. It will repeat this action four or five times, and then search for a good place to pupate on, shed its skin one more time and turn into a pupa. Inside the pupa begins a process in which all of the tissues break down and are reconstructed anew from embryonic cells. This is how a new creature develops and takes shape without dying – wings, head, antennae and proboscis. This is the butterfly we all know, which leaves the pupa when it reaches its full size. This is also the mature, sexual stage of the butterfly, in which there are males and females that can mate and reproduce. They will fly around in search of nectar and food, and also each other.
They only look innocent…
Butterflies can’t hear and don’t make any sound, but communicate effectively among themselves with a variety of smells and colors. “The reason that we humans enjoy butterflies so much stems from the fact that their range of sight and smell is very similar to ours,” says Racheli. However, strong colors such as black, orange and red are poisonous. They are exposed and prominent and their strong colors warn potential predators, such as birds and reptiles; meaning, I am poisonous and you should probably not have anything to do with me.
If you closely examine a group of flowers that attracts butterflies, you’ll discover that besides the wide range of colors that adorns them, each
species has its own design. For us it’s an innocent, picturesque appearance, but for potential predators this is a surprising and deterring tactic. There are some with eyes drawn on their wings – these are usually butterflies from the Satyrinae family. As small as they may be, some of them are able to deter relatively large predators by virtue of these eyes. These are of course fake eyes; their seeing eyes are tiny and located at the front of their head. If you get close and look at their fake eyes, you will be surprised to discover that they very closely mimic the eyes of their predator – bird or reptile. Meadow brown, for example, ‘looks’ into its enemy’s eyes, and as it confuses the predator in a split second of confusion, the butterfly spreads its wings and flies away.
Hey, you ate my head!
Other butterflies, such as the Blue spot hairstreak, are adorned with a fake head on their wing. At the edge of each wing appears the image of an eye with fake antennae protruding from each side. The confused predator can bite the fake head at the edge of the wings, but it will not kill the butterfly. The butterfly can keep flying even with a bitten wing. Another example no less ingenious is the Death’s-head hawkmoth with the image of a human skull adorning its back.
The Clouded yellow for example, has wings that resemble leaves, with veins that resemble leaf veins. On close inspection we’ll see that in the middle of the wing is a pair of white spots with brown edges. These spots uncannily resemble holes nibbled by insects. When the butterfly lands on a plant, it will trick a potential predator into thinking that it is simply a leaf. Since it’s not the time to become an herbivore, the enemy will search for prey somewhere else.
Butterflies in the service of Earth and science
Research on butterflies at Ramat Hanadiv began with the aim of learning about the ecosystem at Ramat Hanadiv through the butterflies, and obtaining an indication of the influence of humans on the Park. It turns out that butterflies are considered to be bio-indicators – a biological indicator that provides evidence of changes occurring in the ecosystem and the populations inhabiting it. Many studies have shown that in places where the number of butterfly species and individuals decreases there will also be a decrease in the number of species of plants, birds, reptiles and others. Thus it was found, for example, that in the planted pine groves in Ramat Hanadiv’s Nature Park there is poor species diversity. It was also found that during the dry summer months the butterflies exploit the expanses of the Gardens, which serve as an oasis during this season both for butterflies and for other animals.
And some are addicted to butterflies
Now that we have discovered the wonders of the butterflies, we can begin to understand that they can be addictive. Ramat Hanadiv works in
partnership throughout the year with the Butterfly Lovers’ Association. The association has established butterfly loving communities that assist with monitoring throughout the year; one of them was established this year at Ramat Hanadiv and works throughout the region. The association’s surveys are open to the wider public. During this season a survey of Apharitis cilissa is being conducted around Hadera; whoever is fascinated by this idea is welcome to join the survey.
Do you want to invite butterflies to your garden?
And now that you have come this far, you will surely want to know how to turn your private garden into one that attracts flowers. “First of all,” explains Racheli, “it is recommended to plant nectar-rich flowers both in the garden and in pots on the balcony. Choice nectar-rich flowers for butterflies include: Buddleia, Pentas, Phlox, Verbena and Lantana. It’s also worthwhile planting host plants that will attract females to lay their eggs on them. Thus you will be able to continue following the hatching and development of the larvae. Ruta chalepensis (fringed rue) would be ideal for the Old World swallowtail, and Tropaeolum majus (garden nasturtium) would be an excellent host for the Large white.” The diligent among you are welcome to visit the Footprint Garden at Ramat Hanadiv and learn from it about the plants that attract a range of butterfly species. The vegetation in this garden was planned especially for this purpose and in a few minutes you’ll be able to discover many species of butterflies.
To finish off, we asked Racheli to tell us the most fascinating thing she has learned about the butterflies that also had an impact on her life. “Examination of the butterflies’ habits had a big impact on me from within. The most fundamental thing is our ability to undergo transformations and changes and reinvent ourselves.”
*Whoever would like to study and learn more is welcome to the Annual Conference of the Butterfly Lovers’ Association that will take place at the Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv on 31/5/18, in the Visitors Pavilion at Ramat Hanadiv on 1/6/18 and on Mt. Hermon on 2/6/18. For details and registration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org .
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