An explosion in the population of white butterflies in parts of Grand Cayman is providing a stunning display of nature.

On Manse Road in Bodden Town and in parts of Prospect, thousands of small white wings filled the air last weekend. They could be seen hovering over various types of plants and fluttering away in bursts at the first sign of any disturbance.

Cayman Islands native plant and butterfly expert Ann Stafford said sometimes during the year, the islands get a lot of these Great Southern White butterflies, which hail primarily from Florida, the southern U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. One of some 50 species of butterflies found in the Cayman Islands, the species is currently very prevalent here, according to Ms. Stafford.

“They’re not going to eat anybody’s garden plants, unless you have a particular shrubbery called ‘Bloody Head – Raw Bones’ in your garden. The butterflies adore it,” Ms. Stafford said. It is one plant she grows specifically in her garden to entice butterflies, she said. To identify the butterflies and their plant source, Ms. Stafford made a special trip to Manse Road Monday evening.

“The reason you have so much butterflies in this area is because there is lots of larval food plants: Bloody Head – Raw Bones,” she said. “Southern White butterflies also love to feed on the nectar of several common plants that grow wild and in gardens on Grand Cayman.”

According to Ms. Stafford, the Great Southern White butterfly, Ascia monuste, has several larval food plants in Cayman, such as headache bush, jasmine and nectar plants, and this could be one of the causes for the growing population of the butterflies locally. A lot of the butterflies are also migratory, she said.

The butterflies have a specific larval food plant, where the adult butterfly lays her eggs and on which the caterpillars feed when they hatch. The Great Southern White butterfly sometimes has large population outbreaks that spread throughout its range – the southern United States, through Central America and the Caribbean, into South America as far south as Patagonia, according to Ms. Stafford.

The ‘Bloody Head – Raw Bones’ plant plays host to the butterflies. – Photo: Ann Stafford
A young boy stands in the midst of a swarm of Great Southern White butterflies in Bodden Town. – Photo: Jewel Levy

These butterflies only have a life cycle of 14 days, Ms. Stafford said. Males are whitest. Females are slightly off-white and lay their eggs in clusters. The tips of the antennae are baby blue and the butterflies usually have a marking on the tips of their wings.

Department of Agriculture assistant director Brian Crichlow said the migration happens at different levels and in different areas every year.

He recalled times when he was driving near Spotts and not being able to see the road through the mass of butterflies.

“It usually depends on the population of insects … how many butterflies and how many caterpillars survived, how good the feed source was for the caterpillars,” he said.

In January 2005, Grand Cayman also saw a huge influx of the white butterflies. At the time, Ms. Stafford said the increase in population after Hurricane Ivan was as a result of the reduction in the number of birds, one of their natural predators.

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