Garden Stories

Beyond the Beauty of Butterflies

This season, the Chicago Botanic Garden honors pollinators through Bees & Beyond, a program that reveals the vital role pollinators play in our everyday lives and in a healthy, diverse planet. The “beyond” in the title refers to bats, birds, butterflies, moths, wind, and generally any force or creature that keeps our world producing.

We see this celebration in action every day at Butterflies & Blooms, where visitors can get an up-close look at my personal favorite fluttering pollinator, butterflies. While it is easy to be swept away by the magnificent beauty of lepidopteran, it is important to recognize their greater role in this turning and churning machine we call earth.


Postman butterfly

Besides their good looks, butterflies contribute to the functioning of our ecosystem through their roles as pollinators. Pollination refers to the process of transferring pollen from one flower to the reproductive system of another plant, allowing for the fertilized plant to produce seeds, which then turn into offspring.

Adult butterflies feed on nectar from plants, and in doing so they carry pollen from one flower to the next. Unlike bees, which obtain pollen from flowers in a relatively short range in order to efficiently return to the hive, butterflies are less bound by familial ties. Therefore, they spend their days fluttering from flower to flower across long distances. Butterflies from the Heliconius genus, such as the zebra longwing and postman, feed on plant pollen in addition to nectar. This not only allows them to have more nutrients, but it also makes them more likely to spread pollen efficiently. Genetic variation gives plants a greater advantage in survival when faced with changes in conditions, such as the outbreak of a disease or a change in environment. Both the zebra longwing and postman can be found at Butterflies & Blooms.

Additionally, butterflies are an excellent indicator for the well-being of an ecosystem. Butterflies are highly sensitive to changes in their environment, and as they are so large, it is easily noticed if they are absent from an area

Zebra Longwing

Zebra Longwing butterfly

In all, the value of butterflies is as inherent as that of a beaver building a dam and a boulder by the side of a stream. Their preservation is pertinent in maintaining biodiversity, in which lies the wealth of this big blue dot we call home.