Winged Wonders

Poulsbo, WAThere are not too many things in nature as stunningly beautiful as the elegant designs found in the butterfly realm. When I encounter butterflies, I want to study them up close, to touch their powdery wings, giving me time to find the right words to describe each of their patterns and colors, but I dare not try.  They are delicate creatures to be appreciated visually for the fleeting moments they grace my space.

Lorquin's Admiral
Lorquin’s Admiral

The vast number of unique butterfly designs have always intrigued and beguiled us.  According to the Butterflies and Moths of North America Database, there are over 700 verified sightings of different butterfly and moth species found in the state of Washington alone.  Here in Kitsap County, it is common to see Tiger Swallowtails, Painted Ladies, Sulphers, Skippers and Hairstreaks, each with a unique shape, size, color and pattern.

Sometimes called flying flowers, butterflies don’t just look stunning, they also pull off one of the most mysterious transformations in all creation. Their life progression from egg to larva to pupa stage chrysalis is a certainly a curious process, but the final scene is the stuff of fairytales.  An exquisite creature emerges from a lowly caterpillar case, then goes on to function as an important pollinator and even serves as an ecological indicator of healthy ecosystems.

Papilio eurymedon – Pale Tiger Swallowtail

In most cases, these winged beauties only live for a few weeks and spend their precious time on feeding and mating. Like most animals, butterflies are most easily found when you locate their sources of food, and of course this time of year is when nectar producing plants are in their splendor. It may seem that butterflies randomly drift through space with no apparent destination, but gardeners know how to attract these beautiful pollinators by simply supplying preferred food sources.

Planning, planting and nurturing a pollinator garden is a fun way to attract all pollinators including bees, hummingbirds as well as other nectar loving insects. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife  provides an incredible guide for attracting, viewing and identifying some of our native butterflies. One peculiar strategy for luring butterflies to your space is to provide a venue for a “puddle club.” Many butterfly species can be found near puddles where individuals, particularly males, gather to ingest salts and minerals found on damp soil or sand.

When you set out to track wonder, sometimes wonder comes tracking you. Learn to creatively coax winged wonders to share your space, then sit quietly and delight in the result.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

When and Where – Watching butterflies is a special treat partially because they are so unpredictable. When one comes close, stop and savor the moment, as it will pass quickly and not often be repeated. Your best bet for enjoying butterflies on a regular basis is to visit meadows, nurseries or community gardens in open sunny locations with lots of flowers. Butterflies are dependent on sunlight to warm the muscles in their wings for flight, so are often seen basking in the sun.

Wonder Triggers for Young Trackers

Watch a butterfly. Does it fly like a bird or are its movements different?  How? Butterflies don’t beat their wings up and down like a bird.  Instead they contract (make smaller) their bodies, which causes their wings to move upward, then make a figure 8 to move them along.  Their big wings allow them to quickly change direction, making them tricky for predators to catch.

Without touching them, look at the colors on a butterfly’s wings.  How are they made? How many colors do you see? Butterfly wings are clear,  made of a material called chitin, much like your fingernails.  On top of the chitin are thousands of tiny colorful scales that help the butterfly in several ways.  The scales are very fragile and can be destroyed very easily. Just touching a butterfly’s wings can remove enough scales to cause harm and cause changes in the butterfly’s ability to absorb heat. Touching can also break very delicate veins in the wings. If you find a dead butterfly look at its wings closely and put a wing under a microscope if you can.  You will be surprised!

Can you design a pollinator pot?  Research and plant different plants that butterflies like to see if you can attract butterflies to your pot. Be sure to place it in the sun and perhaps include a rock on which your visitors can rest.

Regional species list (print a checklist)

References and Resources

Washington Butterflies

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife – Butterflies and How to Attract Them  Excellent guide for creating butterfly garden

Butterflies and Moths of Pacific Northwest Forests and Woodlands: Rare, Endangered and Sensitive Management Species

Butterfly Species Guide – South Puget Sound

Northwest Butterflies Blog – Places to Visit

Seattle Times – Disappearing Monarchs

Raising Butterflies

How Things Work

Images: SPegany,

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