They come in a plethora of colors and a variety of shapes and sizes – comprising more than 20,000 species globally — and they are the only insects whose incredible life journey consists of four distinct stages. It is not widely known that butterflies are also essential to maintaining balance in the ecosystem: they are the second-largest pollinators on the planet and a food source to various predators.
Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies embark on a journey to Mexico. This 3,000-mile journey is a complicated flight that involves navigating air currents and thermals, columns of air rising due to uneven heating of the earth. Notably, the other creature that relies heavily on riding the thermals is the hawk. Like many bird species, but unlike any other butterfly, the monarch butterfly is the only one known to migrate twice a year.
The plight of the monarchs stems from deforestation. In the winter, monarchs roost in oyamel fir forests on mountain hillsides at an elevation of nearly two miles above sea level. In 2020, the number of monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico has dropped by more than half – largely because the forest they occupied has decreased by 53% in the previous season, from 15 to just seven acres.
Central and South American countries boast thousands of butterfly species – in fact, Peru has between 3,700 and 4,200 species — depending on the source — or about 20 percent of the world‘s butterflies, more than any other country in the world.
Blue Morpho butterfly, Mexico
One example of nature‘s wonders is the blue morpho butterfly, one of the largest in the world. Measuring some six inches in length, and with a wing span of almost 8 inches, it can be found in the forests of Costa Rica, Brazil and Venezuela. But be careful not to disturb it, as it is quick to close its wings to camouflage, exposing an underside of brown, gray, black and red that blends with the forest. These insects – the males, usually – exhibit bright blue wings, with dotted black lace on the outer margins -- to protect their territory and attract females.
By the way, they are not really blue – it‘s an optical illusion. While appearing blue, the color is actually a reflection of light from the microscopic scales on the morphos‘ wings, a phenomenon known as iridescence.
As many other species, the blue morpho butterfly is at risk of being affected by deforestation, and conservation of this magnificent species is a goal for many butterfly habitats.
Situated in El Valle, Panama, the Butterfly Haven contains a flight house of 1,500 square feet that is home to some 250 butterflies. Visitors can learn about their life-cycle, see the stages of development, and admire butterflies (including the giant blue morpho).
The Butterfly Haven, however, is primarily an effort to protect butterflies against two main threats: the loss of land, and the use of agricultural chemicals. This educational center is committed to providing information to farmers and gardeners on productive and sustainable farming practices that use little or no chemicals.
Glasswing Butterfly (Greta oto) in a summer garden