Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 17

April 25 - May 1, 2002

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Catering to Butterflies?
Serve Beer

It’s almost impossible to stay angry when you’re watching a butterfly.
— One of the sidekicks of “Hagar the Horrible,” by Dik Browne.

Obvious indeed are the words of the cartoon character who appears to have an upside-down funnel atop his head, but not until I came across that quote in the comic strip a couple weeks ago had I ever thought of butterflies in such a light. Now I appreciate that viewing one is akin to listening to a purring house cat.

Soothing to the soul and temperament, enough so that seeing that I seem unable to attract hummingbirds to the garden on the east side of the house, maybe I’ll try to lure butterflies. My white, long-haired cat 2-E might well be fascinated by their presence so close to the screened-in porch up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County.

2-E shows little interest in the daytime squirrels, rabbits or the occasional nocturnal raccoon or ’possum, but creatures with wings get her attention — or at least break the boredom of an old cat that snoozes much of the day. In addition, watching a butterfly or two flitter about seems to me a relaxing spectator-sport for an old man and well worth the effort of catering to their fancies.

To be truthful, I know little about butterflies. I watch them casually, though, with interest when they’re about. I enjoy their colors and grace in flight, but I’ve never thought of catching any. To me, nets are made to scoop up fish, not butterflies.

Knowing My Quarry
I don’t like the idea of putting a pin through the head of a butterfly and adding it to a collection, as one of my favorite authors, Vladimir Nabokov, did as he tromped throughout Europe and North America — to the degree that he was considered among the world’s foremost butterfly authorities. But I’ll remember him more as the author of such delightful reads as Eugene Onegin, Speak, Memory, Transparent Things, The Gift, and of course Lolita, the volume that made him the most famous novelist of his time.

Those who take butterflies seriously have much to study and much to keep up on. In the U.S. and Canada alone, there are more than 750 different species — though they all follow the same general life cycle. The eggs are laid in spring, summer or fall. Next comes the caterpillar stage, in which they molt four to five times before enveloping themselves in a cocoon, in which they undergo metamorphosis.

When they emerge as adult butterflies, they’ve completed a process that takes five to six weeks. With some species, there is only one generation a year; others might produce two or three. I’m curious why I see so many ugly caterpillars yet subsequently notice so few beautiful butterflies. If only it were the other way around.

Baiting the Hook
Now that it’s time to plant the garden — also the hanging and ground-based pots and larger urns, some as big as a half barrel — I’m going to sow a few crops that might produce a fair showing of these diurnal insects. At first, I thought that might be easy: Just plant a lot of colorful flowers. But when I started poking around in a few insect guides, I learned butterflies have their favorite attractors. It’s not just a matter of color but also of taste and scent.

My research took me to the West Virginia Wildlife Diversity News, a quarterly publication, which in the Spring 2002 edition lists what it refers to as “Butterfly Magnets.” It also suggests that those who want to host more of the insects — a term I reluctantly use for butterflies — should also experiment.

I’m more of an experimenter than traditionalist, but I will take some of the advice, especially for spring and summer, when I see fewer butterflies.

By late summer or early fall, more are evident. It is not unusual to see a few in late October, even early November, hovering around waterfowl blinds on warm afternoons, even those following chilly nights. Where do they comfy up when Jack Frost paints the vegetation in pre-dawn hours?

But Not with Lilacs
Wildlife Diversity News informs me that more butterflies will be seen in the spring if lilacs are available. But being a product of the Great Depression, I’m not a fan of lilacs. They were the affordable flower for funerals back in hard times, and like many of my generation, I associate them — both their color and scent — with death.

When we moved to Park Road 30 years ago, on the west side of the house there were two lilacs, which I promptly dug up and replaced with blueberry bushes, which lingered for a few years but produced only enough berries to flavor a few bowls of morning cereal.

They were replaced with one miniature oriental apple tree that blossoms colorfully — though the birds don’t seem to like the fruit — and a burning bush that prospered for more than 25 years before it became ill with dull leaves last summer. In late winter, its hollow main stem blew over one windy night.

Fall and Summer Bait
Instead of lilacs for a spring butterfly attractant, I’m considering the other three suggestions: an azalea where the big burning bush once stood plus violets and phlox. Listed for summer butterflies are clover, which my visiting wild rabbits already enjoy; herbs and veggies — I’ll have my usual several pepper and a half dozen tomato plants — daisies, sunflowers, butterflyweed, coneflowers and milkweed.

The latter three won’t work with the lawn, but I’ll try them along the tree line, and I’m told attractants close to woods bring a bigger diversity of butterflies. To bring butterflies in the fall, native thistles, ironweed, golden rod, mint, vetch, nettles and yarrow are recommended.

Generally, butterflies want much nectar, especially from blossoms with large petals they can perch on when feeding. Lilac purple is the most effective color (I still say no lilacs). Then come yellow, pink and white.

Nectar of Beer
As my little patch of magnets grows in partially shaded and bright sunlight areas, I’ll also try artificial feeding, another tip from Wildlife Diversity News. Seems that beautiful and elegant as butterflies are, they have a blue-collar appetite. Beer, not a fine wine, is the prime ingredient in the favored attractant recipe, which follows:

Mix a whole bottle or can of beer with a banana. Add several tablespoons of brown sugar and molasses, one-half cup raisins and several slices of apple. Homogenize all in a blender; then store in a loosely capped bottle for several days until it is fermented.

If you want moths, which I don’t, you brush the mix on a tree trunk. For butterflies, soak the liquid into a sponge left in a bowl in broken sunlight or open shade. A slight breeze will broadcast the aroma. A nectar-seeking butterfly sips the liquid through its long thin proboscis, which is coiled when not feeding. Its feet possess a special sensing capability that makes it pre-taste sweet liquids. When it does so, the snout uncoils — and dinner is on the table.

Gateway to Serenity
If the butterflies don’t come, 2-E will be around. A few strokes of the long hair under her chin or on her back will bring the contented purring of a diesel Mercedes. But add a few visuals like butterflies, and the glider on the cement patio would be a gateway to serenity.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly