Butterflies Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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A small tortoiseshell butterfly rests on a plant.
Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne

The butterfly is perhaps one of the planet Earth's most beautiful creatures. An insect of such rare and delicate grace and colourful beyond imagination in some cases, it is no surprise that it has captured the heart of the poet since people were able to wax lyrical. Poets aren't the only ones to have been enamoured of the simple creature and, over time, a completely different species of human has evolved just to study the magnificent butterfly: the lepidopterist. Named after the scientific classification of butterflies (and moths), Lepidoptera, these unique people study, collect - and can be seen darting about fields with large nets and pith helmets in attempts to capture - the rarest butterflies. However, with some 20,000 varieties from 24 groups, including the superfamilies Hesperoidea and Papilionoidea, it's not a job to be taken lightly.


Why did the butterfly flutter by? Because he saw the dragonfly drink the flagon dry!
- Children's verse

Why is the butterfly so-called? The English term most likely comes from the Anglo-Saxon word butterfloege, dating from a time when the commonest species of butterfly was the butter-coloured Yellow Brimstone. In Russia, butterflies are known as babochka or 'little soul' and the ancient Greeks also referred to them as the 'soul' or psyche. In France, a butterfly is a papillon and in Italy farfalla, while in Romania the fluturi herald the coming of warmer weather. In Germany, a Schmetterling flutters through warm meadows and in Denmark 'summer-birds' or sommerfugl mark the beginning of the season. In China, the Cantonese for butterfly is woo deep, while in Hindi it is titli and in Arabic farasha. The native Australians of the Northern Territory (Djingli) know them as marlimarlirni. Whatever the name, it somehow manages to capture their magical quality.

What Makes A Butterfly?

The butterfly is a flying flower, the flower a tethered butterfly.
- Ecouchard LeBrun

The butterfly, like any other creature, is made up of important bits and pieces. Humans have eyes, noses, ears, heads, limbs, organs and other workings. Butterflies have these things too, it's just that they're different in style and layout to the human varieties.


Butterflies are, like other insects, invertebrates: instead of a skeletal system, all their soft bits are encased in a hard outer shell, or exo-skeleton. A butterfly's body is further divided into three main parts, head, thorax and abdomen.

  • Head - Much like any other animal head, this bit has the eyes, the mouth and proboscis (tongue), and the nose and ears (antennae). A butterfly's eyes are of the compound sort, containing up to 6,000 individual lenses. Their eyes are also not very sensitive to red and yellow - instead, they see in ultraviolet waves. Their noses are incredibly powerful too, able to decipher the scent of a single variety of flower blossom from amazing distances.
  • Thorax - The chest of the butterfly is where all the muscle-tissue that drives the wings is to be found. The muscles pull the top of the thorax down, thus making the wings flip up. Then the muscles pull the thorax in, pushing the wings back down again, so providing power for flight.
  • Abdomen - Fancy name for the stomach, but it contains all the digestive and reproductive systems of the butterfly.

Dangling from the body are three pairs of legs, with the tarsi, or feet, at the end. Butterfly feet are unique in that they are like a second tongue, with taste buds on them. When a butterfly lands on a flower, to save energy rolling out its proboscis to check the sweetness of the nectar, it lets its feet do the tasting.


Sticking out from the sides of its body are the butterfly's most important features. Butterfly wings are quite amazing natural designs. Made up of the forewings and the hindwings, a butterfly's wings are, like those of any other insect, supported by a framework of veins filled with blood, air and nerve fibres. It is the wings' covering, however, that helps define a species of butterfly and give them their amazing individual look. Minute scales, that are in fact flattened hairs, are connected to the wings by a short stalk and an overlapping effect completely coats the wing surfaces. The scales are so small that they appear like dust to the human eye and rub off easily if touched. In fact, if a butterfly loses too many scales from its wings, its ability to fly is severely hampered, although some do naturally shed them. A myriad of colours and patterns, in some species the scales (called androconia) also produce a scent to attract potential mates. The wings are also the best way of knowing if the insect you see flapping about is a butterfly, or its cousin, the moth. Butterflies hold their wings together above their backs when they rest, while moths fold theirs over their backs or let them lie flat across their bodies. It is difficult to tell the difference sometimes, because while many moths are nocturnal and are grey or brown in colour, some have brilliant patterns or designs in striking colours, just like many butterflies.

How Does A Butterfly Fly?

Butterflies are self-propelled flowers.
- Robert A Heinlein

The butterfly flapping through the air is a heart-warming sight, but not many people know that butterflies don't actually 'flap' their wings to fly. They use much the same method of flight as birds. The wings, driven by the muscles in the thorax, move through the air in a figure-of-eight pattern, pushing air backwards from the body and thus providing forward motion. Some butterflies glide on air currents, while others have even managed to notch up speeds as fast as 40 kilometres per hour. However, butterflies can only fly if their body temperature reaches 25-30°C (77-86°F). If the insect is too cold, the muscles powering flight do not work and it is for this reason that butterflies are daytime creatures, often seen basking in the sun atop flowers or rocks.


Everyone is like a butterfly, they start out ugly and awkward and then morph into beautiful graceful butterflies that everyone loves.
- Drew Barrymore

The reproductive cycle of the butterfly is complex, but captured beautifully in the children's book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. From egg through to adult via the wondrous action of metamorphosis, the butterfly has an intense and incredible life-cycle.


Butterflies begin life as tiny eggs. The pregnant female butterfly will lay as many as 1,000 eggs from her ovipositor (egg-laying duct) onto either the leaves or stems of her favourite plants. The plant will provide shelter, warmth and food once the eggs have hatched. The eggs will usually hatch a few days after being laid, then the tiny caterpillars will immediately start eating. Butterfly eggs come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes: some are balls while others look like small twigs or lozenges. They consist mostly of a hard outer layer called the chorion, lined with a thin coating of wax which prevents the egg from drying out.


Once the egg hatches, the caterpillar, or larva, is the next stage of the butterfly's life-cycle. Multi-legged eating machines, caterpillars spend practically all of their time in search of food. They can eat their own body weight in food several times each day and will sometimes perform cannibalistic actions in order to grow. Resembling fat worms with legs and with hard strong jaws to munch through leaves and fruit, caterpillars mature through a series of stages, shedding their skin until they are large enough to pupate (become a pupa).


When a caterpillar reaches a certain size it will then find somewhere to begin its transformation into an adult butterfly. In order to be protected during the process, the caterpillar will find a safe place, such as the underside of a leaf, mulch, or even a hole in the ground. They will then construct a cocoon around themselves to start the process of metamorphosis, which can take days but, in the case of some species, over a year. The chrysalis, or the pupa inside the cocoon, will slowly alter shape from the original caterpillar into the adult butterfly, complete with wings.


After a butterfly emerges from its pupal stage, it cannot fly for some time, because its wings have not yet unfolded. A newly-emerged butterfly needs to spend some time 'inflating' its wings with blood and letting them dry, during which time it is extremely vulnerable to predators. However, if it passes through this process safely, then with little difficulty it will soon make its maiden flight and begin the hunt for a suitable mate to begin the process all over again. A male butterfly will mate several times in its lifetime, but the female will usually only lay eggs once, before then releasing a special pheromone that deters further suitors. Scent plays a major role in attracting mates and if a male finds a female that has not mated, it will perform elaborate 'dances' and flights of courtship. If the pair are compatible, they will couple - often flying together in flagrante delicto.

Do Butterflies Eat Butter?

'Just living is not enough,' said the butterfly, 'one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.'
- Hans Christian Anderson

Butterflies live primarily on nectar from flowers. This is due mostly to the fact that they don't have jaws and teeth to chew, so a piece of well-done steak is never on the menu. Butterflies use their proboscis like a straw to suck up nectar. Butterflies are attracted to flowers of all shapes, sizes and colours, but many species are especially keen on one in particular - the aptly named Butterfly Bush, or Summer Lilac. Other flowers that are liked by butterflies are Lantana, Zinnias, Sage, Milkweeds and Sunflowers. Butterflies have also been known to derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung and even dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt. But, no. Not butter.

If you don't have a garden with flowers, but would like a chance to see some butterflies in the warmer months of the year, why not try making a butterfly feeder? All you need are:

  • A plastic cup
  • Some string
  • A plastic bag (preferably yellow or red in colour)
  • Craft glue
  • Scissors
  • Cotton wool ball
  • Sugared water
To make the feeder, prick two small holes into the opposite sides of the plastic cup at the rim (the top bit where you drink from). Thread the string through the holes so that the cup will hang upright. Then make a hole in the base of the cup, about the diameter of a ballpoint pen. Push the cotton wool ball into this hole, so that half is inside the cup and half is poking out the bottom. Get the plastic bag and cut flower petal shapes that will be glued to the bottom of the cup around the cotton wool ball. This will be the artificial flower for the butterflies to feed on. Once the glue has dried and you are happy that your cup now looks like a flower, mix some sugar with water (the ratio should be about 1:9, that is one tablespoon of sugar to nine tablespoons of water), then pour some of the sugared water into the cup. Hang the feeder outside somewhere and wait for butterflies to come and drink the sugary goodness! Be aware, though, that the feeder may also attract other insects such as bees, wasps and ants, which also have a 'sweet tooth'.

International Insect

The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.

- Rudyard Kipling

Butterflies can be found on almost every continent of Earth, except Antarctica1. They have been seen fluttering about in tropical rainforests, fields, woods, grasslands, coastal regions, marshland, deserts and mountain areas globally. Some even migrate vast distances across countries, or even oceans, in order either to escape cold weather or to search for new food. However, butterfly habitats are declining, in part due to the ever changing eco-systems of the world, but also due to the fact that many areas are being developed into farming or urbanised regions for humans, particularly the rainforests, where the greatest numbers of butterfly species exist. There are too many species of butterfly to name here, but the most common are: the Swallowtails, Apollos and Festoons (Papilionidae); Whites and Yellows (Pieridae); Blues, Coppers and Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae); and Fritillaries, Morphos, Monarchs, Browns and Satyrs (Nymphalidae).

Butterflies That Bite?

I'll be floating like a butterfly, and stinging like a bee.
- Muhammad Ali

Butterflies don't have stingers or pincers or anything that will hurt a predator (well, most of them don't), so they use other methods of warding off potential enemies. Among the butterfly's foes are birds, bats, lizards, spiders, hornets, beetles, wasps, fungi, disease, parasites and, of course, humans. Birds remain the most dangerous though, eating both adult butterflies and caterpillars, but the insects have developed some cunning ways of defeating their common enemies:

  • Camouflage - What looks like a leaf or a twig on a branch may often not be. It might actually be a butterfly or caterpillar in disguise. Blending into foliage or even moss and rocks hides the butterfly from the prying eyes of potential hungry predators. Some caterpillars have even gone so far as to mimic bird droppings!
  • Faking It - The bright colours and patterns of butterflies are beautiful things to the human eye. But there is a reason for this beyond the decorative. Quick flashes of colour or patterns that look like the eyes or faces of larger creatures do much to ward off a hungry bird or predator. Certain colours represent danger, particularly red, so many butterflies and caterpillars have red stripes or spots to act as a warning, either advertising the fact that they are poisonous... or in the hope that predators will believe them to be poisonous!
  • Chemical Warfare - Some caterpillars create toxins in their bodies, while many produce quite noxious smells. Others will not only create poisons, but have barbs and whips that can inject toxins. Some butterflies feed on plants that leave toxins in their bodies, so that when they are eaten their taste is awful - thus making predators less than keen to partake of that particular species in the future.

Butterfly Beliefs

A butterfly, flapping its wings in Hong Kong, may change tornado patterns in Texas.
- Edward Lorenz

Apart from being the representation of the beginnings of Chaos Theory (by way of the famous 'Butterfly Effect'), butterflies have featured in the beliefs of many cultures from around the world:

  • Greece - The Ancient Greeks believed that, after death, the soul would flutter away from the body in the form of a butterfly. Greek myth tells that the beautiful butterfly Psyche inspired the envy of Aphrodite and that the goddess ordered her son Eros to make Psyche fall in love with him so as to break her heart - but the plan backfired and Eros himself fell for the gorgeous Psyche instead.
  • Mexico - The ancient city of Tula in Mexico, once home to the Toltecs, contains many statues. The image of a butterfly is represented as a warrior's breast-plate on some of these statues, as the Toltecs knew that butterflies lived short but brilliant lives. Hence, the butterfly became the mascot of Toltec soldiers who often lived a brave life and did not fear death.
  • North America - Native Americans hold a belief that if anyone desires a wish to come true, they must capture a butterfly and whisper their wish to it. Since butterflies make no sound, they cannot tell the wish to anyone but the Great Spirit - who will then grant it.
  • China - The tale of Zhu Yingtai is a sad one. She disguises herself as a boy in order to go to college, and while there falls in love with fellow student, Liang Shanbo. Liang is oblivious to the fact that Zhu is a girl and he only discovers the truth when Zhu is forced to marry a rich nobleman's son. Realising his mistake, Liang dies of a broken heart and when Zhu finds out she takes her own life. The gods take pity on the tragic pair and they are reunited as butterflies every spring.
  • Ireland - The legend of Etain tells of an Irish lord who became the first butterfly. He was changed into a muddy puddle by his first wife because she was jealous of his new wife and the happiness he had with her. A worm later appeared from inside the puddle, which then transformed into a butterfly that the gods protected from harm.

Butterflies In Popular Culture

This magnificent butterfly finds a little heap of dirt and sits still on it; but man will never on his heap of mud keep still.
- Joseph Conrad

Because the butterfly is such a symbol of quick and fleeting beauty, it has been the inspiration for many human endeavours and is seen as not only romantic, but as a muse to many an artist. Butterflies have often been depicted in paintings, seen in delicate jewellery designs like earrings and brooches, embroidered into clothing or even sung about in both classical and modern songs. Folklore about fairies and pixies has the 'little people' flying about as if on butterfly wings and butterflies are often mentioned in association with magic. The opera Madama Butterfly, written by Puccini in 1904, but set in Osaka, Japan in the 1800s, tells the story of American officer James Pinkerton and his love for a beautiful Japanese girl whom he nicknames 'Butterfly', while the 1970s BBC Comedy series Butterflies attempted to focus on the lighter side of life.

Then there is the feeling of a butterfly on your arm, light and somehow both a little comforting and terrifying at the same time. This feeling has inspired not only the phrase, 'butterflies in your tummy' - meaning nervousness or fear - but also the action of giving a 'butterfly kiss', that is to flutter your eyelashes against the cheek of a loved one. In sports, the swimming action known as the 'butterfly stroke' has the competitor rotating their arms through the water by their sides as they kick, ostensibly mimicking the action of a butterfly in flight, but instead really just making large watery splashes. Then there is the 'social butterfly', the name given to someone who flits from person to person, the life and soul of a party. All in all though, human representations of butterflies don't hold a candle to the original and best.

More Butterflies

I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.
- Charles Dickens

For more about butterflies online why not visit the Butterfly WebSite? If you prefer seeing them as they should be, in nature, it is worthwhile taking a trip to a nearby butterfly house (there are many worldwide) or, for a chance to see some in your own garden, try making a butterfly garden, so that you can truly appreciate this marvellous and incredibly beautiful insect.

1Or, at least, no species have ever been discovered there.

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