THIS ( FLUT­TER­ING) LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - HIL­TON SELVEY

THE or­ange tree was the cul­prit. There I was wa­ter­ing the tree when a large and beau­ti­ful but­ter­fly flut­tered past my head and laid an egg right in front of my nose. I picked the leaf and rushed in­side to show my wife.

She was also cap­ti­vated. The egg was placed in a plas­tic box and soon there were 20 or more boxes with eggs and de­vel­op­ing cater­pil­lars. We learned that the eggs we col­lected were of the or­chard swal­low­tail, Pa­pilio aegeus. We be­gan to no­tice that there were lots of but­ter­flies in our gar­den, all sizes and colours, and soon there were more boxes with dif­fer­ent cater­pil­lars.

We watched the process of shed­ding the cu­ti­cle — known as an in­star — as the cater­pil­lar grows, six in­stars in all. Be­fore pu­pat­ing, the cater­pil­lar con­structs a sling to sup­port the pupa. How this was done was not gen­er­ally known un­til my wife and I watched the process for a pe­riod of two hours. We wrote a pa­per that was ac­cepted for pub­li­ca­tion in the jour­nal of the En­to­mo­log­i­cal So­ci­ety of Queens­land.

Watch­ing a but­ter­fly emerge from its pu­pal case is one of the won­ders of the world. The case splits and the but­ter­fly crawls out. The crum­pled wings ex­pand rapidly and har­den. The but­ter­fly will crawl on to a fin­ger to be ad­mired and pho­tographed. Trans­ferred to a plant, it will ex­er­cise its wings and then fly off without a back­ward glance.

Our li­brary of books on but­ter­flies has grown steadily but no book can con­vey the ex­cite­ment of study­ing the real thing. The high­light for us has been the study of the prince of but­ter­flies, the bird­wing. The Rich­mond bird­wing, found in our area in Queens­land, is smaller than the Cairns bird­wing, but is nev­er­the­less an im­pres­sive size. Due to loss of habi­tat it has be­come an en­dan­gered species and is pro­tected. But no cater­pil­lar food, no but­ter­fly. The bird­wing vine ( Pararis­tolochia praevenosa), the only food for this but­ter­fly, was avail­able at a few nurs­eries but at a price that ruled out buy­ing one. How­ever, seeds were eas­ily ob­tained so I raised my own vines. We now have more than 100 vines grow­ing on our prop­erty and in the ad­ja­cent rain­for­est. I con­tinue to raise vines, which are given to any­one will­ing to grow them, for the more vines I dis­trib­ute, the bet­ter for the but­ter­fly. The vine is a pro­tected plant and I have to keep a record of where my vines have gone.

We now have masses of vine grow­ing along the side of our house and this sum­mer, for the first time af­ter six years of wait­ing, the but­ter­fly has be­come firmly es­tab­lished. Males and fe­males have been seen and the fe­male ob­served lay­ing eggs. The ex­cite­ment has been al­most too much for us.

I have watched and pho­tographed the riv­et­ing sight of the bird­wing cater­pil­lar eat­ing its way out of its egg, then eat­ing the re­main­der of the egg shell: its first meal. I have noted that the newly hatched cater­pil­lar is full of spikes, which change af­ter its first in­star to short, soft spines.

But the bird­wing has not di­min­ished our fas­ci­na­tion with other but­ter­flies, which we watch ev­ery day. We know why most but­ter­flies fly such a fast and er­ratic course, while the monarch beau­ti­fies our sur­round­ings with its slow and grace­ful flight. The for­mer are good tucker for birds, while the lat­ter ad­ver­tises its poi­son with its bright colour and slow flight.

We will con­tinue to watch and study but­ter­flies for as long as our sight and cere­bral fa­cil­i­ties re­main in­tact.

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