Who has not strolled across a meadow in a temperate climate watching the white, yellow and reddish brown butterflies as they fly in an uncontrolled zigzag flight from flower to flower, or observed a rare metallic-blue Purple Emperor gliding elegantly along a forest path?
Unfortunately, butterflies have become rare in central Europe; perhaps by spraying of insecticides, perhaps by the loss of suitable habitats. Certainly, butterfly hunters are not the threat as many species of temperate latitudes are protected.
After beetles, butterflies are the second largest order of insects. They inhabit nearly all climates on earth from tropical rain forests to dry deserts, and from the arctic tundra to high mountain meadows, with an altitude of 6000 meters. Their sizes vary from a few millimetres to a wing span of 27 cm and a wing area exceeding that of a pigeon.
Whether large or small, some are well-known for their yearly migrations, during which they fly several hundred kilometres, cross the Alps, or even oceans, with the help of the wind.
The classification of butterflies is quite complicated and disputed even among specialists. A distinction is often made between the true butterflies and the moths, whereby the true butterflies count for only about 10% of all butterfly species.
The life of the butterfly is quite short. While the males of some micro-moth species die already after a few hours, some of the large Saturnidae live approximately 5 days. The butterflies of this family do not have organs for food intake and digesting and live on the fat reserves, they put on during the larva stage. Most species, however, live for several weeks and some of those that hibernate even a few months.
They nourish predominantly on nectar that they suck with a 2-5 cm long proboscis, which consists of a double pipe, from flowers with a long calyx, for which they secure the pollination in return.
Lepidoptera, the scientific name of the order of butterflies, is derived from Greek and refers to the minute scales which cover the wings like the tiles of a roof. They are grown as extremely thin chitin lamellas, visible only under the microscope. Stored pigments, air inclusions, the microstructure of the scales and different adjustment of the individual scales refract the light, creating their characteristic colours.
As many other insects, the butterflies pass through various stages during their life cycle and have a totally different appearances during each stage. Their so-called complete metamorphosis consists of egg, caterpillar, pupa (chrysalis), and adult butterfly.
After mating, the females fix the usually hard-shelled eggs to leaves or branches of the food plant, either individually or in heaps. The number of eggs varies from several dozens to many thousands, depending on the species, and can even differ within one species, depending on the season.
Most caterpillars appear after a few days. In temperate regions, some go through a period of suspended development before this, and first eat the remainder of their own eggshell. Only after that is consumed do they begin to eat at the host plant, for which they are equipped with strong mouth tools, consisting of an upper lip, mandibles, and a lower lip. While some caterpillars feed on very different plants, most are monophag and feed only on one special food plant or plant family.
The structure of the tubular caterpillar is very simple. It consists of the head with a series of six tiny eyelets on each side, 3 thoracic segments with one true pair of legs each and the eleven abdominal segments with up to 6 pairs of prolegs, which are only fleshy, stubby little structures with own musculature. The skin of the caterpillars grows from chitin, with thin membranous folds between the segments, which permit a certain stretch of the body. This skin does not grow with the animal, and is renewed after 5 to 8 days.
Most caterpillars shed their skin four times. When the larva has attained full growth, it moults for the last time and enters pupal stage.
While the chrysalis of most true butterflies is anchored to a branch, a trunk, or the underside of a leaf by a silken pad spun by the caterpillar, the pupae of moths are carefully hidden. Some caterpillars dig themselves into loose soil, crawl under a stone, or spin roomy cocoons with threads from a gland, located at the spinnerets behind the mandibles of the caterpillar. These cocoons are attached to tree branches, or positioned in hollows of the bark of the tree where the caterpillar developed. The best known cocoons are those of the domesticated silk moth, where the single continuous silk thread can be unravelled after boiling. It can reach a length of 1000 meter.
The pupal stage takes a few days, weeks, or even years – depending on the species. During this time, the change from the caterpillar to the butterfly takes place invisible from the outside. Some organs of the butterfly were already in place in the caterpillar, others develop only during pupation. When the pupa stadium ends, the skin bursts at the head and the butterfly lifts itself out, looking for a firm support for its legs.
By pumping air and blood into the vein network of the wings these become unfolded in approximately 20 to 30 minutes. However, it takes about 2 hours before they are hardened and the butterfly can fly.
Lanta Butterfly Garden is located on Lanta island in the hills above Lanta Long Beach across from the elephant rides. A visit to the butterfly garden can be easily combined with a trip to Lanta Old Town on the east coast of the island and also fits perfectly into a planned trip around the island. Lush tropical foliage surrounds the visitor in the free-flight aviary. Many species of butterflies are bred in the garden, ensuring that no animals are removed from the wild. Visitors can see the complete life cycle from egg to larva to pupa and finally to the butterfly. At the end of the season, a large part of the breeding is returned to nature. The gift shop offers an interesting choice on articles related to butterflies. It is open from November to April daily from 09:00 to 17:00.