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Photographing Butterflies | Fort Wayne Botanical Conservatory

June 18, 2017

I think butterflies are the loveliest little creatures. They are beautiful and delicate with their dusty wings and many colors, and they dance harmlessly through the air around flower gardens. As a kid it was a special treat to see a big orange butterfly floating across the lawn.

 

One summer when I was about nine or ten, my mom found a little green caterpillar on the parsley plant in her garden. She brought him inside and we made a little habitat for him out of a cardboard soda case, complete with the sides cut out and covered in cellophane so we could watch the little guy eat. We fed him parsley from the garden and watched as he got bigger and bigger. Eventually he made a chrysalis, and later emerged as a magnificent black swallowtail butterfly. Here I am in 2000, posing with our butterfly before setting him free.

 

 

After that, every summer we searched the parsley plants for caterpillars so we could watch them go through their metamorphosis. I think this is where my love for butterflies really began. I thought it was so interesting to watch little green caterpillars (who are cute in their own sort of way) eat more parsley than seemed possible before anchoring themselves to a stick, growing a new layer of skin (the chrysalis), and appearing weeks later as a gorgeous creature that looked nothing like its caterpillar self.

 

The Botanical Conservatory in Fort Wayne features a live butterfly exhibit every summer, and I try to go see it every year. It's such a simple pleasure to stand under a white tent in a flower garden with all varieties of butterflies drifting through the air all around you. Some of them are friendly and will even land on your head, shoulder, or foot. Others are shy and prefer the solitude and sweet nectar of a flower bush. No two are the same.

 

 

I used this year's butterfly exhibit as an excuse to try out my new lens. (Yes... I now own the Sigma 50-100 f/1.8 zoom lens, which I featured in an earlier post!) So I have some "butterfly portraits" to share... and some butterfly "fun facts" to go along with them.

 

 

Butterflies are insects, and go through the four stages of an insect's life cycle: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly.) An adult butterfly usually lives for a few weeks, long enough to mate and for the female to lay eggs. Eggs hatch in the spring after "hibernating" through the winter, or in the summer after being laid in the spring by parents who hatched earlier.

 

 

A butterfly's pupa stage is called a chrysalis. The chrysalis is basically a special layer of skin. When the caterpillar is ready to make its chrysalis, it anchors itself to a tree or branch and sheds the top layer of its skin, revealing the chrysalis underneath. A chrysalis isn't quite the same thing as a cocoon. Chrysalises are smooth and made by butterflies, while cocoons are made by moths and are covered in silk.

 

 

The caterpillar will stay in its chrysalis usually 2 or 3 weeks before the butterfly emerges. However, if the caterpillar doesn't make a chrysalis until late summer or early fall, the chrysalis will "hibernate" all winter. This happened with a couple of our caterpillars. One actually escaped from its enclosure and formed a chrysalis under our living room couch. We were very surprised to find a live butterfly under the couch the following spring!

 

 

This is such a neat exhibit! Butterflies are a little tricky to photograph sometimes, since they're often more interested in flying to the next bit of nectar than in posing for a portrait. The butterflies are only at the Botanical Conservatory for a few more days this year... so visit them this week if you can. Otherwise, look out for when the exhibit comes back to town next spring.

 

Bonus Fact: The shape in my photography logo is based on a butterfly's wing!

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