A Different Kind of Treasure Hunter

July 30, 2015
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My eight-year old daughter is an expert butterfly egg hunter. Our backyard is filled with plants that are hosts—food plants—for the caterpillars that ultimately turn into butterflies and every summer, various butterfly species travel to our tiny urban backyard and lay their eggs on these plants, connecting their babies to the tasty treats that the caterpillars will need to grow to full size. My daughter, my wife, and our five-year old son then go treasure hunting, searching for these eggs, bringing them indoors, raising the caterpillars that hatch from the eggs, and then releasing the butterflies that the caterpillars metamorphose into.

 

Butterfly eggs are tiny, and often found clinging on the undersides of leaves, and my daughter is particularly good at finding them. Maybe it’s the fact she’s at the exact height that most of these plants grow, or maybe it’s just all the practice she’s had—she’s been spotting eggs since she was a toddler—but she’s always been our lead egg spotter.

 

Now that she’s eight, her duties have expanded beyond the initial treasure hunt. She cares for the caterpillars that hatch from her eggs, providing them fresh leaves to eat as they grow. She also measures the caterpillars, each of which gets its own name, tracking their amazing growth progress—Monarch caterpillars can double their size in a day! And of course, she will ultimately enjoy the big payoff: watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis and releasing it back out into the world.

 

Raising butterflies is a great tradition in our house. It helps our city kids appreciate nature and understand the extraordinary power of the web of life, and perhaps more importantly, stresses their own role in making the world a better place. If you plant the right species, you will attract the butterflies, and if you care for the eggs and the caterpillars you can help bring an extraordinarily beautiful creature into the world, all through your own backyard.

 

Our summer issue of Click nicely captures the magic of building your own butterfly backyard with the story Flowers that Fly. Much like my older daughter tutors her younger brother on the art of butterfly hunting, in the story an older brother teaches his younger sister about host plants, pollinators, and even how sea salt can help attract butterflies! For more stories like there be sure to subscribe to Click. And if you’re interested in setting up a treasure hunt in your own back yard, check out this link. It will help you understand the host plants needed to attract butterflies that are native to your area: nababutterfly.com.

 

Raising butterflies is a great tradition in our house. It helps our city kids appreciate nature and understand the extraordinary power of the web of life, and perhaps more importantly, stresses their own role in making the world a better place.

 

Flowers that Fly

By Susan Yoder Ackerman
Art by Stephanie Roth Sisson

 

It’s going to be a long afternoon. Aunt Jen and Uncle Pete are visiting, and that means I’m supposed to play with Adeline. She’s dancing around in the sunshine, flapping imaginary butterfly wings.

 

I get down on my knees and pat some wet mud sitting in a shallow pan. “OK, Adeline,” I tell her. “You can sprinkle sea salt on this. Just a little. And I’ll mix it in.”

 

She stops dancing and takes the salt shaker. “Salt? I thought you were growing a butterfly garden, Simon! From butterfly seeds!”

 

I groan. This little girl has a lot to learn. But then I remember that I did too, when our family first decided to plant a butterfly garden. “Some butterflies want salt when they’re low on minerals,” I tell her. “One time a red admiral butterfly sat right here on my arm, tasting my salty sweat!”

 

“I want a butterfly to sit on me!” cries Adeline. “I want to wear it like a flower!”

 

I try to explain. “You know, butterflies don’t grow like flowers. You can’t plant them or pick them. They fly free. They go where they like.”

 

“Aww…make them come to me,” Adeline says.

 

“They’ll come, as long as our garden has the things they like—the right flowers and leaves; trees with sticky sap; soft, squishy fruit.” I point to the pan. “And a nice, salty mud puddle.”

 

“But I don’t like mud,” says Adeline, pouting. “See, my new pink boots are muddy—and pink’s my favorite color!”

 

I try to take Adeline’s mind off the mud. “Did you know that butterflies have favorite colors too?”

 

“Pink?” Adeline asks, starting to smile again.

 

“Actually, they like purple better, and orange. Look over there at the butterfly weed—that plant with the bunches of dark orange flowers. A monarch just landed on it. It’s sucking nectar up through its mouth parts, like a straw. There are so many tiny flowers there, the butterfly doesn’t have to fly far to get another sip. We planted a lot of that flower because it’s a kind of milkweed. Milkweed is a host plant. When a monarch is ready to lay eggs, she lands on a leaf to taste it with her feet. It has to be the right kind of leaf, or her babies can’t eat it when they hatch. If it’s not milkweed, she won’t lay her eggs.”

 

I take a deep breath and keep going. “If she doesn’t lay eggs, then no caterpillars hatch. If caterpillars don’t hatch, they can’t eat leaves and grow fat and make chrysalises. If no chrysalises open, then there won’t be any monarchs coming out and flying in the garden. Host plants are important.”

 

“Is that big flowery bush a host plant?” she asks.

 

“No, but butterflies love to drink the nectar from its flowers,” I say. “I guess that’s why it’s called a butterfly bush.”

 

“What about those plants with the skinny leaves and the little yellow flowers?” Adeline points to feathery stalks bobbing in the sunny breeze.

 

“That’s dill—another host plant,” I say. “We plant a bunch of dill seeds every year. Butterflies love it, and so does Mom. She makes pickles with it and cooks with it.”

 

Suddenly Adeline jumps back. “Worms! They’re eating your plants! Get some spray!”

 

“Never!” I say. “Nothing to kill bugs or weeds—ever! It poisons everything. Look, they aren’t even worms. They’re caterpillars. In a couple of weeks they’ll be beautiful butterflies.”

 

Adeline isn’t very happy about the caterpillars. Or the big bee buzzing over a yellow zinnia. “Shoo!” she says. “No bees allowed! This is a butterfly garden.”

 

“Hey, it’s OK,” I say. “Butterflies and bees do the same work. Flowers need them both.”

 

“Butterflies work?” she asks.

 

“Yup,” I say. “When a bee or butterfly takes nectar from a flower, pollen from the flower sticks to its body and gets carried to the next flower the bug visits. Everybody’s happy. Flowers need their pollen spread, so they can make fruits and seeds; and the insects get nectar.”

 

The sun is setting behind our tall oak trees. I smell garlic bread through the open kitchen window. “Let’s get in the hammock till dinnertime,” I say.

 

We lie together in the hammock, swinging slightly. A small butterfly darts over us, then swings back by, as if asking to play. “A cabbage white,” I say. “See the little black dots?”

 

Then Adeline spots the fluttering of bright orange and black wings as a monarch leaves the flower bed. “Oh, Simon,” she says, “it looks just like a flying flower!”

 

That makes me smile, but she’s kind of right. We swing gently back and forth, happy just to look at all the flowers—the ones that fly and the ones that don’t—until Mom calls us in to dinner.

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