Butterflies and Trees

by Barbara Walvoord

This Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)  was gathering nectar and pollen from native Joe Pye flowers in the beautiful east campus Mulberry Meadow recently.  The path has been mowed, though the ground is rough underfoot.  Get a trail map in the lobby of each campus, or at https://lathropland.wordpress.com/trail-map-easthampton/

A tiger swallowtail begins as a single green egg laid on a tree leaf. The egg hatches into a caterpillar that eats the tree leaves and changes from brown (looks like bird poop)  to green (blends in with a leaf).  Next, it sits on a leaf and spins a mat of silk threads to cover the top of the leaf. When the silk dries, it shrinks, and folds the leaf into a hiding place.  Later, the caterpillar attaches itself by a silk thread to a stick, and spins a cocoon that looks like a stick. The butterfly emerges after a few weeks, or, if it’s too late in the autumn, not until spring.   Now our butterfly will eat nectar from a variety of flowers, mate, and return to the trees to lay its eggs.

Most butterflies are very picky about where they lay their eggs, because their larvae have developed the mouth parts and body chemistry to eat only one or a few types of native plants. For example, the monarch butterfly larvae can eat only milkweed.  Our swallowtail butterfly depends on the native tulip tree, yellow poplar, black willow, black cherry, American hornbeam, spicebush, American elm, sassafras, and red maple.

We don’t usually think of trees as important to butterflies, but they are. Native red maple, for example, can “host” (feed the larvae of) 285 different species of butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera), while oaks take the prize with 534. On both campuses, we  also have hickory (233 Lepidoptera species), dogwood (115), and birch (400).  So we help our butterflies by eliminating pesticides, nurturing nectar-providing flowers–and also by safeguarding our native trees. http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/what-to-plant.html

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