Category Archives: Butterfly research

Butterfly food!

It’s been so nice outside lately, and butterflies are finally coming out! I have reports from others in the lab that commas and mourning cloaks have been seen recently. I’m very excited for field and lab work to start this summer. Until I start getting lots of local butterflies, I’m trying to make sure I have enough food for larvae to eat. Because collecting plants last year turned out to be pretty hit or miss, and often a lot of work, this year I’m trying to grow nearly everything. I thought I would share some of the variety of plants that I’ve been growing to prepare for butterfly season.

Butterflies eat all kinds of things as larvae; some butterfly food doesn’t seem like it would be very pleasant, like the milk thistle I’m growing…


… or the stinging nettle.


Others are fun, like this FALSE stinging nettle, which I didn’t even know existed. It looks a lot like stinging nettle, and the same butterflies eat it, but it doesn’t sting!


I’m also growing blueberries, currants, gooseberries, apples and cherries (butterfly larvae love the leaves, but they don’t eat the fruit).


I’m actually growing more than 20 different kinds of plants to try to find the perfect food fora  bunch of different butterfly species. I even have hops plants, which make the hops flowers used to flavor and bitter beer, and the leaves of which are eaten by a few different butterfly species.


Hopefully this summer, the butterflies will find that they have more than enough to eat with this smorgasbord of leafy delights!

Do you have any experience raising some rare plants so you can rear butterflies?


The great butterfly apocalypse (butterpocalypse) of 2013

I had a dream the other night. I was working at my desk, when suddenly, cabbage white butterflies (like the one in the picture) started raining down all around me, dead or dying. I tried to save them, but I couldn’t move. I screamed, down on my knees; a long, drawn out, “Nooooooo!”. It was very dramatic – think Charlton Heston at the end of planet of the apes, when he finds the statue of liberty and realizes he was on Earth all along (spoiler alert!).

Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae)
Small White butterfly (Pieris rapae) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I woke up. As my dog Darwin realized I was awake and started licking my face, the thought occurred to me that it was one of those dreams that you wake up from, but then once you’re awake you realize that what you were dreaming is really happening. At least allegorically – like the dream was a big metaphor for my life.

Spring this year was cold and wet, and most of the butterflies decided to sleep in until midsummer. They are out now, but as far as I can tell, they are still not common. Perhaps they hide from me, scheming little butterfly schemes.

I need to raise a whole generation in captivity if I want to use them for research, so when I catch females, I try to get them to lay eggs. Sometimes they do lay eggs. Sometimes they don’t lay eggs. Often they just die, lying on their sides and breathing laboriously (metaphorically again – insects don’t have lungs) in their little white mesh butterfly houses with their potted plants and sugar-water feeders.

Most research projects I’ve worked on involved watching animals in the wild, collecting them temporarily and then re-releasing them, or analyzing data that other people had collected. None of these were easy. Nevertheless, I think that simultaneously raising a number of butterfly species in captivity, and trying to keep them happy and healthy, is one of the hardest things I’ve tried yet. Perhaps the worst part is having to continuously rethink my plans. It’s amazing how hard one can think and plan for something, but then when you actually try to DO it, everything immediately falls apart.

Learning that all your preconceptions were actually misconceptions is pretty normal for science, and probably for life in general. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Learning is hard. For now I’ve got some good ideas of what to try next, lots of help and advice from my mentors and friends here, and a lot of adult butterflies provided by some very nice people that should help me out by laying the next generation of eggs. Fingers crossed!

Next time I post I’ll try to get into why I even want to raise butterflies in the first place.