The friendly American lady jams its eggs under the fine hairs of pussytoes and pearly everlasting, among other plants. In the spring, when she’s on a mission to lay her eggs within her two to three-week life span, you can get close enough to this butterfly to get a really good look at the process. A few days after the eggs hatch, the young caterpillars make unattractive silk nests in order to hide from predators: many gardeners apply insecticide or destroy the dwelling by hand. They don’t know that the plant will recover fully, and that, if left alone, the caterpillars will become magnificent butterflies. The caterpillars themselves are beautiful and provide food to ever-hungry baby birds.
With wings closed the American lady is brown and pink, with white lines and brown eye spots. With wings open, it looks completely different! The butterfly is orange brown and black with small white spots. If you raise them, you will be fascinated to observe all the changes and details up close.
Scientists do not know everything about the American lady’s overwintering strategy. Some hibernate, some fly south for the winter, some fly north for the summer, and some live year-round in the south. Those that migrate or hibernate, generally have three or four broods (generations) between May and November. Do you get it? Will you become the entomologist who fills in the blanks?
While the title suggests this book will focus on 5 butterfly species (actually 4, and one moth), it offers a much broader scope for any fan of these colorful and essential insects. The Introduction invites readers to “commune with nature” by observing butterflies easily found in any neighborhood. A quick lesson in anatomy, with clear sketches and photos, helps to distinguish between butterflies and moths. Each of the target species (Monarch, American lady, Black swallowtail, Question mark and Cecropia) is given a chapter detailing its characteristics, life cycle and distribution. Readers will get to know what makes them so appealing from the author’s engaging reports.
The chapters in between these accounts add an extra layer of fascination. The author previously wrote a book exclusively about raising monarchs, How to Raise Monarch Butterflies. Since they are probably the most well-known, she has included 16 pages on this single species, complete with personal anecdotes and some history of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. Readers will especially enjoy the story of a fundraising craft project undertaken with primary school children who live near a monarch sanctuary.
Several pages discuss how to attract butterflies to your garden, stressing the key role of native plants. Another chapter talks about butterfly farming where the insects are raised “for the sole purpose of setting them free”, often for special events such as weddings. While caterpillars eat leaves, they do not destroy the plants they need to survive, and they are a vital part of the biodiversity of any ecosystem. References to their essential roles are woven throughout the text: their beauty, how they pollinate plants and eat many weedy plants, how they are food for other creatures, and how they are a barometer for the health of the environment. One chapter discusses spirituality, sharing the ways butterflies are valued for their symbolic meaning in many cultures. The Cecropia, as the largest North American moth and one so colorful it might be mistaken for a butterfly, merits a short chapter to show its exceptional characteristics such as an adult life span of only one week.
A useful page is included with cautions about exploring butterfly habitats where some toxic plants grow and biting insects are found. The final chapter outlines ways we can help the planet conserve wildlife, such as butterflies, with projects in our local communities, especially in our own gardens. Many small acts—things we do without thinking—like squishing tiny insects we find on our plants or raking and disposing of leaves in the fall do untold harm to the populations of beneficial insects. Supporting bylaws that restrict the use of pesticides and fighting those which limit varieties of native flowers that can be planted can make a huge difference. Readers are encouraged to raise butterflies and to share what they learn as citizen scientists. Did you know there are butterfly counts and festivals? Above all, the author brings to this book her passion about getting outdoors for healthy pursuits. like observing butterflies.
The book is written in a confident voice with up-to-date facts. The reading level and some content may appeal more to the upper range of the target readership, though this is balanced with generous and spectacular captioned photos to show various stages of butterfly life, often with ‘magnifying glass’ close-ups. It contains extensive lists of Resources, Recommended Field Guides and Bibliography so interested readers can dig much deeper into the topic. The Glossary (albeit in tiny font size) defines terms in bold text.
With such in-depth treatment of its subject, 5 Butterflies will attract those affected by “biophilia” (love of living things) and “hortophilia” (desire to interact, manage and tend nature). Both “afflictions” offer untold benefits for the future of our planet...in this case, brought to us by some of the smallest, quietest, and most brilliantly colored creatures. Enjoy this highly readable book for its potential to inspire you to get to know them better.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in British Columbia.