Passion vines and butterflies, a delightful combination, 10-09-15

Agraulis vanillae, takes a little break on a zinnia flower.Heather Hacking—Enterprise-Record

My yard has been blessed with butterflies all summer.

There’s something special about these insects, as evidenced by their popularity in greeting cards, jewelry and tattoos.

Is it because they are so delicate? As if the mere wind could crumple their wings? Or perhaps because of the way they move — dancing softly, hesitant to land. Maybe because they are fleeting, a creature that flutters by but will likely not linger.

Early in the season I spotted one small, orange butterfly.

It’s been a dry summer and not much has bloomed in my yard.

Soon there were two of the insects, which is always more fun. I like to imagine they are in love or in some other insect way enjoying the wave of air in tandem.

As the summer months continued, more and more butterflies flitted by. They came in pairs and sets of three. Recently I counted a row of six. A group of butterflies, by the way, is called a kaleidoscope.

One Saturday afternoon photographer Dan Reidel and I had an assignment, but I needed to stop by my house.

As I retrieved something inside, he spotted the 10-foot-high sunflowers and went hunting for a photograph. The butterflies danced by his camera lens.

“I think I found the source,” he said a few minutes later.

A few tendrils of a passion vine had grown over to my side of the fence. On a few green strands we spotted at least 10 caterpillars.

This was mesmerizing. Orange critters with black, lash-like protrusions, some were already in their tan-colored cocoons. One had a milky-gray streak down its side, which I guessed was the start of its metamorphosis.

More time has passed, and the caterpillars have devoured the passion flower vine. When I peek through the slats of the neighbor’s fence, I see that most of the leaves are gone. Dozens and dozens of caterpillars hang from the nibbled vines.

The sad plant reminds me of the childhood book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”


My new friend Don Miller teaches in the department of biology at Chico State University and was nice enough to share what he knows about the visitors to my yard.

I emailed him some photographs.

He had recently been to S&S Produce and noticed a passion vine stripped almost bare. A crazy collection of butterflies could be spotted nearby.

Don has also talked to Diane at KZFR radio, who has the same plant with a multitude of butterflies. A co-worker at my office has had the same experience with passion vine.


Passion flower, Passaflora, is not a native plant. For that reason, it’s fairly remarkable that the butterflies and the plant have been able to find each other, Don said with awe.

The butterfly is the Agraulis vanillae, known to flit about the extreme southern parts of the United States, and into Mexico.

The insect expert said this particular butterfly is “married to” the passion vine, and is known to seek out just this plant.

A chemical compound in the plant is poisonous, but this particular butterfly is immune. When the caterpillar eats the poison, it becomes poisonous as well.

Other butterflies are known to habitate just one plant, including thepipevine swallowtail butterfly.

So why so many Agraulis vanillae butterflies this year? Don theorized that a mild winter allowed more to survive. That’s the same explanation for the summer infestation of grasshoppers north of town, in the area near Wookey Road.

As for “my” butterflies, Don said the party will continue as long as there is life in the passion vine and no hard frost.

I couldn’t help myself. I dropped the hose over the fence and watered my neighbor’s passion vine.

You can watch a cool video of this insect at

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