Wild Vault

What Butterflies Taught Me about Life on a Hot, Difficult Day

Hungry caterpillars can seem like a menace in a well-tended garden, but they and their winged avatars have much to teach us about the natural world and life itself

Text, photos and videos by: Neha Sinha

Amongst all my blossoming plants, a thickly-leaved, flower-less plant stood crawling with caterpillars. The plant was a patharchatta – Bryophyllum — which at that moment looked like it was dying. The caterpillars were exuberant though — some were on top of leaves, taking chunks out, while others had entered the actual leaves, ensconced on all sides by glorious food. Lines of black pellets — caterpillar poop — gleamed oddly like eggs from the plant.

Anybody who has grown plants will not relish watching them being eaten alive. My hands were clenched as I steadied myself. “A caterpillar has got to eat,” I said to myself. “No transformation comes easy.” Still, I turned away from the sight.

A week later, I was in Nagaland. The forests of this mountainous, verdant state are a little different from many other evergreen forests. The sights are absolutely wonderful — tall trees, their bottoms fringed with ferns, sharp-edged bamboos, and resilient, eye-wateringly green shrubs. But the sounds of the forest are strange. That’s because they hardly exist. Many forests here don’t have birdsong, because hunting is still practiced in Nagaland. You are overall likely to see more birds in other areas. I was at my field site in Doyang, which gets migratory Amur falcons visiting each year.

(Left) A red pierrot caterpillar mines inside the leaf of a Bryophyllum plant. Half inside, half outside the hungry caterpillar was having the time of its life and an-all-you-can-eat buffet. (Right) A red pierrot lays eggs on the leaf of the same plant. Butterflies are able to position their bodies such that eggs are laid precisely on the spot the female chooses.
Cover Photo: As the first rays of the sun warm the white blossoms of Chungrum, a local garden plant, a great orange tip sips nectar from the flowers. The sunlight is like a spotlight on the orange, white and brown insect which boasts a bright orange patch on its open wings — a sharp contrast to its comparatively duller closed wings.

As always, I looked out for birds other than falcons. My bird list from the area is painfully sparse — greater coucals, shrikes, sunbirds, warblers, white-eyes. Nothing that would really suggest that I was in a biodiversity hotspot. This year too, I watched a lone sunbird flitting around on a stinking bean tree (Parkia speciosa). In the thick undercover, a coucal hopped and flopped noisily on the ground. A shikra dived off a branch like it was a wave of water. But while walking my transect — a fixed path on which I surveyed for wildlife — there was little else in terms of birdlife.

The heat of a forest can be oppressive in a way that is unforgettable. It is like entering a wet, hot carpet, and getting suspended in its warm threads. You begin feeling like a puppet pulled by strings. You can only do the bare minimum — walk, drink water, wipe sweat, walk again. It’s too exhausting to be excited; weariness is easier.
We were looking for birds as the heat slapped our Covid-worn faces, but a little below eyeline, something else was waiting.

Butterflies. There were so many at small distances from each other, that it would have been impossible to miss them. Here is when I remembered a valuable lesson in wildlife — you will often find amazing sightings when you’re feeling most uncomfortable. The butterflies were gathered over small puddles of water on the ground — taking nutrients from wet mud. By the time we reached them, we were sheened with sweat. Soon, the butterflies came and sat on us, sucking up salts from our skin. I can’t compare myself to the relief wildlife feels when finding a water puddle on a long hot track, but at that moment, I felt my sweat was coming in use for once.

The birdwing, one of India's largest butterflies, drinks nectar in Pangti village, Nagaland. Large enough to be mistaken for a small bird, this butterfly has a dreamy, dipping flight.

Of course, it wouldn’t last. A potter wasp joined the butterflies. While my friends attracted swift butterflies, I had two huge potter wasps buzzing in my ears, sitting on my face and shoulders.

I walked faster, wanting to get rid of the wasps. It would soon be too hot for most birds to be active, but the butterflies were just getting started. The road was horribly broken, punctuated with puddles and cracks. Common Nawab butterflies — dark brown-grey with a sea-green mark on them, finished with a perfect dot at the end — gathered at the puddles. A little distance away, large orange cruiser butterflies slowly opened and closed their wings. They were calm and poised, not as flighty as the blues butterflies which perched close by. An enchanting red-base jezebel – spattered with spotty yellow and black like a leopard, with an additional deep red spot near its body – came and left in a matter of seconds.

This brought me to my second lesson. Concrete surfaces, just like concrete plans may look attractive but are not the answer. It’s a good idea not to be too neat sometimes. The butterflies were here because they needed the broken patches on the road . They were also there because the patches and the muddy strips on the side of the road gave them areas where they could take in nutrients from wet mud and bask in the sun. In the unbroken forest, the broken ribbon of the road offered the elixir that was wet mud. Had the road been tidily concretised from end to end, there wouldn’t be butterflies. Of course, roads need not be broken to bring butterflies. But muddy patches are a source of great joy in butterfly areas.

Nagaland butterflies: Clockwise from top: The grass yellow butterfly, often spotted on stalks of green grass. The commander butterfly, which looks like it’s wearing a neat jacket with a row of buttons, trimmed with lace. Cruiser butterflies are large butterflies that prefer forested areas. Here, they are seen taking nutrients from wet mud along with a common nawab butterfly. The common nawab has a lovely sea-green flourish at the centre of its brown wings. Often found taking nutrients from wet muddy patches on roads, butterflies often become roadkill.

We counted 44 species of butterflies in a two-hour walk. The sky was an eye-watering blue, and the colours on the butterflies were just as striking. There was the iridescent, coolly-emerald Paris peacock. Sunny rass yellows. Black-and-red mormons. Blue-grey blues butterflies. The yellow, black, red and white Red-base jezebel. Rust-coloured punchinellos sitting near a stream of water at the crook of the road. But my favourite butterfly was the the Black Prince, a butterfly so deeply and simply black that it seemed like it was turned inside out — a black lace-edged palette waiting to be coloured.

Mormons sipped water from the road, and expelled excess water in jet streams from their backsides. Some flapped around us like a dream, others stayed intently focused on the ground. At one spot, there were many more butterflies. They were not hovering over water, but over a silverline butterfly, crushed by a vehicle.

Here was my third lesson: Butterflies do unexpected things. They are known to hover over giddily fragrant flowers, but are similarly attracted to the rotten, decaying, or dead. In drinking up warmth or nutrients from roads, they will often be crushed. Those that remain will take nutrients from the dead comrade — a micro-cycle that often transpires without us knowing it.

Common mormon butterflies sip muddy water at a stream, and then eject the moisture they don’t need. It’s not just flowers – butterflies need to take nutrients from mud too, which they get through their muddy water drinks.

Back in Delhi, we drew up our butterfly lists. I wrote down how many dead butterflies I had seen, putrefying, gone in the moment when they were in the middle of a long drink. How cruel to be killed by something while feeling safe; how cruel that the car doesn’t even know it.

I went to visit my patharchatta plant. The plant was eaten in different places from last time — presumably by new caterpillars. It was still a gruesome sight, but much easier to see now. Because I knew now that butterflies like a side of gruesome along with their platters of fresh flowers; that discomfort is a wonderful thing, and too much neatness is not welcome.

I spoke to my friend that evening, asking what he thought of butterflies, remembering Nagaland’s hushed forests with butterflies dancing in the gaps between trees. Though the birds were few, the butterflies meant the heat and wetness, and plants and flowers were interconnnected and thriving.

“Butterflies are great,” he said. “It’s like, through them, the plants are clapping.”

Neha Sinha
Neha Sinha

is a conservation biologist working with the Bombay Natural History Society. She loves art and colour, and is lucky to find them both in nature. She tweets at @nehaa_sinha.

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