Home & Garden

A woman's interest in butterflies took wing

Betty Hall uses a variety of clear plastic containers and bottles or vases to raise butterfly eggs and caterpillars. When the caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, she sets them free.
Betty Hall uses a variety of clear plastic containers and bottles or vases to raise butterfly eggs and caterpillars. When the caterpillars metamorphose into butterflies, she sets them free.

The picture window and patio behind Betty Hall's south Lexington home are lined with clear plastic boxes where caterpillars — protected from becoming a quick protein snack for hungry birds — are intent on munching their favorite leaves.

They're preparing to complete a metamorphosis that will produce magnificent, intricately patterned, color-spattered wings that will give them the freedom to fly away.

Many gardeners have planted nectar-bearing flowers including butterfly bush, zinnia, aster and purple coneflower to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, but Hall has taken an additional step.

About five years ago, she put host plants in her yard. They are the plants certain butterflies and moths need to complete their life cycles from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis and finally to butterfly.

To feed these picky yet voracious eaters, she grows native plants including milkweed for monarchs, pipevine for pipevine swallowtails and spicebush for spicebush swallowtails. She has the herbs parsley, dill and fennel for black swallowtails.

Hall has friends scouting for eggs and caterpillars of Kentucky's state butterfly, the viceroy, on willow leaves, and for zebra swallowtails on pawpaw trees.

She remembers exactly when the idea of raising butterflies occurred to her.

"It was Easter Sunday in April of 2006, when I saw a monarch butterfly fluttering around some milkweed which was only four to six inches tall in early spring," she says. "It laid eggs which hatched in about a week, but many of the little caterpillars that emerged quickly disappeared. I wanted some ... to reach maturity."

To prevent them from becoming meals for birds, spiders and parasitic wasps, Hall placed some caterpillars on milkweed cuttings, indoors and under cover. They grew, and each transformed into a suspended chrysalis and emerged as a monarch butterfly. It took about five weeks. Hall was hooked.

A photographer, Hall captured views of these insects in their various forms, including delicately patterned wings and sometimes oddly bristled or comically camouflaged caterpillars. The big false-eye spots on a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar might scare off birds, but people think they are adorable. And the jade-green, gold-threaded monarch chrysalis has the delicacy of a finely crafted jewel case.

"As adults, we appreciate the mystery of the process," Hall says.

With kids, however, it's all about discovery.

"Many (children) think caterpillars are yucky, but having the opportunity to help raise butterflies opens their eyes to a new perspective when the butterflies fly free," she said.

And looking at a garden from an insect's viewpoint, there's a realization that keeping certain native plants in the environment can be for crucial for survival.

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