A Staple for Butterfly Exhibits: The Rice Paper

One of the most distinctive and easily recognizable insects in the Cockrell Butterfly Center is the rice paper butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as the paper kite and the large tree nymph. All these common names allude to the rice paper’s characteristic slow, graceful, and sometimes floppy flight. These butterflies make great, showy additions to butterfly exhibits and are therefore a widespread staple, found in most live butterfly displays. Rice papers are native to the forested regions of Southeast Asia.

idea leuconoe dorsal

Rice papers make great additions to butterfly exhibits.

Rice papers are related to the well-known monarch, both belonging to the subfamily Danainae and known to be distasteful to most avian predators by sequestering chemicals in their bodies from their larval food plants. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed to become unpalatable. Similarly, rice paper caterpillars feed on the milkweed relative, Parsonsia, to become distasteful. The monarch’s striking black-on-white and yellow coloring serves as a warning to potential predators. Rice paper larvae have a similar flashy coloration: black and white stripes with red spots.

Contrasting colors on the caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

Contrasting colors on rice paper caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

The rice paper life cycle begins with the female butterflies laying eggs on their host plant, Parsonsia. The eggs are small and cream-colored, usually laid on the underside of leaves. The eggs take about five days to hatch into tiny black-and-white striped caterpillars. The caterpillars first feed on their eggshell before directing their appetite to the Parsonsia leaves. The newly hatched larvae are too small to chew all the way through the thick leaves, so they create a circular trench as they eat the leaf epidermis. As they are eating they will extend their bodies and regurgitate yellowish foam distal to the chewed area. They continue this behavior until they have completely surrounded themselves in a ring of foam. This foam has been found to act as an effective ant repellent; ants will not cross the barrier. As the caterpillar grows, it “molts” five times in stages called instars. First through third instar caterpillars will exhibit this foaming behavior. Fourth and fifth instar caterpillars do not use regurgitated foam to repel ants.

Stages of caterpillar development.

Stages of caterpillar development. The top-right image shows a caterpillar inside its ring of ant-repelling foam.

It takes the caterpillars about two weeks of munching on leaves to reach pupation size. At this point, the caterpillars will find a safe spot to hang and form a “J” shape. They will then molt to reveal chrysalids that take about two days to completely dry. The chrysalids are a beautiful, shiny, metallic gold with black spots and swirls. Approximately 10 days later, the chrysalids pop open to reveal a brand new butterfly. The wet butterfly allows its crumpled wings to unfurl. A couple of hours later, the butterfly uses its newly dry wings to take flight and awe and educate museum visitors. 

HMNS greenhouse teaches how to plant a butterfly oasis in your back yard

They float on the wind, decorate your back yard in the spring and summer, and inspire warm emotions with their delicate wings. They seem carefree, at home in any meadow, but butterflies have more specific needs than we might imagine.


Monarch butterflies don’t live just anywhere; they need habitat, too!

As urban sprawl continues to grow, reducing green space and native plant growth, natural butterfly habitats are shrinking. Butterflies require specific plants on which to feed and lay eggs. Caterpillars are finicky eaters.

Soni Holladay, Houston Museum of Natural Science Horticulturist and Greenhouse Manager, will lead a class Saturday, April 18, beginning at 9 a.m., to share information with the public about how best to plant a garden that will attract native butterfly species, creating a backyard butterfly nursery.

Holladay’s main concern is planting tropical milkweed to attract the famous migratory monarch butterfly. Though tropical milkweed is easier to grow, scientists have discovered it may play a part in declining monarch populations.

A parasitic species of protozoan called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply Oe, grows on the body of their monarch hosts. When infected monarchs land on milkweed to lay eggs, Oe spores slough off and are left behind. Caterpillars, which eat the milkweed, ingest the spores and become infected.

When the protozoans become too numerous, they can overwhelm and weaken individual butterflies, causing them to suffer. Several heavily infected monarch can take a toll on the local population. Oe can kill the insects in the larval or pupal stage, as well, before they can reach full adulthood.


Tropical milkweed survives the Houston winters, making them a perennial plant and a possible danger to monarch butterfly populations.

Native milkweeds die off every year and grow back in the spring Oe-free as part of their cycle, but the evergreen tropical milkweed remains standing year-round, providing a vector for the protozoan to spread.

“We’re advising everyone who plants tropical milkweed to cut it back once a year or more,” Holladay said. Much like their native cousins, the tropical variety will return later, a healthy habitat for butterflies.

Holladay’s class will offer more details about this and other butterfly-raising issues. After the class, guests will tour HMNS greenhouses and our on-site butterfly-rearing operation. Tickets $23, all ages. Native milkweed plants and other seeds will be available to get you started.

Tired from a long journey, faded monarchs seek homes for the next generation

My friends Bob and Bev photographed this very faded, tattered female monarch flying around the milkweed plants in their backyard near the Museum last week. The butterfly is a migrant from Mexico, looking for places to lay her eggs as a last hurrah before she dies.

Detail of a healthy monarch’s wing

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

She must be very tired!

Last fall, she flew from somewhere in eastern North America all the way to central Mexico, where she spent the winter mostly in hibernation. A few weeks ago, she and the other overwintering butterflies, sensing the lengthening days and warming temperatures, left the shelter of the sanctuary’s trees and headed back north to complete the journey. They are just now getting to Texas.

This old girl’s eggs will hatch and — if they have enough milkweed — the caterpillars will mature and pupate. Then, when they emerge as adult butterflies, at least some of them will continue the journey north. By July, monarchs will have reached the northern limit of their range. These summer generations don’t live as long, and don’t travel nearly as far.

P1070759If you see worn and faded monarchs at this time of year, they are almost certainly migrants returning from their winter in Mexico. You can help them to fulfill their “purpose” by providing nectar for their last few meals, and more importantly, milkweed for the new generation. These returning migrants will only last a few days now that they’ve gotten here — they are on their last “wings” after nearly nine months of life, and at least 2,000 miles of travel.


A healthy Monarch Butterfly

Cockrell Butterfly Center Spring Plant Sale

Spring is almost here!

Of course it has felt like it for months now, but with all of the rain we have had lately, we should have a good show of blooms. And with the blooms come the butterflies. Most of the time, butterflies get most of the attention, but have you ever thought about creating a moth garden. Why moths? There are approximately 11,230 identified species of Lepidoptera in North America. Almost 90% of those are moths. Now, while most moths can appear small and drab, even serve as pests for some plants, there are some very interesting and beautiful species of moths. For example, Hawk or Sphinx moths (sometimes even called Hummingbird moths because of their large tapered bodies and hovering flight) are large and sometimes showy with interesting, cryptic patterns adorning their wings.

 Their caterpillars look similar to the Spicebush Swallowtail with their large eye spots and chunky bodies.

They feed on a variety of plants, but what I see the most are Tersa Sphinx moths (Xylophanes tersa) because they eat the leaves of Pentas (a very popular nectar plant for butterfly gardens). So think of those Pentas as two plants in one, nectar and host! The adults are seen mostly on white flowers that bloom (or stay open) at dusk. Moon Vine, Cestrum, Jasmine, Rangoon Creeper and Evening Primrose are all recommended as excellent moth attractors!

Most other showy moths like Polyphemus, Luna, Cecropia, IO, and Imperial moths are in the Giant Silkworm family (Saturniida) and do not feed as adults because they do not have mouthparts. Their host plants are trees, mostly Oak and Hickory related species, so it is kind of hard to find their caterpillars. If you do, you are lucky! Some of the most beautiful and impressive caterpillars are from Saturniid moths. The adults are attracted to bright lights at night, so this is a possible way of encountering them.

Polyphemus Moth

The spring plant sale for the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a one stop shop for any butterfly (and moth) plants you need. We will have the standard, reliable plants that every butterfly garden should have, like Porterweed, Mexican Milkweed, Brazilian Pipevine, several Passion vines, Mexican Bauhinia, Pentas and more. This year we also have some different natives to share with you. We will have Salvia azurea (Pitcher Sage), Cirsium texanum (Texas Thistle), Simsia calva (Bush Sunflower), Castilleja (Indian Paintbrush) and Eupatorium greggii (Gregg’s Mistflower). Some non-native, but excellent butterfly plants that we will also have are: Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), Celosia spicata (Cramer’s Amazon Celosia), several types of Gomphrena (Bachelor’s Buttons) and many many more!

Cramer's Amazon Celosia

The spring sale is Saturday, March 31st, 2012 from 9am to noon. Located on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. We accept cash, check and credit. Come early and bring a wagon!