A couple of months ago I came across some very beautifully illustrated books about Maria Sybilla Merian , a naturalist and scientific illustrator born in the 17th century, who was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly.
Her artistic skills and careful observations were extraordinary, as was her determination to travel as far as to Surinam to study and record the tropical insects there.
Having fallen instantly in love with her paintings, I simply couldn’t resist working my way through some of them myself, only changing colour patterns here and there.
Usually I start with a light pencil drawing, after which I paint with water colors, going from lighter shades to the darker ones.
Because I didn’t want to accidentally paint over or smear any parts whilst working on another stage of the metamorphosis, I started with the upper left corner of my painting, a view on the butterfly with raised wings.
After which followed the pupa, or chrysalis, the transition stage of a butterfly, which of course actually happens before.
It may look like nothing is going on but big changes are happening inside the chrysalis. Special cells that were present in the larva are now growing rapidly. They will become the legs, wings, eyes and other parts of the adult butterfly. Many of the original larva cells will provide energy for these growing adult cells.
Depending in the species this stage can last from a few weeks, a month or even longer.
The stage before the insect, in this case a butterfly, turns into a chrysalis, is the feeding stage. The larva, or caterpillar has only one job to do – and that’s to eat and eat and eat! I’m sure many of you remember that beautiful children’s book “The Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle, it was my absolute favorite when I was a child.
As the caterpillar grows it splits its skin and sheds it about 4 or 5 times.
Caterpillars can grow 100 times their size during this stage. For example, a monarch butterfly egg is the size of a pinhead and the caterpillar that hatches from this tiny egg isn’t much bigger. But it will grow up to 2 inches long in several weeks.
After having painted the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly with raised wings, I added a painting of what the butterfly would look like when seen from above, as those views can sometimes differ quite substantially.
This adult stage is what most people think of when they think of butterflies.
Butterflies look very different from the caterpillar form: while the caterpillar has a few tiny eyes, stubby legs and very short antennae, the adult butterflies have long legs, long antennae, compound eyes, and large and colorful wings with which they can fly. The one thing they can’t do however is grow.
While the caterpillar’s job was to eat, the adult’s job is to mate and lay eggs. Some species of adult butterflies get energy by feeding on nectar from flowers but many species don’t feed at all.
Flying comes in very handy when the adult female butterfly looks out for the right plant to lay its eggs on as most caterpillars can’t travel far.
Most adult butterflies live only one or two weeks, but there are some species that hibernate during the winter and may live for several months.
And here it is: my latest water color painting!
It took me several weeks to finish, not much unlike the metamorphosis of a butterfly. 😉
Hope you enjoyed learning about butterflies as much as I did, and next time you see one, why not pause for a moment and remember what a miracle each and every one of those flying jewels is?