Sunday, November 18, 2012

Butterflies are Free

Emila, Dorrit and Maggie
 Going to a butterfly conservatory has never been high on my "to do" list.  (In fact, I think it would be accurate to say that I never knew such a thing existed!)  But an incredibly inexpensive opportunity landed in my in-box (compliments of Groupon) so with a little prodding from Dorrit we were off on an adventure to Butterfly Estates in Fort Myers. 

We all probably vaguely remember learning about the metamorphosis that a butterfly goes through before it gets to its winged adult state.   At Butterfly Estates we got to see all phases of the butterfly's life.   We saw a zebra butterfly lighting on a bush to lay its yellow eggs that are no bigger than a pinpoint.  (We learned that when a butterfly is selecting where it wants to lay its eggs, it first tastes the host plant with its feet.)  From the eggs come the caterpillars, which are quite striking.  (Did you know that a caterpillar is actually considered an adult butterfly?  The technical distinction is between a butterfly and a winged butterfly.)  After shedding its skin numerous times, the butterfly spins its chrysalis.  Each butterfly's chrysalis is quite different and you often have to look carefully to find them.  We saw one chrysalis that looked exactly like a little three pronged leaf that was tucked away in the middle of a bush; another was a green oblong shape hanging on a defoliated tree that looked alot like a delicate Christmas tree ornament.

Monarch butterfly
When it's time for the butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis, its legs pop out first.  Then its body comes out, which is filled with fluid.  Last but not least are its wings.  The butterfly pumps its wings for a few seconds in order to dry them off and then it sets about the task of finding another butterfly to mate with.  (Since most butterflies live only about two weeks, they are very mission driven.)   Butterfly Estates maintains a few "butterfly castles" (basically aerated see-through bags similar to what you might store your clothes in under the bed) where caterpillars have spun their chyrsalides.  Each Friday afternoon they host a butterfly release at which the newly emerged butterflies are liberated into the conservatory.  During the release on our visit, two of the butterflies had already gotten down to business and were not the least bit disturbed by our docent moving them out of their castle onto the soil. Apparently butterflies tend to stay together for a few hours once they have mated, flying around and checking out their environment.  In butterfly years, this constitutes a major commitment.

Zebra butterfly
Butterfly Estates hosts only local species of butterflies. The zebra is the state butterfly of Florida, and we saw lots of them on our outing.  Perhaps one reason Florida selected the zebra for this designation is that it can live up to a full year.  This is because the zebra nectars differently than other butterflies.  (Yes, I just used "nectar" as a verb.  You learn something every day.)   

Nathaniel Hawthorne said, "Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you."   As the season heats up in Southwest Florida, it's a nice reminder to take time out for simple pleasures. 

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