Macrolepidoptera

We drove through the famous tourist trap, Duval Street, on our recent visit to Key West, Florida. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory caught our eye. Fortunately it was early enough in the morning to find a parking space, so we put some money in the meter and ran off to chase butterflies.


Macrolepidoptera is Latin, meaning large, scaled wings, which is sort of like my skin in winter. But it’s actually an insect order that includes moths and butterflies. What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Let’s put our moth skills to work, and figure this out.

Moths have been around for 190 million years. That’s a long time. Butterflies are latecomers. They evolved from moths around 56 million years ago. They came to being in an area that is now known as Denmark, and they spread to the Americas around 34 million years ago.

We bought our tickets and stepped through the whooshing vacuum doors of the Conservatory, and were immediately surrounded by living color, fluttering like feathers all around us. It felt magical.

Moths are usually nocturnal, whereas butterflies are almost always diurnal, working both the day and night shifts.

Moths tend to have dull colored wings that camouflage well on fuscous surfaces such as wood and bark. Butterflies usually have brightly colored wings. Moths hold their wings close to their bodies when at rest, while butterflies display their colorful wings like a spread-out fan while resting.

Classical music drifted in the background as I cursed these polychromatic creatures, who would not sit still for my camera. Butterflies are restless and can be very challenging to photograph. Except this sympathetic guy, who stood on a leaf and posed for me.

Most moths lay their eggs underground. Butterflies usually lay their eggs on plants, especially the hidden undersides of leaves.

Moth larvae envelope themselves in silky cocoons during their pupal stage, whereas most butterfly caterpillars simply harden into a chrysalis, without any surrounding silk.

Butterflies have a four-stage life cycle: Egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and imago (winged adult). The imago stage is also called the imaginal stage. In psychology, imago refers to an idealized concept of a loved one, which we form in early childhood and retain unconsciously as adults.

Some adult butterflies live only a week, while others survive nearly a full year. As they age, the color of their wings fades, and their wings become ragged.

The faded and ragged wings of this butterfly indicate it’s most likely a senior citizen.

Life cycles vary in length with different butterflies. In warmer, tropical climates, species tend to produce several generations per year. In moderate climates they often have only a single generation per year. And a few species, in cooler, arctic climates, have a life cycle lasting several years.

I have no idea the names of any of these butterflies at the Conservatory, but I’ll call the one on the left Jason, and the one on the right Colin.

There are about 18,500 different species of butterflies.

The smallest butterfly in the world is the Western Pygmy-Blue. At only 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch in size, its habitat ranges from eastern Oregon to Nebraska, and south to South America.

The largest butterfly in the world is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, found in the rain forests of New Guinea. Its wingspan grows up to a foot wide. It’s an endangered species, due to habitat destruction from oil palm plantations, and a volcanic eruption in the 1950s. International law prohibits the commercial international trade of this insect, but some collectors buy them on the black market anyway, at prices up to $10,000.

Monarch butterflies are famous in North America for their habit of migrating thousands of miles south to overwinter in Mexico. They’re native to the Americas, but somehow managed to disperse worldwide several hundred years ago.

This butterfly has a wing with an unusual yellow ring. In fact, it’s such a unique specimen I’ll give it the scientific name of Macrolepidoptera unicornica.

Butterflies have hindsight. They actually have photoreceptor eyes on their asses. Or to be more precise, their genitals. These ass-eyes help them when mating to accurately align their genitals, to achieve copulation. I’m sure we’ve all had a few scary experiences where we can see how this would be helpful.

As for the eyes on their heads, butterflies have excellent near vision, but lousy distance vision, unless equipped with glasses or contact lenses. They can see color, and some species are especially good at detecting hues in the blue /violet range.

This is a Macrolepidoptera tippygnusis. Hey, as long as I’m naming them, I might as well feed my ego.

Butterflies detect odors with their antenna, and taste with their feet. I’ve always thought that some humans have taste in their feet, also.

Some species can hear, while others are deaf. And some communicate with each other through clicking sounds. Using Morse Code, I’ll bet.

They drink water with their curly proboscis, and also use that strange, unwinding thing to sip nectar from flowers. Some species of butterflies are attracted to salt, and will land on the skin of humans in order to obtain salt with their proboscis.

Butterflies getting their morning Vitamin C. If you want to attract these volant insects, this appears to be a way to do it.

Butterflies are important pollinators. They can’t carry as much pollen as bees, but they do carry it over greater distances, helping flowers spread their DNA far and wide.

Many butterflies are territorial, kind of like hummingbirds, and will chase off other species, or even intruders from their own species.

Butterflies can only fly when their body temperature is above 81F (27C). So in cool weather they warm themselves up by exposing the underside of their wings to the sun. In fact, this is why the underside of some butterfly wings are so dark. The dark colors help in the absorption of heat.

Butterflies are great at camouflage. Some uncannily resemble leaves. Others have splotchy-patterned wings that make them look like unpalatable bird droppings. And many butterflies have eyespot patterns on their wings. These distract predators, such as spiders, from attacking their vital head areas. Spiders are fooled into attacking the eyespots, giving these insects a chance to fly away and escape.

Eyespots on a Macrolepidoptera carolynicus. It’s a sweet tasting butterfly, but the spiders that try to catch it can’t figure out where it begins or ends.

Some butterflies protect themselves by having flight patterns that are very erratic. If you try to catch them, they’ll make you run around in crazy circles with your net. The fastest butterflies zoom about at 30 miles per hour, requiring a motorcycle to catch them. But some can only achieve speeds of 5 miles per hour, and are easy targets.

But the easy targets often taste terrible. I’ve never asked a frog or a lizard, but this is what I’ve heard. They consume toxins from plants, that make them poisonous. It’s a good defense mechanism. So good that other butterflies, that would never consume such foul-tasting toxins, mimic the appearance of the terrible tasting butterflies. And when frogs, lizards, birds, or other predators see them, they leave them alone.

Is this Macrolepidoptera crankypantsia edible or poisonous? Hard to tell. This depends on whether or not it drinks coffee.

Butterflies are fantastic creatures, colorful in both appearance and behavior. I like them better than moths, but moths have their good points too. Or at least, I’m sure every larva has a moth that loves it.

Spring is coming soon. I’m looking forward to it. Because with it will come warmer temperatures, flowers, and most especially, the fluttering wings of the majestic Macrolepidoptera.

The tickets were well worth the price, even though it always hurts to open my wallet. We said our goodbyes to Jason and Colin, and all the other colorful inhabitants of the Conservatory. They waved their wings goodbye to us, and we departed Key West with a sense of enchantment in our souls.

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