Creepy Crawlies 2: The Lovely

In my last post about multi-legged critters, I covered some of the scarier bugs I’ve encountered on my travels. This time around, I almost hesitate to use the term “creepy crawlies” because, to me, most butterflies, moths, and caterpillars are beautiful and not at all frightening. However, I realize that’s not the case for everyone.

A couple of years ago, I posted a photo of myself with a large cecropia moth clinging to my fingers. I was so thrilled to see this amazing insect up close, but someone commented “I’m terrified and you’re showing it off!!!” I don’t think she would have been too happy about another moth-related incident that happened during that trip.

We were staying in a nature retreat on a jungle-covered mountainside in Ecuador. On our first evening, we returned to our cabin after dark (the sun sets early that close to the equator). The kind manager had stopped by our cabin and helpfully switched on the light over our door so that we could find our cabin easily. Unfortunately, the light had attracted a cloud of moths and the door was covered with them. We had the good sense not to open the door immediately (it opened inward) or they would have all been inside the room. We turned the light off and tried to shoo away as many as possible, but we still had a dozen or so that flew in. Mark caught some and put them outside, but he couldn’t get them all. I spent that night dreaming of moths and woke up many times when a pair of fuzzy wings blundered into my face. (Apologies to the moth-phobic; they have probably run screaming out of the room by now.)

Moths, I suppose, are associated with nighttime, darkness, and mystery, whereas butterflies are more often classed with sunshine, flowers, light, and beauty. I’ve seen a field full of butterflies with transparent wings, such that you could see right through to the body and opposing wings.

I’ve chased the stunning blue morphos across fields and forests in Central and South America, trying to capture its beauty in a photograph. This large butterfly, although not rare and certainly conspicuous, is maddening due to its habit of floating around but never alighting for more than a nanosecond. I would follow it forever, waiting for it to rest with those iridescent lapis lazuli wings outstretched. It would land; I would tiptoe up, focus, and—gone. I finally snapped one in Mexico, but, of course, my mediocre photo doesn’t come close to the reality.

Blue morphos butterfly

Yes, sunshine, flowers, light. Oh, and did I mention mud? It’s a curious fact that these glowing creatures that flit along on the breeze are often found on patches of mud. I would guess that they are seeking moisture? Or maybe just cooling down? But Google turns up this interesting tidbit: “Like other animals, butterflies need salt and minerals in their diets. By sucking up puddle water, butterflies are able to accumulate salt and minerals in their hind gut while passing the water out their anus. This process is called ‘puddling’.” Who knew?

I’ve observed this behaviour in many locations, but most strikingly along the Napo River in Ecuador, where I spotted a gathering of butterflies whose wings were outlined in white, making them appear as if they were cut out of paper.

Before any of these critters were lovelies, they all started out as caterpillars, some of quite bizarre appearance. One can easily understand the concept of camouflage, trying to blend in with surroundings in order to avoid being eaten. But the marching line of neon-green-saddled caterpillars that I spotted on a forest path in Panama seemed to be doing anything but avoiding notice. The dark spot surrounded in white in the centre of the “saddle” pretty well shouted “target,” while the spiky protuberances covering the rest of the body warned “hands off!” Luckily, we took its advice and didn’t touch, as I found out later these oddballs are quite venomous, delivering a sting similar to a bee’s.

Outside a lodge on the eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, I walked past a ball of white fluff on the path, assuming it was a seed pod from a tree. Then I did a double-take, realizing I hadn’t seen any other similar puffy balls anywhere else in the vicinity (trees, when they drop seeds or leaves or whatever, tend to do it in multiples, not singles). At closer look, I discovered a fuzzy white caterpillar with long black “twigs” sprouting from its back. Was it attempting to disguise itself as something inedible, a fungus perhaps? Impossible to know.

Fantastical or fancy, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars are always fascinating and I look forward to photographing more on future travels.

Do butterflies, moths, and caterpillars inspire Ooooo! or Ewwww! from you? Let me know in a comment.

The surprising underside of a blue morphos
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One Comment

  1. I remember a butterfly garden in Costa Rica. Beautiful. Amazing. Friendly–as in sit on your shoulder and chat to you! 🙂

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