A Brief History
On March 14, 2019, we celebrate another National Learn About Butterflies Day, but unfortunately, we cannot tell you the origin of this most colorful holiday. What we can do, is give you a bunch of facts about butterflies, perhaps the daintiest of all insects. Hopefully we will learn something about butterflies by doing the research, and you will learn something about butterflies by reading this article. If you are truly worthy of this holiday, you will then pass on your new knowledge or at least share this article to spread the word about our colorful little friends. See a CNN article about butterflies from March 14, 2019 by clicking the link.
Questions for Students (and Others): What is your favorite butterfly? What types of butterflies do you regularly see?
Butterflies and moths are in the Order Lepidoptera
Butterflies are classified scientifically as in the Animal Kingdom, the Phylum Arthropoda, the Class Insecta, and the Order Lepidoptera. The difference between moths and butterflies is that moths have feathery antennas, are more active at night, and usually land with their wings open (also called “tented”). Butterflies on the other hand have thin antennas with knobs on the end, are usually active during daylight, and when they land their wings are normally folded together like a sail over their backs. Both types of Lepidoptera lay eggs that hatch into larva, usually called caterpillars, that then form a pupa in a protective cocoon or chrysalis, later emerging as an adult butterfly or moth. Caterpillars are sometimes called “instars.”
The name, Butterfly.
One particularly appealing theory of the origin of the word, “butterfly,” comes from the belief that the colorful insects were first called “flutter-by” because (drum roll, please) they would flutter by you! Another possible source of the name may come from the belief (mistaken belief) that butterflies would feed on milk and butter left out (long before refrigerators were invented).
Butterflies range in size from about a half inch across to a massive 11 inches with wings extended. There are over 20,000 varieties (we will not list them all), with a lot of different wing shapes and colors, ranging from almost monotone to spectacular designs of many colors and patterns, bright and shiny or flat. The adults of some species live only a week or less in adult form, living only to lay their eggs and then die. Others live as adults for over a year. About 570 species of butterflies live normally in the United States and Canada, while another 130 or so species of butterflies occasionally visit from Mexico. Common types of butterflies seen in the US and Canada include the Monarch, the Painted Lady, and the Swallowtail types. Sulphur and Cabbage butterflies are also pretty common, often seen getting a drink from a mud puddle. Some varieties of butterflies non-native to North America, such as the Large White Cabbage Butterfly from Eurasia have apparently been introduced to North America as an invasive species.
Butterfly migration/The Mighty Monarch.
The Monarch butterfly is notable for its foul taste to predators, providing it protection, and even more so for its annual migration from Canada and the US to Mexico! This Fall migration may cover thousands of miles of flight, as does the annual Spring return migration. The adult Monarchs do not make the entire flight in a single season, but may be represented by multiple generations of Monarchs as they make their way South and back North. The North American population of Monarchs West of the Rocky Mountains winters over in Southern California, while the Monarch population East of the Rocky Mountains flies their way to Southern Florida or to Mexico. Monarch caterpillars/larva/instars feed almost exclusively on Milkweed, a type of scrubby plant that comes in a couple dozen varieties. Conservationists worry that the migration area in Mexico is threatened by development, creating habitat loss.
Are you wondering what exactly is Batesian mimicry? It is the evolution of one organism to mimic the appearance of another species that predators avoid, possibly because of foul taste or because the copied species is toxic to the predator. In this case, the Viceroy butterfly mimics the Monarch, closely matching its appearance and getting a free pass from birds and Praying Mantids that would otherwise find the Viceroy delicious. Despite a very similar appearance, the Monarch and Viceroy are not closely related.
But wait! Scientists now claim that the Viceroy butterfly is actually even more disgusting to predators than the Monarch, implying that the form of evolutionary mimicry involved is really Müllerian mimicry! (This means both species mimic each other for the mutual benefit of both, with predators having a greater chance of finding out that particular color pattern and appearance means a lousy tasting meal.)
While the Honey Bee gets all the good press for busily going about spreading pollen from flower to flower, other critters are also important to achieving the pollination of flowering plants, accounting for about 75% of pollination that takes place. Hummingbirds, Bees, certain flies and beetles, and even some bats join Butterflies as seekers of sweet nectar from flowers, which in turn causes them to become unwitting spreaders of pollen from flower to flower. Butterflies have a long, tubular mouth that they can unroll and poke deep into a flower to drink the nectar that provides the energy for all that fluttering around. Pollinators are required for about 75% of our food crops to reproduce, so think twice before killing a butterfly or any other pollinator.
Wooly Bear Caterpillar.
These black and brown hairy caterpillars have been used for generations for predicting the severity of the coming winter based on the size of the colored bands on their bodies. Many cities even hold Wooly Bear festivals each year in the early Fall. Alas, the Wooly Bear (or Wooly Worm if you prefer) is actually the larva of the Tiger Moth, not actually a butterfly. Still, we think of Moths as honorary Butterflies. Do you?
Again, not actually a butterfly, but a moth, this guy is worth mentioning. With a wingspan of 5 inches, it is likely the biggest moth or butterfly you will run into in the United States. Mostly a lime green color, the Luna Moth also sports a “swallow tail” type of shape on their wings, They can easily be mistaken for a green leaf, which is exactly what this author did the only time he saw one in the “wild.” (By the way, speaking of moths, the adult moth does NOT eat your natural fiber clothes. Their larvae do.)
Not only can you plant flowers specifically to attract butterflies (click the link for a list), you can also attract butterflies by placing wooden or metal butterfly houses around your yard and garden. These contraptions have a narrow slit tall enough for a butterfly to enter with its wings together over its back and can be purchased pre-made commercially at most hardware and garden stores, as well as easily constructed (and decorated) by yourself. (Note: When the author tried to provide the colorful fliers with a home, wasps moved right in!)
Butterflies are much loved and admired by people, since they are beautiful, do not make noise, and do not bite. You can find a jillion references to butterflies in literature, the arts, names of other people and things and the like. Some notable examples include, Butterfly McQueen (an actress famous for her role in Gone With the Wind), the book and movie Papillon (about a prisoner at Devil’s Island that eventually escapes, with a butterfly tattoo on his back, “papillon” being French for butterfly), the heavy metal rock group Iron Butterfly, the swimming stroke called the Butterfly, adhesive wound closure “Butterfly” strips, and even the dreaded “Butterfly bombs” (multiple bomblet type devices scattered from a larger container dropped by airplanes or fired by artillery). How about songs? (“Elusive Butterfly” by Bob Lind, “Butterflies are Free” by Debbie Gibson, and Elton John mentioning butterflies in “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” among others, as well as numerous album names featuring the word, “Butterfly” or “Butterflies.”) There is even a musical group called The Telepathic Butterflies! What other cultural references to “Butterfly” can you add to the list?
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For more information, please see…
Carter, David. Handbooks: Butterflies & Moths: The Clearest Recognition Guide Available. DK, 2002.
Stokes, Donald; Lillian Stokes, and Ernest Williams. Stokes Butterfly Book : The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification, and Behavior. Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of a Monarch Butterfly taken by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.