Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Flying Flowers

The golden-yellow petals of the Black-eyed Susan glimmer in the morning sunlight. A gentle breeze carries the potpourri of scents from the brightly colored flowers growing tall in the garden, and fills the air with summer freshness. From a distance, the garden appears peaceful, but upon closer inspection, it is awash in a flurry of activity.

A male Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly vigilantly patrols his territory, keeping a watchful eye out for a prospective mate. His yellow wings, embellished with black stripes and spots of orange and blue, flash as he erratically darts above the flowers.

Atop an orange Zinia, a Monarch butterfly struggles to maintain its balance. Its orange and black wings pulse as it fights the morning wind. The butterfly is searching for nectar, the sweet secretion of flowers, and the fuel that will power this tiny insect on its annual migration to Mexico.

Sometimes called “flying flowers,” butterflies are a welcomed and anticipated part of summer. Their vibrant colors and graceful acrobatics delight admirers of all ages. Butterflies are reminders of childhood. Their carefree flight and aimless wandering, typify the unbridled enthusiasm of youth. The quintessential image of a child running through a field, waving a net through the air, desperately trying to capture one of these magnificent winged creatures, is a memory many people share.

Butterflies and moths are part of the Lepidoptera order, which means “scale-winged” and refers to the four wings on the back of these insects. As with all insects, they have six legs, a three segment body, and two antennae. Lepidopterans progress through the generalized life cycle of egg to larva to pupa to adult.

As butterflies age, they do not grow bigger. When the insect emerges from its chrysalis, it is fully grown and will remain that size. These fragile creatures, which only weigh as much as two rose petals, are related to crabs and lobsters, because of their exterior skeleton.

At Fonicello’s Garden Center in Guilford , John Fonicello and his helpful staff will go out of their way to ensure that you select the right plants to attract butterflies to your garden. John recommends Butterfly Bush, Butterfly Weed, Summer Phlox, Black-eyed Susan, and English Lavender as reliable butterfly attractors. Butterflies can be highly selective, and as John points to the section where the Butterfly Bushes sit, he comments “It’s amazing. Some days there will be 25-30 butterflies just hanging around that one area, and on the other benches there won’t be any.”

Most New England butterflies spend their entire lives in the local region. They survive the winter as eggs, larvae or pupae. The traveling Monarch is an exception, and chooses to migrate several thousand miles each fall in search of warmer climate.

Even though butterflies and moths are closely related, they are not the same. Several characteristics can help differentiate the two species. Most butterflies are active during the daytime, while moths prefer to fly at night. Butterflies typically rest with their wings closed, and vertically above their body, while moths drape their wings over their body like a tent. The filamentary antenna of a butterfly ends with a clubbed tip, but the antenna of a moth is feather-like or wiry.

Butterflies are pollinators of wild plants and flowers, and are excellent indicators of the health of their ecosystem. Minor ecological variances can wreak havoc on butterfly populations. By carefully monitoring butterflies, scientists can identify environmental changes at a very early stage and take corrective action.