- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

There's more to Hershey, Pa., than its legendary chocolate factory and theme park — it's also a haven for a variety of multicolored Lepidoptera.
Within a 23-acre botanical paradise called the Hershey Gardens, a 4-year-old butterfly house displays up to 300 of the delicate creatures — 25 species on any given day.
The coordinator of the house, Richard Williams, a retired teacher of 35 years, has no formal degree in entomology or biological sciences, just an interest in acquiring and sharing knowledge, and a love for one of nature's most beautiful creations.
Mr. Williams discusses the "the magic behind" the butterfly:
How many types of butterflies are there? Peterson's "A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies" reports there are 522 in the Eastern United States alone. Worldwide, there are more than 10,000 species, with new ones being discovered all the time.
What gives a butterfly its color, and why are the markings so varied? The coloring, created by transparent colored scales on the wings made of a substance called chitin, has a number of functions. The millions of scales are what separate butterflies and moths from other winged insects.
The scales give the wings coloration, which can serve as camouflage, helping a butterfly to disappear against a tree trunk or among flowers. As a protective measure, the "eye spots," or large circles, on some wings are used to scare a predator, as they may momentarily give the impression the butterfly is a much larger animal.
Different colors, such as the monarchs' bright orange, can warn that the butterfly is distasteful to predators and possibly poisonous. The monarch gets its poison by feeding on the milkweed plant as a caterpillar.
The colors and patterns also are used to attract mates and distinguish the males from the females, and some scales emit aromas, or pheromones, that attract other butterflies.
How and what do butterflies eat? They eat only fluids through a tubelike tongue, a proboscis. Most feed on the nectar of flowers, but they also can feed on nourishment in wet soil and sand, which is why you may see a group of butterflies gathered around a muddy rain puddle.
They feed on sap, rotting fruit and the droppings of other animals. Each of these things gives the butterflies what they need. For example, they get amino acids from carrion and sodium from soil and sand, so it's not an all-high-energy sugar diet from nectar and fruit.
How long does a butterfly live? Most butterflies, the summer breeders, last a couple of weeks. When you get to the fall of the year, some butterflies, such as the monarchs that emerge in September, may live six to eight months.
It is the mating process that exhausts and kills them, so the monarchs, which emerge in September, are not sexually mature until springtime.
Monarchs migrate to warmer climates, while other butterflies, such as mourning cloaks — named because they are dark purple with a gold band that resembles the mourning cloaks worn in the 17th century and a butterfly called the question mark, spend winter right in our back yards. They may go into trees, dense evergreens or woodpiles, and as it cools off and their metabolisms slow down, they go dormant.
Do we have as many butterflies now as in the past? Unfortunately, no. Butterfly habitats are always being destroyed. When visitors ask "Where did the butterflies go?" the answer is in looking at the land. The land has become shopping malls and housing developments, which has destroyed the butterfly habitat.
Then you have the use of pesticides. In our area, we have problems with the gypsy-moth caterpillars. They are devastating the oak forests, but as the state sprays to kill the gypsy moth, butterflies are killed as well. The state also is spraying for the West Nile virus, killing other species.
What is a good way to attract butterflies to visit a garden? By planting a combination of nectar and host plants that the female will lay her eggs on. For instance, black swallowtails like parsley, fennel, dill and carrots, while the monarch lays its eggs on milkweeds, butterfly weed and swamp weed.
Butterfly bushes are great nectar plants, along with black-eyed Susans, purple cone flowers and other annuals that provide a flower all season. A lot of nurseries have sections filled with butterfly-attracting annuals and perennials.
How can you tell the difference between a male and female butterfly? The color, in some cases, does tell us. The general rule is the male is brighter. There also is a tendency for the female to be larger than the male, except for the monarch. When butterflies mate, you can see the size and coloration difference.
Do butterflies make good pets? No, they do not. They make good learning and science projects. You can get the caterpillars from your yard or from a reputable butterfly company and watch them as they grow from chrysalis to butterfly, releasing the adult into the wild.
Will a butterfly die if it is touched? It is a good practice never to touch a butterfly. A very gentle touch will not harm them, while a less than gentle touch can do some damage. Removing the scales from the wing will not keep it from flying or kill it. If the scales are removed, however, the camouflage, warning markings and the scent also are removed. So the scales are there for a reason.
How did butterflies get their name? One English theory says someone saw a yellow brimstone and said, "It looks like butter flying." Another theory says it is a play on the words "flutter by."
What do you think about releasing butterflies at weddings and other events? It is not a good idea. At Hershey Gardens, we get the animals in chrysalis form, when they are not subject to the stress of transporting. Transporting the butterfly as a live adult is more stressful, but even more important is the possibility of spreading disease or mixing the genetic code.
For example, ordering monarchs from California and releasing them in the Eastern states could be disastrous for the butterfly because they are genetically programmed to migrate to the California coast. If the Western butterflies mate with the Eastern butterfly, it could cause some real migration problems.
What is your favorite butterfly story? While working at the butterfly house, I was standing close to the host plant for the gulf fritillary. One landed on my nose and laid an egg.
The Hershey Gardens is located about two hours from the District. Check the Web site (www.hersheygardens.org) for more information.


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