A message from Fred the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly

A message from Fred the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly thumbnail

Hi. I’m Fred, the Gulf fritillary butterfly. I’m named “Fred” because marketers say anthropomorphizing myself will personalize and endear me to you. Is it working?

Anyway, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. The first thing you should know is that I’m really, really good looking. As in beautiful. Scientists sometimes refer to creatures like me as “charismatic species.” People don’t care when an ugly animal dies or goes extinct (no matter how ecologically important it is), but when something pretty goes on the critically endangered list? Y’all call the po-lice and put up “save the pretty animal” websites. Fast.

Gulf fritillary: Here's me being stunning. I'm not sure whether I look better in flight or while foraging zinnias. Call me conceited if you want to but I know I'm beautiful.

Here’s me being stunning. I’m not sure whether I look better in flight or while foraging zinnias. Call me conceited if you want to but I know I’m beautiful.

This is a male Monarch butterfly. People often confuse me with Monarchs, but I think I'm much better looking.

This is a male Monarch butterfly. People often confuse me with Monarchs, but I think I’m much better looking and probably more charismatic too.

Not to be vain, but my life is actually pretty important, as are the lives of other Gulf fritillary butterflies and pollinators because most of those plants you see out of your window need us to make their children. That’s why they invest so much of their energy into producing flowers with pollen and nectar inside. They don’t do that so you can have pretty flowers to look at or stick in a vase, they do it to make their babies. Since they can’t move, they can’t make “sexy time” on their own. That’s our job, and why entomologists refer to us pollinators as “flying penises.” Sorry if that’s TMI, but it’s true.

In the case of all the fruit and berries you eat, my friends and I did that. Yes, without us, you wouldn’t have plant babies to eat. You’re welcome.

My parents met on an edible organic landscape called Tyrant Farms in Greenville, SC. Rumor has it that there’s a female human living there who is a little bit bossy, hence the name of the place.

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As the story goes, my dad saw my mom’s stunning pollen-coated proboscis while she was foraging Mexican sunflowers and immediately fell antennae over spiracle in love.

Gulf fritillary butterflies mating.

NSFW: My mom and dad making me on the underside of a zinnia leaf. Yep, they’re dimorphic and mom is a bit bigger than dad. (Or as he says, “I prefer my ladies larger.”)

Us pollinators aren’t too picky, but to thrive, we do need plenty of pollen (protein and fat) and nectar (carbohydrates) without pesticide residues in them. According to the Xerxes Society, quite a few of my friends are extinct, critically endangered, or experiencing severe population declines. Am I happy about that? Nope, not at all.

Thankfully, my fellow Gulf fritillary friends are doing ok, but that doesn’t mean people should continue being insecticidal maniacs just so you can impress your neighbors with your turf grass lawns or try to grow ever more corn and soybeans to feed the CAFO animals that are making y’all as sick as they are. Have you ever flown over a CAFO or drank out of a polluted waterway? Nasty. But I digress…

Back to me: my mom had one goal as soon as she knew she was going to have me, and that was to find the ideal place to lay my egg. That goal doesn’t sound too hard until you realize that – as with a lot of other butterflies around the world – there’s only one host plant that I could eat as a youngster: Passiflora incarnata, the passionfruit vine native to the southeastern United States.

This is the plant I grew up on. Nice, huh?

This is the plant I grew up on. Sweet crib, huh?

Where’d mom find a passionfruit vine? Thankfully, there were several growing only a few yards away from where mom and dad met, so it wasn’t too hard. A lot of the humans living near where I grew up don’t realize what these plants are or that they produce really delicious fruits and tea leaves. So rather than nurturing them and getting excited to find them growing in their yards, they tear the passionfruit vines out of their yards or spray them with herbicides, then drive to the grocery store to buy Guatemalan fruit. Not cool, peeps. Not cool at all.

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Gulf fritillary egg: See that weird looking thing? That's a human finger. It's pointing to my beautiful little egg on a passionfruit leaf.

See that weird looking thing? That’s a human finger. It’s pointing to my beautiful little egg on a passionfruit leaf.

About 3-5 days after mom laid my egg, out I came as a tiny caterpillar, ravenous for passionfruit leaves. I pretty much just ate leaves, pooped, and grew as fast as I could at that point in my life cycle, which lasted about 3 weeks. Don’t hate. Y’alls’ babies poop everywhere for like five years. Nasty.

Gulf fritillary caterpillar - Day 8 - Here I am about a week after hatching. I wear spikes to try to scare predators away. Nope, they're not venomous but humans who don't know me think I'm pretty scary. Boo!

Here I am about a week after hatching. I wear spikes to try to scare predators away. Nope, they’re not venomous but humans who don’t know me think I’m pretty scary. Boo!

What’s your favorite food? Lasagna? Steak? Nasty. Right now, mine is passionfruit leaves.

Gulf fritillary: Here's me about 20 days after hatching from my egg. I thought this person was going to steal my food, and I was about to have some harsh words.

Here’s me about 20 days after hatching from my egg. I thought this person was going to steal my leaf, and I was about to have some harsh words.

After about three weeks as a caterpillar, us Gulf fritillaries get cray-cray. Passionfruit leaves don’t even taste good any more. We stop even being hungry. Instead, we crawl off our vine and look for a solid structure to crawl on to, like a tree, the side of house, or railing. That’s because we’ve got to form a chrysalis to grow wings.

Once we find the right spot, we start shooting silk out of tiny glands next to our mouth to attach ourselves to whatever object we’re on. Then we hang there looking all crazy for a couple of days while we excrete the substance out of our skin that will soon form our chrysalis.

Gulf fritillary transformation: caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly.

That’s me. I found this here banana leaf to get crazy under.

Imagine being tied up inside a sleeping bag filled with soup for two weeks. That’s what it feels like inside a chrysalis. We start forming wings and getting ready to fly around looking all pretty. It takes us about 10-14 days to come out of our chrysalis.

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Now, let me tell you about my girlfriend, Mariana. She’s crazy. She went right up onto a window to form her chrysalis and the people inside the house were all like, “Wow, look at that. We should photograph you naked.” Maryana was like, “I don’t even care.”

Gulf fritillary caterpillar and chrysalis on window.

Just to recap how this works: egg>caterpillar>chrysalis>butterfly. Got it?

Once we come out of our little wet sleeping bag, it’s not all fun and games. We’ve got to stretch and dry our wings.

Mariana and I aren’t staying put in Upstate South Carolina all fall and winter. Uh-uh. Too cold.

We head south to southern Florida and might even fly over the Gulf of Mexico to Central America. They have four varieties of native passionfruit down there for us to make babies on while y’all are up here freaking out and acting crazy about 1″ snow blizzards. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Gulf fritillary butterflies on zinnia flowers.

Hey girl. Can I join you for dinner on this here zinnia?

Before we head south, we’ve first got to power up on a bunch of good, quality flower pollen and nectar. Would you mind having some pollinator-friendly flowers growing for us? Yes, that means you can’t get the ones with the little labels tucked inside that say they’ve been treated with neonicotinoids. That stuff makes our brains all crazy. Don’t. Do. It.

Why am I telling you all this? If you love butterflies and get pictures of me tattooed over your butt, the least you could do is know a little more about me and my friends. Create safe habitat for us. Don’t go all murder-crazy when you see me as a caterpillar or a chrysalis, stomping us and spraying us with stuff that makes your kids and pets sick too. Dummy. Now, I’m not endangered or extinct, but a bunch of my friends are. And we can’t keep making your food if you keep being nasty.

Want to learn more? Turn off that TV, start a garden with edible and flowering plants. (There’d better be some passionfruit in it.) Oh, and pick up a book. Here’s one I recommend, although they should have chosen a different cover model:

Here’s the cover they should have chosen. Rude.

Gulf fritillary butterfly.

You want to sell more butterfly books, Mr. Kaufman? Put me on your cover.



We hope you enjoyed this article by guest writer, Fred the Gulf Fritillary.


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