Think Like a Butterfly, Not Like a Caterpillar

Mike Weilbacher, for the Shuttle

Black swallowtail: Where caterpillars are voracious, butterflies are choosy.

Annual Butterfly Count

Thursday, July 5, 1 p.m.
Schuylkill Center, 8480 Hagys Mill Road

Help the staff of the Schuylkill Center count the butterflies in our forests and meadows in the annual effort orchestrated by the North American Butterfly Association. To register, call 215-482-7300, ext. 110, or email

It’s high summer, which brings with it erratic weather patterns, fierce storms, rising tides, raging stormwater pouring through our communities and other climate-change concerns. As someone who worries about climate change, I have stumbled upon a powerful way to save the world.

We need to think like butterflies.

Consider the butterfly — born as a humble, often ugly, caterpillar. A living weed-whacker, caterpillars plow through living plants, mercilessly devouring leaves, bent on defoliation. Tent caterpillars ravage the Schuylkill Center’s cherry trees every spring; gypsy moths consume whole landscapes. Last year, I planted a stand of dill to attract black swallowtail caterpillars. The plan worked: The dill raised about 15 caterpillars, but the plants were skeletons when the caterpillars were done. Not one feathery leaf remained.

But suddenly, the caterpillar crawls away, hangs upside down and transforms into a chrysalis — its body parts magically melting inside a shell to rearrange as a completely different body. An entirely different creature emerges: an adult butterfly.

Where the caterpillar devoured everything, the butterfly has no ability whatsoever to eat solid food. A butterfly drinks its world, using its coiled straw of a mouth to sip nectar. When the butterfly flits from flower to flower, it pollinates each in turn. Caterpillars devour, but butterflies pollinate. That’s the key: While the caterpillar takes from the world the resources it needs for survival, the butterfly gives back, helping produce the next generation of plants.

And they don’t just pollinate the zinnias in your backyard. They pollinate the native plants that sustain entire ecosystems. More importantly (to us, anyway), they enable so many trees to make fruit. Oranges, cherries, grapefruit, grapes (and therefore raisins and wine), apples, lemons, limes: All exist because of pollinating insects like butterflies.

For millennia, we humans have been caterpillars, taking from the world the stuff we need to live: food to eat, water to drink, lumber to build homes, coal and oil to power our lives. Now, living on a finite planet on limited resources, we’re running out of stuff to devour. For us to live sustainably, it’s time we grew up — metamorphosed, transformed ourselves into butterflies, sipping at resources and giving back to the world that sustains us, metaphorically pollinating it and making seeds.

Thinking like a butterfly means conserving water, switching to renewables, driving electric cars, radically recycling everything, growing our own organic food, protecting biological diversity, consuming less stuff and ceasing suburban sprawl across whole landscapes.

Protecting biological diversity means inviting your non-human neighbors into your yard — growing milkweed plants to nurture populations of monarch butterflies, installing bat boxes to support troubled bat populations, keeping your cat inside so it kills no birds, planting native plants everywhere you can, and more.

Thinking like a butterfly also means getting to know butterflies. They are remarkable, delightfully colorful creatures, extraordinarily adapted — and vanishing. We’ve got a butterfly event happening soon at the Schuylkill Center — come help us count them. And we’ll continue the conversation about thinking like a butterfly.

Weavers Way member Mike Weilbacher is executive director of the Schuylkill Center.