The Ottumwa Courier

September 16, 2013

Here and gone

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The butterfly expert asked the little girl what the audience seemed to think was a strange question: What would Mom say if she put a big plate of macaroni and cheese in front of the child, and the girl took off her shoes and stuck her feet into her dinner?

The little girl wasn’t quite sure. But she did admit Mom might be surprised. Yet that’s just how butterflies taste their food, explained Kathleen Zeimer of Des Moines.

That and other facts kept the attention of more than 20 visitors at Pioneer Ridge Nature Center on Saturday. Zeimer gave a presentation on butterflies, then let the center naturalist tag and release the butterflies she’d brought with her.

Butterflies come from caterpillars, which undergo a complete metamorphosis, Zeimer said. But there is a plan there: For example, the muscles once used for walking become the muscles used to flap the wings for flying.

The creatures then pollinate flowers, and look for mates.

They’ve got to hurry: Annette Whitrock, naturalist at Pioneer Ridge Nature Center, said most butterflies in Iowa live only about 15 days. Even most longer-lived types measure their lifespan is months, not years. The monarchs we see next year will be the descendants of those that head south from Iowa this winter.

Zeimer said monarch butterflies could start migrating south any time now. They appeared to be waiting for a natural trigger, like temperature or shorter daylight hours. But there are more than just the famous monarchs to enjoy, she said.

“There are about 100 different butterfly [varieties] in Iowa,” she said.

She talked about the different ways to attract butterflies, including using “butterfly gardens.” Asked why such gardens work some times and not others, her suggestion was to make sure there’s plenty of water, use pollen producing plants and, since butterflies don’t see very well, supply a larger target. That means instead of a yellow and red flower here and there, put a whole bunch of yellow flowers in one area, and a whole bunch of red in another area so they can be seen.

Another trick for attracting the colorful, winged insects drew a few laughs, but Zeimer said it works great: “Butterflies love rotting fruit. The more rotten it is, the more they love it.”

Whitrock said that’s because “rotting fruit ferments.”

Right, agreed Zeimer. Butterflies get a little bit “inebriated” on the fermenting sugar. When she supplies fermenting fruit in her protected enclosure, a butterfly will fall off the fruit, than fly in an irregular path before another butterfly falls off the fruit.

In fact, try this, she said: Slice open an old banana the long way. Put it in a pie plate level with flowers in your yard. And pour a little regular beer (butterflies don’t like light beer, she remarked) over it.

“You’ll have every butterfly in the county in your garden,” Zeimer said.

To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark