I have been outside lately. I don't mean just riding my bike to the library and walking to my car. My summer job is working with teenagers at a park not far from my house. So over the past week, I've become more sensitive to nature, maybe. My skin is more attuned to relative humidity than ever before. My reflexes for swatting mosquitoes is slowing, since I began training myself not to wear bug spray in front of my bug-fearing high school students. But my favorite observation is the butterflies.
Over the past few days, I have seen blue, orange and brown butterflies floating through the park breeze and drafting off the highway winds. If my identification skills are correct, I have seen an admiral, monarchs and a majestic swallowtail. It is not always easy to study the intricate patterns and eyespots when they are air-dancing in their arrhythmic flight style. Just to get you started on the intricacies of their movements, butterflies have been found to use various forms of flight: "wake capture, vortices at the wing edge, rotational mechanisms and Weis-Fogh 'clap-and-fling' mechanisms" (Wiki Butterfly
) just to name a few. Unfortunately, I cannot elaborate on these methods, but just know that there is some syncopated rhyme and unique reason to their dives, falls, flutters, and that slow wave while they soak up sunshine on a goldenrod leaf.
Butterflies enjoy a positive reputation, perhaps even royalty status when compared to other insects like spiders and ants. The butterfly kiss is an intimate interlacing of a friend's eyelash with your own. In Japan and China, the sighting of a butterfly is a portent of love
. In Russia, the word butterfly also means bowtie — not inherently lovey-dovey, but an article that is potentially worn over a candlelight dinner.
I wonder why we have such a connection with this insect. One guess is the heroic evolution from egg to adult. The prepubescent caterpillar, the subject of gentle children's picture books and counting games (so many legs!), is just cute. Then immobile period spent inside a chrysalis is a vulnerable time, exposed to hungry birds and gusts of wind. Yet it proves a herculean feat once the winged butterfly emerges. This is a romantic story that not even Shakespeare could have penned.
My recent butterfly sightings have not produced so many factoids as daydreams and fantasies. I put out my feelers a few days ago, in search of answers to the possible spike in the butterfly count in Milwaukee County. While I cannot provide you with any resolution, I can say that there are two opportunities to learn more about them, but indoors. At Olbrich Botanical Gardens
in Madison, the conservatory will soon open an interactive exhibit where kids can watch chrysalises turn into butterflies. In Milwaukee, the public museum
houses a permanent tropical garden to learn about the species’ diversity.
A recent car trip may explain one reason I cannot stop thinking of these bugs. I was headed from Milwaukee to Madison, on the very day when I realized the abundance of beautiful flutterers. Seeing them along the highway ditches made the drive much more tolerable. I rolled my window down to let in some air, and looked up in time to see a Monarch broadside my windshield. Perhaps the wind blew it up and over my car or it flew away, but I am still wondering about its fate. Every time I buckle up, I spot a streak of orange and hope its wing is still intact.