By Cynthia Robertson
Late fall in my San Carlos neighborhood is still a time for butterflies. The dozens of cloudless sulphurs that fly erratically around our yard have quite a story to tell. But since they can’t speak, I’ll tell it for them.
A swirling cloud of yellow butterflies had always surrounded our Cassia splendida tree that blossoms bright yellow flowers September through November. These butterflies are the most elusive ones I’ve ever seen, always flitting about, never staying in one place long enough for me to study up close. While my husband and I had coffee out on our porch in the mornings, we would watch the elaborate mating dance of the male and female butterflies.
Then, about two and a half months ago, my husband and I noticed several small pockets of a pink and green hue hanging on the wall and posts of our front porch. We also saw the empty shells of the pockets, their yellow fragments waving in the breeze.
As I looked closer, I could see a silk-like thread hanging from each pocket. We are going to be butterfly godparents, I told my husband.
In the meantime, half a dozen caterpillars, bright yellow with dark stripes, inched along the grass in our yard, on our sidewalk and eventually up to our porch. The caterpillars preferred making their temporary abode in the safety of our porch rather than the branches of the C. splendida. We had to be careful not to squish the bright yellow critters.
Caterpillars have twelve eyes. Their eyes are naked to our own, of course. But I could tell that they were indeed looking around their surroundings as they inched along, lifting and tilting their head. They must have thought we were giants sitting in the chairs.
One morning about a month and a half ago, my husband called for me to get my camera. I rushed out to see the miracle of a newly emerged butterfly hanging onto its chrysalis, waiting for its wings to dry. Its tongue, technically known as its proboscis, extended and curled out, getting ready for its first taste of nectar. Just ten feet away a dozen other cloudless sulphur butterflies flitted about our C. splendida. It took Breezy, as I called him, three hours for his wings to dry and harden.
Three weeks later, my husband and I were excited to discover another pupa hanging from the underside of our porch table — and a caterpillar in classic pre-pupation J-shape hanging by a thin silk-like thread. We looked at each other and grinned. Could it really be?
And sure enough, the next day, when I crouched down to look under the chair, a bright yellow chrysalis had enshrouded the caterpillar. The chrysalis was still so new that I could see the stripes of the caterpillar inside. The next day, I saw that it had turned pink and green, just like the other two hanging on our porch.
At this time, eight chrysalises populate our porch, so many that I’ve taken to name them. At least two of them could break open any day now; new cloudless sulphurs could be crawling out and unfolding their flower-wings. Or they could overwinter. Much of Breezy’s family could likely live out several life cycles within the year, especially since this has been an unseasonably warm fall and all signs that a warm winter are here.
Being so close to this miracle of life literally unfolding before us, we’re bound to have some disappointments. Just today, I checked on a pair of caterpillars that I’d rescued from the water bowl and put them on the brick wall of our porch to let them dry out. I didn’t think they would ever pupate. So I was really surprised to find both of them the next morning in their tidy little light pink pockets. When the strong, hot winds came through, I sheltered the newly pupated caterpillars with several rocks to keep them from blowing off.
But when I checked out the pair this morning, I was disheartened to find that one of them had cracked open. Thinking the other one had died, too, I picked it up, and it wriggled furiously. I gently laid it back down.
My husband and I will soon shop for native plants that attract the cloudless sulphurs. Turns out that lantana and salvia are natural nectar feeds for them, but they like almost anything with long tubular flowers. In fact, I’ve seen the Anna’s hummingbirds around here cross flight paths with the cloudless sulphurs, which have longer tongues than other butterflies.
Having these flying flowers in a yard is a good sign, not just a mark of beauty. They pollinate and keep the ecosystem healthy. They do their fair share in bringing about seed and fruit production.
Butterfly populations are on the decline because of pollution, habitat destruction and the misuse of pesticide. I’m overjoyed to know that our yard is butterfly-healthy. We’ll be planting that drought-resistant salvia soon. It’s always a time for butterflies.
—Contact Cynthia Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.