We had been birding the Belizean tropical jungle for days, when a new phenomenon greeted us one dawn morning: clouds of butterflies congregating around the ground.
Up until then, we had been seeing that same species, the Dark Kite-swallowtail butterfly, flying around all week. One or two, here and there, on flowers–like usual.
But this day they were in clumps of 40 and 50, always on the earth.
There were hundreds, and as we headed down the road to our destination–to watch toucans feeding–we watched them flutter all around, quite magical.
They were all on the road and the dirt, and as our truck trundled by I was nervous for their safety. They could easily be run over.
I asked the guide, “Why are all the butterflies around this morning? And in such big groups?” It was 6 a.m., no one was especially gregarious yet.
He explained that due to the rain we’d had the night before, the ground was moist, and the butterflies were drinking the water.
Hours after we’d watched the toucans, we came upon the local village’s small airport hangar, and found a drainpipe surrounded by the swallowtail butterflies. It’s hard to make out, but that dark smudge in the bottom right of this photo, right of the drainpipe, is all butterflies…at least a hundred. They were having a drinking party.
Every butterfly has a proboscis and a pair of antennae. The proboscis is a mouth part, used for sucking. It is a long tube (technically, two tubes) with muscles; part of the digestive system. We don’t always see a butterfly’s proboscis because it can be coiled-up, out of sight.
Their antennae, generally club-shaped, have a different function: as receptors, and for balancing.
That day, each individual was using its proboscis to suck water from the ground.
The butterfly uses the proboscis not only for sucking water, but also for sucking nectar and sometimes, for extracting minerals. If you’ve ever witnessed a butterfly landing on a person’s skin, the insect is seeking the mineral salt in human sweat.
It was windy and the gusts were blowing their long-tailed wings, but each individual steadily continued to drink the rainwater, undeterred.
Everyday in the rainforest it was very hot and humid and we were always hot and thirsty…but who would’ve guessed that the butterflies were thirsty?
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.