The first rule of Flight Club is that butterflies are beautiful little jerks.
As symbols, butterflies are a touch angelic. Their colorful wings sectioned by black veins into brightly-hued cells evoke stained glass, while their connection to springtime renewal and vividly transformational life cycles connect them with lofty notions like spiritual rebirth, hope and transformation. Of course, butterflies are part of the natural world, and have developed strategies to get through the day that we might consider less than savory. For instance, while few animals are as symbolically loaded as butterflies, some of these stunning insects like getting figuratively loaded too.
That’s right, butterflies, those sweetly floating dabs of color, enjoy getting a little a tipsy. Not all butterflies indulge. “The (fermented) fruit feeders that we commonly have are the blue morphos, gray crackers, Mexican bluewings, red admirals, and others,” says Forest Urban, Manager of Invertebrate Living Collections. Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) hibernate through the winter, so they make sure to get as much sugar as possible from things like over-ripe (i.e., fermenting) fruit. If they let you get a little closer than most butterflies, you might blame it on the alcohol, more specifically the ethanol, which the sugar in fruit partly converts to. “You can look forward to seeing them bellied up to the fruit bar and maybe getting a little tipsy as they enjoy all the fermented fruit cocktails they can drink,” Urban says. Butterflies aren’t just getting a little buzzed. These symbols of peace can also be surprisingly violent.
BEAUTIFUL BUT BELLIGERENT
A recent study showed that monarch caterpillars, those plump and stripy voracious devourers of milkweeds, show signs of aggression when food gets scarce. These little guys actually headbutt each other with surprising, if kind of adorable, ferocity. In many butterfly species, males have been observed engaging in combat to defend territory for mating, which is interesting in part because butterflies don’t have anything to fight with, really. Instead, some scientists think the winner is declared by how much effort is expended, though the jury is still out on these assaults. This violence and bad behavior shouldn’t be too surprising. Butterflies are under the same evolutionary stresses and environmental threats as the rest of the animal kingdom.
The Butterfly Pavilion, open from March 20 to September 5, is more than a chance to see these beautiful little jerks flitter in close quarters. The Central American species featured in the Pavilion recently help support conservation of their natural habitats. “They are coming from a rainforest conservation organization in Costa Rica that uses the sale and exportation of butterfly pupae to preserve hectares of rainforest," Urban says. The organization, El Bosque Nuevo, is up to 427 hectares of rainforest conserved. So come enjoy some bad butterfly behavior while supporting a very good cause.