Behold the butterfly, the flying flower

by Jan Spann

It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like butterflies. Too dainty to incite fear, they don’t sting, and they are just so lovely.

One Vilonia resident found her passion for butterflies while teaching science at Vilonia Middle School. Like many other Arkansas kids, Betty Daves spent a lot of her youth outdoors, and she loved bugs.

She received her master’s degree in reading education and middle school certification in science. And it was during her college years at the University of Central Arkansas that Betty met her future husband when she worked at Walmart. He was from Conway and on active duty at the Little Rock Air Force Base. After a tour of duty at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana and 11 years of active duty, they were ready to return to Central Arkansas and settle on land purchased from her family. It was 1986, and Tom continued in the Air National Guard while Betty continued her teaching career. The family includes their two grown children, Katie, a surgeon in Cincinnati; and Jason in San Diego, who puts his engineering degree in computer systems to work at Southern California Gas & Electric.

“Everything we do is connected to science because it is the natural world,” Daves said. “Science teaches us how to connect to nature, how to develop critical thinking skills as we take theories or assumptions and prove them right or wrong.”

Her favorite part of science is environmental, and she encouraged her students to be messy and noisy long before it became the norm to teach kids collaborative skills in a hands-on approach of problem solving. With the assistance of her students and money from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Betty began construction of a nature garden at the new Vilonia Middle School. That garden is now maintained by students with the help of Master Gardener Mary Wells, a retired Vilonia principal.

From childhood on, Betty was interested in lizards, frogs and bugs, but when she began to study butterflies, she wanted to learn more. She studied what plants are used in the four stages of a butterfly’s life: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and adult. Fully grown caterpillars attach themselves to a twig, leaf or other suitable structure before shedding their outside layer of skin to reveal a hard skin underneath known as a chrysalis.

Betty notes that the butterfly’s life cycle has a life lesson for us. Even though an adult butterfly’s life may be as short as a few weeks, its genetic mapping influences them to do amazing things. For example, the monarch butterfly mom goes where she has never been in the migration to Mexico, flying 3,000 miles with no instructions. And in the migration, there is no one leader, but Team Butterfly equips all to be leaders as they fly en masse. Leaders may come from the humblest beginnings to lead when needed, such as the caterpillar who transforms to a butterfly that has never flown before (and doesn’t complete the  journey but paves way for the next generation). Monarchs journey in the spring from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico in the fall, a distance of about 4,000 miles, laying eggs along the way that emerge and continue the journey.

According to popular belief, the word butterfly is derived from the expression “butter-coloured fly.” This term may have been applied to the Brimstone, one of Britain’s most well known butterflies and often the first species to be seen when they awake from hibernation in the spring. 

The Diana Fritillary was designated as the state butterfly in 2007, pairing it with its state insect, the honeybee. 

A butterfly is a mainly day-flying insect of the order Lepidoptera, which includes butterflies and moths. Butterflies range in size from a tiny 1/8 inch to almost 12 inches.

If you are interested in attracting butterflies to your garden, Betty reminds us to offer plants for all stages of butterflies and pick a sunny spot. Start by learning about the 130 species of butterflies that complete their full life cycle in Central Arkansas, including skippers, swallowtails, metalmarks, dianas, monarchs and queens. Some species have very specific plant needs while others flit widely. Some of the most popular food sources for a range of butterflies include the milkweed family, such as butterfly weed or Asclepias, both the native orange and the tropical varieties. Members of the parsley famil
y, like Queen Anne’s Lace, parsley, fennel and dill, as well as perennial passionvine, are other favorites. You can learn more at the website for North American Butterfly Association (

“Gardeners have to allow caterpillars to chew up the leaves on the host plants in order to reap the beauty of butterflies at the end of this cycle,” Daves said. “It’s also important to have a shallow water source, and woody plants like spice bush, hackberry and apple and cherry trees provide protection from wind and predators. But even a container garden (a pot with several plants) with the right plants will attract butterflies. And you won’t see these flying flowers until it’s warmer than 85 degrees. That’s why you’ll see more of them out on a sunny midday.”

Caterpillars have a limited diet, so the butterfly mom has carefully selected the perfect plant to lay her eggs. This eating machine actually outgrows its body five times before covering itself with a protective shell for the next stage of the butterfly life cycle. The diana fritallary feeds on violet leaves (yes, those common wild violets do have a purpose). Dianas are unusual because they lay their eggs around the base of the plant instead of directly on the host plant.

Butterflies have taste receptors on their feet, and they’ll land on the nectar plants ready to eat. Nectar plants include natives like coreopsis, buddleia or butterfly bush, penta, honeysuckle, verbena, lantana, Asclepias, cosmos, zinnias and many more. Two books that Betty recommends are “Arkansas Butterflies and Moths” by Lori A. Spencer and “The Life Cycles of Butterflies” by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards.

Betty has been a Faulkner County Master Gardener since 2008, and currently serves as the organization’s president. She’s most comfortable in her MG projects where she’s once again teaching youngsters. Whether it’s demonstrating terrarium building at the state Flower and Garden Show, enrichment days at schools or helping with the Faulkner County Youth Garden, Betty is a willing and able participant. She was instrumental in the Legacy Garden’s butterfly area and is currently working on developing the Composting Demonstration area at the Natural Resources Center on Amity Road.

“When we teach our kids to love a small part of nature, they find their connectedness to the natural world. That’s the most important lesson and treasure we can give them.”

Teachers like Betty may retire from the school schedule, but the special ones like her will continue to find life lessons to be shared.

These photos of the monarch are from Conway photographer Gail Miller and were taken at the Legacy Gardens. Miller’s wildlife gallery can be found at


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.