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The Butterfly Garden

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By Mary Ann Chacko

‘Butterflies are pretty things,

Prettier than you or I;
See the colors on his wings;
Who would hurt a butterfly?”Softly, softly, girls and boys;
He’ll come near us by and by;
Here he is, don’t make a noise;–
We’ll not hurt you, butterfly.’

Not to hurt a living thing,
Let all little children try;
See, again he’s on the wing;
Good by! pretty butterfly! (“Butterflies are Pretty Things” by Eliza Lee Follen)

This Christmas my parents and I left the humdrum of Kochi life behind and travelled to Peechi in Trichur District of Kerala for a short holiday. We stayed in the guest house of the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI) surrounded by lush green man-made forests. The care-taker of the guest house became my official guide introducing me and sometimes accompanying me to the must-see places in and around KFRI.

One such place was the Butterfly Garden. This garden, the first of its kind in India, was developed after several years of research and trails through the pioneering effort of Dr. George Mathew, a scientist and butterfly expert at KFRI. I spoke to Dr. Mathew over phone and learned that he has assisted in the establishment of butterfly gardens across Kerala, including in schools and colleges. He is currently developing one in the army camp at Pangode, Trivandrum around the war memorial that commemorates the fallen soldiers. The Butterfly Garden at KFRI was funded by the Ministry of Environment and Forest. The garden is designed to provide information on the life and activities of butterflies, to nurture them, and to offer insights into their conservation as part of KFRI’s campaign on environmental conservation and education.

There are about 20,000 species of butterflies all over the world. Of these, 1501 species are from India, 330 species from the Western Ghats, and 314 species from Kerala.

I was pleasantly surprised to be welcomed into the butterfly garden by poems on butterflies displayed on information boards. As I walked into this open-air butterfly garden, the first question that came to mind was, “How does anyone keep butterflies here? How do butterflies know it’s a garden designed for them?”

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Entrance to the Butterfly Garden

I found the answers soon enough on information boards placed in different parts of the garden. In designing a butterfly garden, one needs to introduce “host plants” that are suited to different groups of butterflies and those required by the butterfly during different stages of its growth. For instance, a caterpillar or larva feeds on foliage of specific plants, while the butterfly feeds on nectar of flowering plants. Apart from introducing appropriate host plants, one also needs to create suitable micro habitats such as openings, shades, bright sunshine, damp areas, ponds, and hedges. The natural vegetation has to be maintained to the extent possible. Tall trees often serve as perching locations for many swift flying butterflies such as Paris Peacock, Buddha Butterfly, Blue Monarch, and Red Helen. The beautifully designed garden at KFRI has a pond and is filled with various flowering plants, shrubs, creepers, and tall trees. These are some of the flowering plants I found in the garden:

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Ornamental Pond in the Garden

Life Cycle of a Butterfly

While walking through the garden, I met Indira chechi (chechi is a Malayalam term used to address women who are older than oneself), who has been working in the garden for the past 9 years. I struck up a conversation with her as she watered the plants. Ignorant of the life span of butterflies, I asked her if butterflies that inhabit the garden display any kind of familiarity towards her. She smiled and said, “Oh no, they don’t live beyond 3-4 weeks.” Moreover, since this is an open garden, they are constantly moving in and out of the garden. I showed her a photo of a butterfly that I used as wallpaper on my phone and she immediately identified it as the ‘Common Rose’ butterfly. Whatever she knew about butterflies was knowledge she had gained on-the-job.

There are four distinct stages in the life cycle of a butterfly: egg, caterpillar (larva), pupa, and imago (butterfly). Most butterflies have a short life span completed in two or three weeks.

Egg

Butterflies lay eggs either singly or in clusters on the foliage of specific host plants on which the caterpillars feed. Usually, the eggs are laid on the underside of the leaves for protection from bad weather and predators. Eggs are of different colors and shapes and may be either smooth or decorated with ridges or spines. The eggs hatch in three to four days and tiny caterpillars come out.

Caterpillar (Larva)

While sitting on a bench enjoying the cool breeze and calmness of the butterfly garden, I noticed a young woman walking through the garden with a notepad and pen. She approached me and we struck up a conversation.  She was a KFRI staff and I learned that she came to the garden at 10 every morning to identify and take a count of the butterflies in the garden. She had a Masters in Zoology. I asked her if there were any caterpillars or larva in the garden at this time. To my delight she asked me to follow her. She took me to a corner of the garden and there under the leaf of a potted plant she showed me a tiny caterpillar of the Common Rose butterfly.

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A tiny Common Rose caterpillar

The caterpillars are variable in shape. Many have protective or warning coloration, thick covering of hairs, spines or contain toxic material for self-defense. On an adjacent plant she showed me a bigger Common Rose caterpillar.

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Caterpillars are voracious feeders and grow fast

As they grow, fresh body cover develops beneath the old replacing it (moulting). There are 5 distinct moults. Caterpillars take 10 to 14 days for attaining full maturity and then pass to a quiescent stage called pupa. And lo and behold! On yet another plant she showed me a pupa of the Common Rose butterfly!

Pupa

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The pupa of a Common Rose butterfly

The pupa is entirely different from the caterpillar being either oval or cylindrical in shape, protected by a hard shell. They are always well hidden and usually fastened to a twig or to some other substratum with the help of fine strings. All the appendages of the adults such as wings, legs, and haustellum (feeding tube) develop within the body. The pupal stage lasts 7-15 days. When the development is complete, it breaks open at the anterior end releasing the adult butterfly.

The Imago (Butterfly)

Emergence of the adult from the pupa is very quick taking little more than a few minutes. On hatching out, the butterfly will be wet in the exuvial fluid contained within the pupa. It wriggles out of the pupal shell and flutters its soft wings, which is in a folded condition. It may require an hour or two to expand its wings and to get the wings dried, to be able to take to wings. Unlike the caterpillar, the butterflies feed at the flowers on nectar or on exudates of fruits or excreta of animals or birds which are rich in protein and salt. Butterflies usually live for 2-3 weeks and rarely up to 10 months.

I told the young woman that I had noticed a group of butterflies feeding on a single bush. She told me that it’s called the “aggregate property”

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The Blue Tiger Butterflies commonly aggregate at bushes

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The poster of Mahima, the 2014 Peechi Fest

Walking through the Butterfly Garden was an invigorating and calming experience. But I felt a tinge of sadness when I realized that these breathtakingly beautiful creatures had such a short life span. To make matters worse, during this walking tour I learned that the natural habitats of many butterflies have been destroyed due to human interference thereby threatening the survival of many species.

Author:

Mary Ann Chacko is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her dissertation examines the Student Police Cadet program implemented in government schools across Kerala, India with a focus on adolescent citizenship and school-community relations. She is an Editor of Cafe Dissensus. Read more of her work on her blog, Chintavishta.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Teach for India: A ‘Movement’ to Uproot Inequality through Education” (Edited by Mary Ann Chacko & Yohann Kunders).

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