Tag Archives: South Pacific

The Fortunate Visit of a White Monarch Butterfly

Life on a remote island in the South Pacific brims with quirky surprises. We learn to expect most anything.

While driving to town, the random pig will dash in front of the car, causing us to slam on brakes. Sometimes, it’s a dozen pigs, or a pair of dogs, or a clutch of chickens; or a child, who seems to delight in the cheap thrill of racing across the road and living to laugh about it.

I live in Nuku‘alofa on the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga, which is 1,240 miles (1,997 kilometers) northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. A few days ago, a white Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus nivosus) found the Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in my yard and began laying eggs.

White Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

A female white-form Monarch butterfly nectaring in Tonga on flowers of Tropical Milkweed, which also happens to be her host plant for egg laying.

I thought her wings were just old, worn, and faded, as butterflies can get as they age. But, on closer inspection, I realized that she was actually white in the places where she should have been orange. We have Monarch butterflies here in Tonga (read more here), but this is the first white Monarch that I’ve observed anywhere.

Female White Monarch

A female white Monarch butterfly in Tonga. She was skittish, not wanting me to photograph her up close outside. I caught her with a soft butterfly net and placed her in a pop-up cage inside. Eventually, she relaxed and I was able to shoot this pose.

According to Monarch Watch, white Monarchs have been found throughout the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Hawai‘ian islands and on the mainland of the United States. Generally, white Monarchs are extremely rare with only a few being reported each year. The exception is in Hawai‘i where it is believed that as much as 10% of the population of Monarchs is white.

White and Orange Monarch Butterflies

White and orange Monarch butterflies side-by-side for comparison.

Monarchs are preyed upon by birds called Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer), which are quite abundant here on our island, as well as in Hawai‘i. Red-vented Bulbuls come from Southeast Asia and are relative newcomers to the islands of Polynesia.

Scientists suggest that predation is lower for white Monarchs and raise the possibility that the white form is more cryptic (harder to see) for the Bulbuls than the orange form. Consequently, they eat more regular, orange-form Monarchs than white-form specimens, increasing the relative frequency of the latter in places where both white-form Monarchs and Bulbuls range.

As I attempted to get a photo of the white Monarch, a huge Wasp (Hymenoptera apocrita spp.) was flying around which made me nervous, and an aggressive male Blue Moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) kept chasing her away as he displayed his natural territorial tendencies. I realized it was going to be impossible to get a good photograph. So I caught her with my butterfly net and placed her inside a pop-up cage with some Milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

White Monarch

Final view of the white Monarch as she enjoyed her freedom in the garden.

After an overnight stay for observation, I released the white Monarch the next morning. She left me many eggs on the Milkweed in the cage, even laying on the screen, so I thanked her and set her free.

To my surprise and delight, she lingered all day in the garden and continued to come back, time and again, to nectar on the flowers and deposit eggs on the outside Milkweed. I sat on the porch and enjoyed watching her glide gracefully through the air as she flew back and forth in my yard.

Some cultures believe that a white butterfly brings good fortune. I don’t know about any fortune. However, the visit of this beautiful white Monarch brought me great joy and surprise. For that, I’m rich.

“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

Meadow Argus Butterfly of Tonga

The Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) is a butterfly found in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. I reared this one from the caterpillar stage. The butterfly is resting on my arm after being released. A few moments later, it flew up and away.

Meadow Argus

Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) butterfly.

If it looks familiar to residents of North America, there’s good reason. It’s related to the Buckeye (Junonia coenia). One of the host plants for Meadow Argus is Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis), a wonderful nectar plant that grows along roadsides and in empty fields on the island of Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga.

“I have been transformed.”

El Salvador is still recuperating from a devastating civil war that wracked the country from 1980 to 1992, leaving at least 75,000 people dead and tens of thousands more displaced. My site, Segundo Montes, is a community made up of five towns in the eastern department of Morazán, formed in 1990 by repatriated refugees who fled the country’s civil war.

Teaching about Host Plants

Suzanne Tilton demonstrates the importance of butterfly host plants in the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, a large butterfly enclosure in El Salvador.

After nearly a decade in refugee camps in Honduras, residents returned en masse 25 years ago to reclaim their livelihoods and dignity. I wanted to help this once-war-torn community’s iconography transform itself from memories of combat fatigues to fluttery symbols of peace and hope.

When I arrived at the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán, I was thrilled to see the abundance and variety of butterflies – from Blue Morphos (Morpho peleides) to Zebra Longwings (Heliconius charithonia) and everything in between – flying in the gardens outside. It was a delightful sight and I knew immediately that I had arrived where I belonged.

The butterfly exhibit was built in 2008 as an agricultural project to raise butterflies but, within two years, it was abandoned due to lack of knowledge and support on how to raise and manage the rearing of butterflies. My job as an Educational Butterfly Farm Management Specialist was to train butterfly wranglers how to cultivate butterflies and maintain a healthy habitat for them inside the exhibit.

Dressing up as a butterfly

A delightful child visiting the butterfly zoo has dressed up as a butterfly.

I also visited several primary and secondary schools to teach the life cycle of butterflies and why they’re important for the mountainous environment. Children had the chance to hold and observe up close live specimens in the forms of eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies. I used props to dress up the children as caterpillars, butterflies and moths. They cheered in delight when we released butterflies at the end of the presentation and watched them fly freely into the sky.

I knew I was having an impact when parents would stop me in the community and share that they had learned all about butterfly metamorphosis from their children.

One of the highlights of my experience in El Salvador was a weekend visit by 50 students from the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, who came across the border to learn butterfly biology and butterfly zoo management with an emphasis on environmentally friendly sustainability.

There is a concerted effort to develop tourism along the Ruta de Paz (Peace Highway) from Morazán’s capital of San Francisco Gotera to El Salvador’s border with Honduras, along Highway 7. The butterfly zoo is strategically located along this route and is well positioned to attract the attention of vacationers headed to the cool air and brilliant sunshine of Perquín, eight miles farther north.

Teaching about butterflies

Teaching a class on butterfly biology in El Salvador.

At 4,000 feet in elevation, Perquín is a popular destination of Salvadorans fleeing the heat and humidity of the coast and tropical lowlands. As time goes by, it is hoped that the Mariposario Turístico Almirante de Morazán will play its part in entertaining and educating tourists on the beauty of butterflies while it continues to contribute to the economic well-being of the community.

Heliconius hecale

A visitor to the butterfly zoo experiences the joy of holding a Tiger Longwing (Heliconius hecale).

In conjunction with the nascent tourism industry, I was privileged to make presentations and conduct field trips for university students studying tourism and hospitality at the nearby Technical Institute of Father Segundo Montes.

I experienced such a feeling of joy and satisfaction as I watched mesmerized visitors hold a butterfly for the first time.

Just as a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, I have been transformed into a different person by serving as a Peace Corps Response volunteer.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly.

Learning about the different parts of a butterfly; including compound eyes, hearing sensors, proboscis and wings.

Suzanne Tilton retired from teaching, mostly primary grades, after 28 years of service in 2010. She has raised butterflies for over 20 years and has shared the wonder of butterfly biology with thousands of children and adults. Suzanne and her recently retired husband, David, were so impressed with Peace Corps in El Salvador that they have applied for and been invited to teach English in the South Pacific Kingdom of Tonga for 27 months starting in August 2015.

Editor’s Note: This post was written and originally published in Peace Corps Passport, the U.S. Peace Corps’ official blog, on 22 April 2015 to commemorate Earth Day. Suzanne and her husband, David, eventually chose not to serve in Peace Corps, but did move to Tonga in October 2015, from where they continue to research, publish and teach worldwide about the wonder and joy of butterflies.