Navigating With Butterflies – Up, Up and A Weigh

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As it turns out butterflies are not free. They can cost anywhere from $3 to $6 each. They will arrive at your doorstep in small white insulated boxes carried by FedEx trucks with purple and orange logos. They will come tightly sealed in skinny envelopes with necessary ice packs included. Then you can then pop that tight package of butterflies into a refrigerator or ice chest until a grand release.

What’s wrong with that picture?

The entire journey is slightly reminiscent of the days when Mom and Dad would stuff us five kids in the old Studebaker for a Sunday drive. Except for the ice packs part. And my older sister picking on me.

That was all so easy compared to Monarchs’ trips from Mexico to Minnesota to Montreal and back home again – a remarkable journey that can require four or five generations of sadly fluctuating numbers covering thousands of airborne miles.

Talk to me all you want of science, biology and ultraviolet light explanations, how do they do that?

If it’s the shipping costs that bother you, the good news is most butterflies only weigh about .04 grams to 0.3 grams each, although New Guinea’s Queen Alexander Birdwing butterfly – the heavyweight in the field – can go 12 inches from wingtip to wingtip and weigh two grams.

As a result, those shipping costs can vary from the ubiquitous free if you have already paid way too much for your Monarchs to a mere $60 if you must have your 24 Painted Lady butterflies on hand for a special wedding day release – display cage not included.

With the average cost of a wedding in the United States in 2017 at $33,391 – honeymoon and uber drivers not included – what’s $60 for a ceremony that could last roughly as long as the marriage?

All my butterfly due diligence occurred as result of an early spring whim to own a butterfly dome that could draw nursery customers to our place during July and August when the most sane of them stay indoors watching the neighborhood kid mow their lawns.

The dome was the easy part; a 22-foot arched wonder made of metal hoops, some sort of rubberized clamps and a red-yellow-and-black shade-cloth screen to hold in butterflies desperately seeking ways out.

Yes, of course, some guilt came with this. I could hear the environmentalists thunder:

You shipped in butterflies in small boxes in FedEx trucks to stuff them into a refrigerator to eventually set them partially free in a gawdy dome where they could and will die without actually ever setting foot or wing on a freed bee balm?

You’re going to turn them loose in a man-made cage to feed on orange slices, watermelon and sugar water? Do the words “pollinator plants” mean nothing to you? Is that what you believe God had in mind for those wonderful creatures?

Well, not exactly. But God doesn’t have to pay my water, electric and potting soil bills either. And we did add potted butterfly bush, zinnias and lots of various milkweeds to the inside mix. Plus including a running fountain, overhead sprinklers and mulch.

All in all it was a hellavu lot more than the Hill kids got in the back seat of the Studebaker.

Upon further inspection of this entire butterflies-are-not-free phenomena I began to feel a little better about my minimum-security butterfly prison.

Online investigation revealed they are now raised in butterfly factories all over the country and sold to be released on occasions that include Easter, anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, Quinceaneras, engagements, bridal and baby showers and Uncle Charlie’s bowling team retirement.

You can also purchase online caterpillars, all the chrysalis you could ever want of a dozen species and, of yeah, butterfly jewelry, images and refrigerator magnets.

In the case of the monarchs, all promotional material indicated that even when raised and shipped from California – and upon release in Indiana – their inner road maps will plug them in to that four-to-five-generation trip back home to Mexico. This long before GOOGLE maps and Waze.

How do they do that?

The self-aggrandizing counter argument goes that, sure, there may be some truth in the butterflies-as-inmates theory, but the bigger picture is the education of children. It’s the shared joy of standing there in the dome with their parents as the kids capture butterflies on short sticks laced with sugar-water or watching them flutter overhead in delightful, zig-zag ballet.

What could be more natural? Maybe those kids will all become lepidopterists instead of lawyers, journalists or real estate developers.

My personal education also came to include learning the intricacies of planting the asters, phlox, Joe-Pye weed, sages, snapdragons, lavender and zinnias that also will keep butterflies happy on the outside world.

You know: Pollinators – the hottest word in horticulture. Or, as some deservedly forgotten French poet once said, “Butterflies are flying flowers and flowers are tethered butterflies.”

Right.

Then there is the matter of the Gomphocarpus physocarpus or “Hairy Balls Plant,” a milkweed family butterfly treat and short-lived African native that imprisoned butterflies enjoy while the adults nervously wait for the kids to ask questions about the name.

If it helps – albeit not much – it’s also called bishop’s balls, elephant balls and monkey balls.

In any event, education won the day at our facility. Our butterflies arrived as advertised in a small, white somewhat-refrigerated box, were stuffed in a refrigerator, then a cooler, then released by a small crowd of elderly customers who happened to be on hand.

Childish delight ensued.

The larger release came later as a band of happy children set then free amidst smiles, laughter and genuine delight. With a half-dozen milkweed plants also in the dome, my current hope is the monarchs will lay their eggs, the caterpillars will emerge, the chrysalis will follow and adult butterflies will emerge to be set free on their amazing journeys.

One possible problem with that is the arrival of the dreaded aphids which will suck the life from milkweed plants, and butterfly eggs. Aphids can be washed away, hosed down and rubbed away. One other suggested solution – but now held in low regard – is the introduction of purchased lady bugs to eat the aphids.

Lady bugs can now also be found online, flown in from California and delivered in a FedEx truck. The problem is keeping those winged critters at home in the yard. Yet the ones I saw online were only $128 for 18,000 lady bugs or $268 for 70,000.  Plus shipping.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I just noted a curious lack of butterflies this year on my Mock Orange and realized I hadn’t seen them on anything else yet this year. Perhaps I’ll have to import a few.

    Not.

  2. This would explain the monarch eggs I found on my common milkweed this past week. I figured someone released a Monarch from an arboretum or other educational building but yeah, a wedding that makes sense this time of year. Not great for the caterpillars that hatched as the temps in Michigan have been in the thirties and low forties.

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