Butterflies were numerous then, in summer and into the fall, when my brother and I were boys. Butterflies were common and numerous. My brother and I each had a net on a pole, a butterfly net, and we chased butterflies, often. Those we caught, and we caught dozens of them, we put in a killing jar, a jar with a poison, and when the butterflies were dead we mounted them on stiff paper, wings spread. We took them to school and showed them to our friends and to our teachers.
I was reminded of those days recently when I saw a butterfly flutter across our yard. I have only seen a few butterflies this summer and as I watched that butterfly I thought, butterflies have become rare, like the fireflies I wrote about in the past.
Everybody who spends any time outdoors outside a city must recognize a butterfly. A broad winged insect, its wings frequently brightly colored. It spreads those wings, as if to show them off whenever it lands. Moths are similar to butterflies but they’re not brightly colored and they hold their wings differently when they land.
I had no idea how many species of butterflies there were back then, when my brother and I were boys. I had, and still have, many books about birds, but none about butterflies. Now I have “A Field Guide to Insects” which includes information about butterflies and I am astounded at how many species of butterflies there are. According to that book, more than a hundred thousand species in the world, eleven thousand species in North America.
My brother and I knew only a few species, or thought we did. One we called a monarch butterfly, and it may have been a monarch butterfly. It had bright orange wings with black lines. But so does a viceroy butterfly and one named the American copper. One we called a sulphur butterfly was bright orange and we may have been right about that, sometimes. But every yellow butterfly was a sulphur to us and there are other yellow butterflies. Every white butterfly was a cabbage butterfly to us but there are a number of species of white butterflies.
The color of the wings is a characteristic for identification of butterflies but according to “A Field Guide to Insects,” another characteristic is the number and shape of the veins in the wings. The book describes a way to bleach the wings to make the veins more visible.
Butterflies lay eggs, like many insects, and the eggs hatch into caterpillars which are different than the caterpillars of any other insects. Butterfly caterpillars have many legs, three pairs on the front part of the body, and four more pairs, called prolegs, on the rear of the body, the abdomen. The caterpillars are dark colored, live on the ground in grass and other vegetation and are seldom seen. Butterfly caterpillars are harmless to people, I read, except that a few give off an unpleasant smell and others have body hairs that irritate the human skin, and it feels like being stung by a bee. I’ve never experienced any irritation from handling butterfly larvae but I haven’t handled many and I haven’t found many.
Adult butterflies feed on plant juice, nectar, and do no damage. Butterfly caterpillars feed on seeds and several of them in a crop field or a garden can do a lot of damage.
That brings us to butterflies now. Butterflies have become uncommon, even rare. The butterfly I saw that prompted me to write about them was only the fourth I’ve seen this year. Four butterflies, even if I’d seen them all together, wouldn’t be as exciting as one rare bird, but four butterflies all summer is an indication of the change this summer between then and now.