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Living Sanibel: Butterflies

By Staff | Jul 8, 2015

There are literally hundreds of books and thousands of scientific papers on butterflies. One member of the species, the monarch butterfly is famous for it’s annual 3,000 mile migration from the fields and forests of North America to the trans-volcanic mountains of central Mexico, settling in the Oyamel fir forests at altitudes over 10,000 feet. The most amazing aspect of this migration is that four to five generations separate the populations that make the voyage, and the mechanisms that allow them to fly these vast distances, know where to go without ever having been there before and then pass that information on to future generations remains a mystery.

Monarchs on their way to Mexico will often stop, dine and gather their energy on Sanibel and Captiva before flying across the Gulf of Mexico non-stop to the mountains of Mexico. Monarchs are also fascinating because they are poisonous, dining on milkweed sap, which is toxic. Several other species of non-poisonous butterflies mimic the wing patterns and coloration of the monarch to ward off potential predators. Locally these include the viceroy, queen and to a lesser extent, the Gulf fritillary.

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is the official State of Florida butterfly. Once common on the islands, the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 severely impacted the local butterfly populations and finding a zebra longwing on Sanibel or Captiva today can be quite challenging.

Of course the easiest way to complete this short checklist of species is by going to the Butterfly House, located at the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundations headquarters on Sanibel-Captiva Road (3333 San-Cap Road, 239-472-2329). The Lolly Cohen Memorial Butterfly House is open daily with no admission charge, though there is a donation box located in the screened enclosure. If you want to learn more about these amazing insects try attending one of the guided tours given every Tuesday morning at 10:00 a.m. A $1.00 donation is suggested.

As caterpillars, butterflies feed on leaves and grasses. Often called “eating machines” they consume vast amounts of vegetation, though certain Hawaiian butterflies are carnivores. As adults, butterflies dine primarily on nectar from flowers. Blue porterweed is a popular garden plant that is known to attract butterflies as are any number of other native plants. For more information about how to create your own, personal butterfly garden, contact the staff of the Native Plant Nursery at SCCF and they will be happy to advise you as to which plants and trees naturally attract these beautiful insects.

Butterflies are preyed upon by a wide array of predators. These include other insects such as large dragonflies, to anoles, to small rodents and many different species of birds. They are also taken as caterpillars and if discovered, even the pupas will be eaten.

-This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.