Merry Christmas Butterfly

I thought that for this month I would share with you a very special butterfly called the “Christmas Butterfly.” I have no idea why it is called this; it’s not green or red and it doesn’t sing carols or light up, but it’s beauty does make you smile the way that Christmas does! I actually got a phone call a few years back about why this is called the Christmas butterfly. I had never heard of this festive name, so I searched and searched for an explanation but came up empty.

The scientific name of this butterfly is Papilio demodocus. (You can see a great picture of one here.) The other two common names of this species are the orange dog and citrus swallowtail. This butterfly is native to Africa and is a common pest of citrus trees. We used to receive a similar species of butterfly, Papilio demoleus, from the Philippines, but the USDA has completely taken it off any permit because it is such an awful citrus pest. If that butterfly was to get out of the Butterfly Center it would most likely die, but it could also completely demolish our citrus groves here, so better to be safe than sorry!

The Christmas butterfly is a member of the Swallowtail family, Papilionidae. Caterpillars in this family are super cool because they all have this weird organ behind their head that they use for defense called the osmeterium. This organ protrudes from the back of the caterpillars head when it is threatened to ward predators off. It is forked, sticky, smelly, and reddish-orange in color. The picture below is of a Thoas swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio thoas, taken here inside the Butterfly Center when some caterpillars unexpectedly showed up on one of our plants.

The Christmas butterfly caterpillar starts off brownish black and white in coloration and it very closely resembles bird droppings. As the caterpillar gets larger, it changes to a bright green color. The chrysalis has awesome camouflage. It looks just like a small branch on a tree that a stick was broken off of.

Well, that’s about all I have this time. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday and has a Merry Christmas Butterfly!!!

Bug-crazy? Learn more:
Check out this video to Meet the HMNS Entomologists.
Have you noticed – where have all the bugs gone?
Learn how to pin a butterfly.

Mom, where do butterflies come from?

One of the most common questions we get asked is “Where do all these butterflies come from?”  So, I thought I would let you guys know!

It all starts off with a butterfly farm.  We order from 8 different farms outside of the U.S.:  El Bosque Nuevo and Spirogyra in Costa Rica, Heliconius Butterfly Works in Ecuador, Bioproductores in El Salvador, Neotropical Insects NV in Suriname, Flora Farm and Ma Corona Butterfly Culture in the Philippines, and Tropical Entomological House in Malaysia.  We also order from two farms in Florida, Butterfly Dan’s and Greathouse Butterfly Farm.  We have been using most of these farms since our opening in June, 1994. 

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The largest, toughest chrysalids are packed on the bottom.

 On Saturdays and Sundays, the farms pack up the chrysalids (pupae) and prepare to send them to us and other butterfly houses throughout the world.  

Most suppliers pack up their pupae with lots of cotton and tissue.  They start with a layer of cotton on the bottom of a box.  This layer usually holds the largest of pupae, Morpho peleides or Caligo spp.  Since these pupae are packed very close together they are wrapped in cotton or tissue.  A new layer of cotton is added next, usually with swallowtail pupae because their chrysalids are tough.  Once the layering gets to more fragile pupae, Heliconius spp., Tithorea spp.,  Myscelia cyaniristhey are more spread out. 

Once all the pupae are in the box, that box goes into another box and everything is all sealed up.  Believe it or not, butterflies are considered to be agricultural pests – so there is a lot of paper work on the suppliers’ end that they have to fill out before they are allowed to ship it out of their country.  In addition, they have to have copies of paperwork from us.  Each supplier must attach at copy of our USDA permit to the package plus a special red and white label that acts as a flag for the USDA once the box gets in the U.S.  

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Here, the chrysalids are organized by type.

All of the suppliers ship off pupae to us on Mondays.  When the box arrives in Miami, FL (Central/South American suppliers) or Hawthorne, CA (Asian suppliers) the red and white label lets workers know that the box needs to be inspected after customs clears it.  On a good week this takes no time at all, and I receive the package on Wednesday or Thursday.  I am still happy if I get it on Friday, but I get a little testy if it comes on Saturday or even the next Monday.  It is very important that I get the pupae the week they are sent because if I do not, the butterflies will start to emerge and that’s just a mess.

So, once the pupae are delivered to our loading dock I get the much awaited phone call of their arrival.  I get about 3-5 shipments a week with anywhere from 200 – 450 pupae in each. 

I keep inventory of all the pupae we receive with an awesome computer program that a colleague gave me.  While unpacking the pupae, I check off all the species we get and make note of any missing or extra butterflies. 

Then, I glue all the pupae from smallest to largest onto a large foam board, which will hang up in our hatcheries, that are on display in the entomology exhibits outside our main butterfly conservatory – so you can see the beginning of the butterfly life cycle any time you visit us. 

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Ready to hang in our exhibition.

Every species of butterfly on a board is labeled with a number.  That number can be typed into a computer screen in front of the hatcheries and information about that species will pop up.  Once all the work is done, it is a game of sit-and-wait.  It takes about 2 weeks for all the butterflies to emerge from one board.  Once this happens, I take the board down, take note of any butterflies that did not emerge, clean it off and prepare it for the next shipment. 

Next time you’re here, make sure to stop by the hatchery area and check out all the chrysalids hanging; you may even get to see a butterfly hatch! 

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These butterflies are emerging today; when their wings dry, they
will be ready to be released into the butterfly conservatory.

Speaking of butterflies hatching, have you ever wanted to release a butterfly yourself?  Your chance is coming up very soon!  On May 10th, come on down to the Cockrell Butterfly Center and Adopt A Butterfly.   Receive an adoption certificate, a commemorative gift, and your name listed on our website as one of our butterfly parents!