Butterflies and their close relatives, moths, are among the easiest groups of insects to recognize. Despite their familiarity, however, there are many misconceptions about butterflies and moths. Here are a few “lepidopteran legends,” “swallowtail tales” and “fluttery fables” that should be dispelled:
1.) Moths are dull and butterflies are beautiful. There are many beautiful butterflies in the world, including those found in Western North Carolina. There are also many breathtaking moth species. Since most moths are nocturnal, they often do not get the time of day from people (get it?!). Many moths have vivid colors, and many more favor elegant designs that would put a painted lady butterfly to shame. For starters, check out the garden tiger moth, rosy maple moth and giant leopard moth.
2.) A monarch butterfly flies all the way to Mexico and back. While the species makes this trek, it is not undertaken by any single butterfly. In fact, there are five generations of monarchs involved in the round-trip. This multi-generational journey is worth further examination and there a number of great videos on YouTube that chronicle it.
3.) All butterflies drink nectar. Most surely do, but some species receive their nourishment from tree sap and decomposing animals. Yum!
4.) Tent caterpillars are invasive and should be eradicated. Every spring, just as cherry trees and other trees of the rose family are beginning to sprout leaves, devouring hordes of tent caterpillars appear, with little regard to your favorite tree or the one your grandfather planted nearly a century ago. And, they leave those horrendous cobwebby things in the branches. Never fear, these are a native species that have co-evolved with wild black cherry and other native trees. Mature, healthy trees have nothing to fear from these fuzzy critters. In fact, our ecosystem relies on them, because the caterpillars are food for birds like the yellow-billed cuckoo. Other birds use their silk in their nests and several species eat the adult moths they metamorphose into. Also, many native pollinating wasps lay their eggs in these caterpillars as part of their life cycle.
For further forays into the world of butterflies, visit the Arboretum’s Winged Wonders exhibit, opening Saturday, May 13, and on display through October. This walk-through exhibit, located inside the Arboretum’s Baker Exhibit Greenhouse, features live, captive-bred butterflies that hatch on-site from chrysalises, and feed on nectar from live plants and other added nectar sources within the exhibit. Visitors will witness a variety of native species — from the popular monarch butterfly to the lesser-known but equally beautiful mourning cloak butterfly. The exhibit grants the visitor an opportunity to view these butterflies up close and affords great photographic opportunities, as well as the chance to study a butterfly feeding on native vegetation (rain or shine!). Varying species will be on display throughout the exhibit run, so this Arboretum feature is worthy of a return trip!