Pull Up A Chair

By: Hettie Basil Lighttower

How much do you know about butterflies? Let’s explore and test your butterfly knowledge with some fun facts. First of all, according to the Smithsonian, there are about 17,500 butterfly species in the whole world and approximately 750 of them in the United States. And according to the records in West Virginia, home state of this newspaper, there are 135 species in the state; 36 of which are commonly known. Butterflies are in the category called lepidoptera. The word lepidoptera means “scaly wing”.
Both moths and butterflies fall into this category. There are many more species of moths in the world than there are species of butterflies. Different sources give different numbers of total lepidoptera (moth and butterfly together) counts. One says 180,000 and another says 153,100 while one of those two say many have not been discovered in rainforests and rough jungle areas, guessing that number to be discovered at around 100,000….. So, I am skeptical about that number because if you can count that many undiscovered, then you might as well name them if you’ve seen them??? Seems odd to me.
People who study butterflies or moths, either one, are called “lepidopterists”. So, if you are butterfly watching or gardening for butterflies, you may call yourself an amateur lepidopterist! Although it may sound to your neighbors that you have that hideous disease, leprosy! You might have to explain yourself.
Now back to the scaly wing part. Did you know that the colors and patterns of the wings are made of a tiny tiny dust like substance? Of course you did. Any time you ever caught a butterfly with your bare hands, it would get all over your fingers. Well that dust is the individual scales on the wings! They overlap each other although so tiny, just like a shingles on a roof or like scales on a fish. And a finer detail is that each species’ scales of their wings have a specific pattern to them. If you were to put those scales under a microscope (which I have and they are lovely) you would see the edges of them have unique scallops and points like different flower petals do. For instance, the edge of a daisy’s petal is different than the edge of a violet’s petal.
You may have also noticed a butterfly up close and see that it has “hair” on its back and onto its wings or around its eyes and mouth. Those hairs are not actually hairs. They are simply elongated scales! Many people don’t think of a butterfly as being an insect, but they are an insect. All insects are cold-blooded animals and none of those have true hair. Butterflies rely on the sun to warm up just as a lizard does. They require at least 55F to even be able to move. During a storm or heavy rain they take cover in crevices in trees or lifts of bark. They even find thickets and bushes to maneuver into for protection. All those little branches will break hard winds that give them a chance of survival. These places mentioned are where they choose to sleep at night too. Because they are extremely sensitive to barometric pressure, butterflies can tell if a storm is coming up within the hour. So, if you are ever on a picnic and your watching butterflies flit around and then you notice them not there anymore… would behoove you to finish quickly and take cover yourself! Ask me how I know! When the weather is calm and they know it will be calm all night they will sometimes just find a broad-leafed plant, like a common milkweed for instance and cling to the bottom of that for the night. And let’s talk about those little feet of theirs. The very tips of their legs have two very sharp splinter-like tarsi for “feet”. They can actually hurt or prick you if the butterfly is larger, like a monarch. Butterflies not just use their feet to hold on to things but they taste with their feet. Haha, how do “they” know that. I have no clue. But it’s what the consensus is. And also with their antennae. They can see in all directions with their compound eyes which makes it very tricky to catch one! They have a mouth like a straw, so they can only eat liquids. Which means they cannot bite you, nor do they have a stinger to sting. I’ll give more information about butterfly gardening, what they like and more of their behaviors next week. I hope you enjoyed this. Send in your notions and comments to [email protected] I will include them in the next available column as per their arrival relative to the publication deadline of Tuesday by 12 p.m. of the same week. If you wish to be anonymous let me know. Kindness is contagious~