Throughout the ages, butterflies have been symbolically important to many cultures, representing everything from the souls of the dead, to resurrection, to steadfast love. Their true stories of survival in the natural world are no less meaningful, but often go largely unnoticed. So I was grateful and excited when the cast of Steppenwolf Theater’s current production of “The Wheel” wanted to ask about the real butterflies behind the imagery and references in this play.
Here is a sampling of questions I was more than happy to answer:
What is the source of butterflies’ color?
- Mostly light refracting off the scales of their wings.
How long does the entire life cycle take to complete?
- Frequently as long as a year, though some adult stages may only last for two weeks.
How do butterflies make it through the winter in Illinois?
- Depending on the species, they may overwinter as adults, larvae, eggs, or chrysalises. A well-known exception is the Monarch, which flies away to warmer climates.
Do butterfly species have “personalities”?
- They have field behaviors that are unique and help with their identification, such as flight patterns (flap, flap, glide for the monarch), or territorial dog fighting amongst male skippers.
We observed a sample of the stunning tropical species on display in our Haven (such as the Swallowtail Ulysses butterfly or Blue Mountain Butterfly, Papilio ulysses from Australia, one of my favorites) and talked about some of the unique plant/habitat/insect interactions that occur around the world. What became clear as we discussed the physical progression from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult is just how perilous a journey it is – not unlike the journey that occurs in the play itself. Much of the cast was unaware of just how much trouble certain butterfly species are in around the country.
Blue Emperor Swallowtail
We discussed the tiny but elegant Swamp Metalmark Calephelis muticum that used to fly (and as of this summer’s work, may again establish) in Illinois. It is startling in its small size– a stark size contrast to the giant Ulysses but still an incredible beauty. The story of its loss is one of human imposed challenges.
Butterflies have endured the ever-revolving cycles of life and abundance for thousands of years, but are now facing new, manmade challenges. How butterflies and other species might respond to these changes was a topic of discussion and inspiration for the cast members.
It was a great afternoon, and I was left feeling grateful that although we have come far in our understanding of the processes behind it all, our love of the magic of nature still inspires artists and scientists alike. Watching the drama of nature play out is never boring, with plot twists and surprises to keep you at the edge of your seat. And the best thing is, we all have a role to play.