Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Butterflies puddling © Hans Schabel

Sulphur butterflies in the process of puddling
© Hans Schabel

April 2013

Unsavory puddlers

Or maybe barnyard beauties?

Story and photos by Hans Schabel

While every year may be memorable in one way or another, some are more so than others. For me, 2012 will stand out as the "Year of Butterflies."

The prematurely warm March coaxed some of the habitual hibernators – red admirals, mourning cloaks, question marks and commas – early out of their winter quarters. Towards the end of April, things started to heat up with the same species appearing in unusually large numbers, complemented by a first wave of skippers. By mid-May numerous tiger swallowtails joined, as did checker spots and blues, while migrants such as painted ladies and monarchs, carried by strong southwesterlies, arrived in Wisconsin. By the end of May, black swallowtails, tortoise shells, fritillaries, red-spotted purples, white admirals and hybrids of the latter two made a strong showing. Satyrs,sulphurs and whites brought up the rear in mid-June.

Being retired and living in the country, I decided to take advantage of the butterfly bonanza, by stalking and hunting them with my camera. No license necessary, no bag limits, trophies galore, in short, a hunter’s dream. Like other game, butterflies are, however, wary and elusive. Having no sense of a camera hunter’s friendly disposition, they trust their instincts for survival with fast getaways.

Their small size only adds to the thrill of the chase.To gain the edge, butterfly hunters, like other hunters, need to pattern their prey. For example, butterflies can be more successfully approached when they are still torpid from the cool of night and bask with their wings spread facing the early morning sun. On hot summer days, once they have warmed, it becomes progressively more difficult to catch up with them, unless they are in the mood for love, drink or food. Then is the time to target their bars and restaurants.

Some of these, like showy, nectarbearing flowers, are definitely upscale and in line with a butterfly’s clean, sunny and colorful image, while others are more on the seedy side. They include tree sap or overripe fruit bubbling with fermenting yeast, as well as sugary honeydew, the intestinal product of certain sap-sucking insects which coats foliage in sticky layers. Most unsavory, however, are mineral licks assciated with carrion, urine and dung, where at times masses of butterflies "puddle." It is indeed the barnyard, where connecting with certain species of butterflies may be very productive.

On closer examination it becomes evident that only male butterflies – most of them newly hatched, perfect specimens – are puddlers. They may spend hours on a favorite lick. During this time, they imbibe prodigious amounts of liquid, possibly more than hundreds of times their body mass. While retaining the minerals, they simultaneously void excess water like a leaking faucet which is sometimes propelled in jets for a foot or more. The primary function of puddling is to acquire sodium and other minerals, which increases fertility. Female butterflies replenish their sodium from sperm obtained during mating.

For the nature lover, butterflies are energetic, flirtatious creatures of the sun, seemingly happy to have escaped the cold grip of winter or the ungainly and stationary world of herbivorous caterpillars and rigid chrysalis. If only for a few short weeks of spring and summer glory, they give us cheer, even the beauties with unsavory barnyard habits.

Hans Schabel Ph.D. writes from Custer, Wis. Photos were taken in Portage County.