Floridians can appreciate the special beauty of flowers - particularly orchids - and the insects that feed and pollinate them.
Easter is a great time for the crucifix or rainbow orchid, a type of Epidendrum.
Orchids are unusual among flowers in that the male and female parts are fused together and they generally have co-evolved with certain insects that specifically pollinate them. This South American species of rainbow orchid has a lip that resembles a cross and the fact that it blooms near Easter has resulted in the common name.
The crucifix orchid, a South American species of rainbow orchid, has a lip that resembles a cross and the fact that it blooms near Easter resulted in the common name.
Another exotic flower in bloom is the Mexican flame vine, a relative of ragwort, with a spectacular flower that is extremely attractive to butterflies. Butterflies obtain nectar from this beautiful if invasive vine, including the mangrove skipper and the Gulf fritillary.
The caterpillar of the mangrove skipper feeds on and requires red mangroves, a common tree in and around Gasparilla Island.
In contrast, Gulf fritillary caterpillars feed on the corky stem passion vine, also common hereabouts. Since passion vines are toxic, the red caterpillars and the orange adults are also toxic and advertise this by their bright colors to potential bird predators.
These fritillaries apparently benefit from their mimicry of the milkweed-feeding monarch and queen butterflies.
It is intriguing that humans find so much enjoyment in flowers despite the fact their dazzling colors and bizarre shapes were designed only to attract pollinators.
Another common butterfly this time of year is the zebra, which feeds as a caterpillar on the passion vine. This results in toxicity of the larvae and adults, which fly slowly with no worries about bird predators because of their chemical protection.
Prickly pear cactus or Opuntia are common in sandy island habitats such as Gasparilla Island and produce spectacular large yellow flowers this time of year.
Butterflies are not the only insects whose beauty reminds us of "flying flowers." Dragonflies are also quite bright and attract our attention. One of my favorites is the roseate skimmer; the male is hot pink and the female a dull brown.
Bright male colors are generally an advertisement to the females regarding a good choice of a mate, and a warning to other males to stay out of this macho male's territory.
Spring is an especially wonderful time of year to enjoy the diversity and beauty of nature.
William Dunson, Ph.d., professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, splits time between Southwest Florida and his farm in Galax, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.