Tag Archives: camouflage

“Blue Moon, You Saw Me Standing Alone”

“Blue moon,
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.”
–Frank Sinatra, First Verse

Graceful Blue Moon (Hypolimnas bolina) butterflies dance in our garden with elegant dress here in Tonga in the South Pacific. Males all appear the same. However, the females are not only dimorphic (featuring different colors and patterns from the opposite sex), but also rarely look the same as other females, demonstrated by this photo essay.

Male Blue Moon Butterfly - Ventral View

With wings folded, this photo shows the male Blue Moon’s ventral view, the underside of its wings. As with most butterflies, its wings at rest are not nearly as showy as the dorsal or topside wings shown in the next photo, Blue Moon males are extremely territorially and will chase away other butterflies, even those larger than themselves.

Male Blue Moon Butterfly

Behold this gorgeous, velvety male Blue Moon butterfly, also known as Great Eggfly. I reared this one and dozens of others like him from caterpillars discovered growing on roadside weeds here in Tonga. The upper side of the wings of the male Blue Moons is jet black, offset with three pairs of white spots: two on the forewing and one on the hindwing. These spots are surrounded by purple iridescence that only appears when the light source is at the correct angle.

Female Blue Moon

The female Blue Moon butterfly has several different colorations. I’ve raised at least 20 females and each one has had different markings. The wings remind me of the colors and patterns of tapa cloth found in Tonga and in other parts of Polynesia. In fact, we’ve started referring to the female Blue Moon butterfly as the Tapa Cloth butterfly. I suppose that’s how butterflies get their common names.

Tapa Cloth

This is a typical piece of finished tapa cloth or ngatu (pronounced NAH-too) in Tongan. Tapa cloth is made from the inner bark of the Mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) tree that is pounded thin and glued together with vegetable starch, usually from kumala (sweet potato) or manioke (cassava), then painted with traditional designs. Just as each work of tapa cloth is different and reflects talents of the artist, female Blue Moon butterflies seem to flaunt their own unique styles. • Photo courtesy of the Virtual Collection of Asian Masterpieces

Female Blue Moon

Another beautiful female Blue Moon butterfly with its own distinct pattern. For many months after moving to Tonga, we thought that we were seeing a multitude of different butterfly species nectaring on the flowers in our yard until I reared these and saw for myself that they are all female morphs of the same species.

Female Blue Moon Butterfly

Here’s yet another gorgeous female Blue Moon butterfly ready to be released into the wild. Her colors resemble the tapa cloth on the left in the next photo.

Long Tapa Cloth

Two long tapa cloths of approximately 60 linear feet (18.28 meters), each with its own patterns and earth-tone colors, just like the different female Blue Moon butterflies. I took this photo this year near Vaini on the main Tongan island of Tongatapu. The owner had placed them in the sun for the day to air them out. He was rightfully proud of his ngatu collection. Tapa cloths hold great value in Tonga, both monetary and sentimental, and are used ceremonially on special occasions. They are also given at graduations, weddings and funerals; and passed down as family heirlooms from generation-to-generation. Read more about tapa cloth in Wikipedia.

Tapa Cloth Butterfly - Female Blue Moon

This is one of my husband’s favorite female Blue Moon patterns. You can really start to imagine nature painting her wings the way Tongan women paint tapa cloth.

The female Blue Moon butterfly hovers over a plant to check for ants which might eat her eggs. After selecting a plant which has no ants on it, she lays at least one but often two to five eggs on the undersides of the leaves.

For months, we could not figure out which of the many host plants, that Blue Moon butterflies are known to use, might be available in Tonga. Then one day, to my complete surprise, a female Blue Moon “saw me standing alone” and landed right at my feet. She deposited eggs on a nearby plant, which we later discovered was Nodeweed. Mystery solved!

Nodeweed

Nodeweed (Synedrella nodiflora) is one of several host plants for the Blue Moon butterfly’s caterpillars. It grows wild in Tonga and can easily be found along unmowed roadsides and vacant lots.

Blue Moon Eggs

Two well-camouflaged green Blue Moon butterfly eggs hidden on the leaf’s underside.

Blue Moon Caterpillar

Blue Moon caterpillars are black and covered with prickly orange spines that deter predators (and handling by humans).

Blue Moon Pupa

Blue Moon chrysalises are brown with spines and well camouflaged. Adult Blue Moon butterflies eclose (emerge) about ten days after pupating.

Blue Moon butterflies are found from Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, through South and Southeast Asia, to South Pacific islands (including French Polynesia, Tonga, Tuvalu, Samoa, and Vanuatu), and in parts of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand.

If you live in or happen to visit their range, keep an eye out for the snazzily-dressed males in their velvety black tuxedos with iridescent purple cummerbunds and the females styling their myriad elegant tapa-cloth formals. Two ladies never want to wear the same dress to the ball.

“Blue moon,
Now I’m no longer alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.”
–Frank Sinatra, Chorus

Perchance to Hold a Butterfly

I raise butterflies so children can experience the sheer joy of holding them and observing them up-close.

Monarch on Girl's Hand

A Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly perches on the hand of this delighted young lady who also sports a colorful butterfly T-shirt on her field trip to the butterfly farm.

Painted Lady butterflies in children's hands

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies in the hands of budding lepidopterists. This is the species you can raise with Butterfly Lady’s famous Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kit. Click Here or on the photo for complete details.

Many people believe the old wives’ tale that if you touch a butterfly’s wings and it loses some scales, it will die. Not so.

The truth is that butterfly wings are covered with hundreds of thousands, even millions in larger species, of tiny scales that overlap one another like shingles on a roof.

These scales protect and strengthen the translucent wing membranes and help provide lift.

Morpho Wings

Close-up wing view (left) of this stunning Morpho (Morpho spp.) butterfly (right).

Magnified Morpho Wing

Same photo (from above left) of a Morpho butterfly wing magnified to show details.

Magnified Monarch Wing

Exquisite, cushiony patterns of orange, black and white scales on the wing of a Monarch butterfly. At this magnification, it appears to be a fine handiwork of needlepoint.

Drastic loss of scales will change the aerodynamics of the wing, making flight more strenuous and slow, but a butterfly can fly with most of its scales missing. In fact, butterflies are so resilient that they can still fly after losing parts of their wings.

Worn Wings of a Tiger Swallowtail

Amazingly, this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly can still navigate the skies with substantial parts of its wings missing. It’s nectaring on faded blossoms of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Click Here or on the photo to buy seeds of this versatile nectar- and host-plant.

Worn Wings Julia

This tattered Julia (Dryas iulia) can also still fly. As bits and pieces of its wings fall off or are bitten off by birds, lizards and other predators, it quickly adjusts its motor skills to compensate for weight and balance.

Slipperiness and easy detachment of butterfly scales help butterflies escape predators.

Wear and tear is natural over an adult’s lifetime and a few scales are lost each time a butterfly flies. Severe weather, brushes with plants and spider webs all take their toll.

The longer a butterfly lives, the more likely its wings will be damaged. Scales form the colors and patterns butterflies need for mate selection, camouflage, predator avoidance and thermoregulation.

Zebra Longwing Worn wings

Yes, this Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia) butterfly is still airworthy, but doesn’t have too many more miles in it.

Morph scales

Hundreds of butterfly scales ended up on my finger after handling a Morpho butterfly. Not to worry. There are millions more scales on its wings. They remind me of nature’s “pixie dust,” magically facilitating butterfly flight.

Although a butterfly will not die if you touch its wings, if too many scales are rubbed off, these benefits are diminished. So, handle them with care.

For a demonstration of how to properly pick up and hold a butterfly, I turn to New Zealand’s butterfly expert; trustee and secretary of the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust; and my friend Jacqui Knight (via YouTube).

So if you ever get the chance to hold a butterfly, it’s all good. Just be gentle, do it the right way, and treasure the joy.

Raising Black Swallowtail Butterflies for Fun

One of my favorite butterflies to raise is the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes). It’s an easy species to attract to your garden. You just need to provide their host plants on which the females lay their eggs, including Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rue or Golden Alexander and they will find them.

Eastern Black Swallowtail and Host Plants

The beautiful Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) butterfly and five of its host plants, including common herbs: Dill, Fennel and Parsley.

Can’t find these host-plant seeds locally? Order them here:
• Dill (Anethum graveolens)
• Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
• Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea)
• Curly Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
• Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail ovipositing

Female Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ovipositing an egg on Fennel. Look closely at the end of her abdomen. Can you see the cream-colored egg?

Eastern Black Swallowtail Eggs

Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eggs on Rue and Fennel leaves. Collecting eggs and larvae from your garden or field and getting them home safely is easier with small condiment cups and lids. Click here to order a package.

Once you find the eggs or tiny caterpillars, remove the leaves or pieces of the plant they are on and place them inside a closed container. I like to use the salad containers from fast-food restaurants, but you can use any container with a lid. I use a push pin to punch air holes in the lid. Line the bottom of the container with paper towel or coffee filter. Be sure to provide plenty of the host plant leaves on which you found the eggs and/or caterpillars.

Salad Container Repurposed as a Butterfly Habitat

This easy-to-assemble habitat is nothing more than a fast-food salad container lined with a coffee filter. A few holes punched in the top with a push pin complete the project. These Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars are dining on Curly Parsley.

Caterpillar Condo

I call this my caterpillar condo.

Check on your caterpillars each day to make sure they have enough food to feast on. Once they get bigger you will need to empty the fecal droppings (known as frass) each day and add a new coffee filter or paper towel plus fresh food.

Caterpillar Frass

Caterpillars make a mess! Be sure to clean your cage every day to keep your caterpillars healthy and happy.

All Five Caterpillar Instars

Caterpillars shed their skin five times as they grow. These stages are called instars. In this photo, you can see all five instars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar represented on my finger.

When they are ready to pupate, they will crawl to the top of the lid and make their chrysalis. Many people like to put sticks inside the container for them to use, but that is not necessary. However, it can be fun to see the different colors the chrysalis becomes.

Pupating Caterpillars

The caterpillar will crawl to the top and spin a silk girdle on the container lid before it sheds its skin for the final time.

Chameleon-like Pupae

Chameleon-like, the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar will pupate with colors that match its surroundings in order to camouflage itself.

It usually takes about two weeks for the butterfly to emerge from the chrysalis. You can then experience the joy of holding and releasing your new butterfly.

Eastern Black Swallowtail on finger

A newly-emerged Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly ready for its first flight.

Hope for the Butterflies

I was thrilled when I discovered these Coontie bushes in a yard in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA. Yes, I know, they’re bare. But, that is actually good news because it means there’ve been caterpillars feeding on the leaves. And those caterpillars turn into cute little Atala butterflies!

Coontie plants

Coontie (Zamia integrifolia) plants that have been stripped of most leaves by hungry Atala (Eumaeus atala) caterpillars in West Palm Beach, Florida, USA. The plants will rejuvenate themselves in a few weeks, stimulated by their natural pruning.

This is significant because, at one point, the Atala butterfly, native to south Florida, was thought extinct during the mid 1960s. Atala butterflies use Coontie as the host plant for their caterpillars. Coontie is a small, tough, woody palm-like perennial plant.

Healthy Coontie plants

Healthy Coontie plants.

It was used by Native Americans and later by European settlers who processed the Coontie’s large storage root to extract an edible starch, which was used to make bread. Settlers continued the practice on an industrial level and by the early 1900s several commercial factories in south Florida processed Coontie roots for the manufacture of arrowroot biscuits.

Arrowroot biscuit advertisement

Vintage advertisement for Arnott’s Milk Arrowroot Biscuits.

Coontie plants started disappearing throughout Florida, and so did the Atala butterfly. By 1965, federal and state authorities thought the Atala was extinct.

Atala butterfly

Atala butterfly with its jet black, neon blue and orange markings.

Coontie has made a comeback because Sunshine State gardeners have rediscovered the native plant is well adapted to Florida yards. Its increased use in landscapes has encouraged the presence of the Atala butterfly. The Atala butterfly is now thriving, once again, in southern Florida.

Atala chrysalises

Atala chrysalises on Coontie with their fancy orange and yellow colors mimicking Coontie seeds for camouflage.

This is significant. Why? It means that you can make a huge impact protecting butterflies by growing the right plants in your yard. Currently, Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly populations are in decline because native Milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), which Monarchs use as hosts for their caterpillars, are disappearing from farm fields and roadsides where milkweeds used to thrive.

Karen Oberhauser, monarch expert and professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said, “North American gardeners can contribute by planting milkweed and making their land more butterfly friendly. Given the conservation challenges facing monarchs, it’s vitally important that we mobilize as many people as possible. Through our collective efforts, monarch populations can rebound, so that their migrations may be appreciated by many generations to come,” she concluded.

Let’s work together, make our yards butterfly-friendly, plant Milkweed for the Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and bring hope to these butterflies! Click here to locate Milkweed seeds for your garden.

Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterfly nectaring on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), a species of Milkweed which also happens to be their host plant.

Read more about the Monarch‘s situation in this National Geographic article.