Butterflies are among the most beautiful and enchanting of insects. The metamorphosis of the rather dull, ugly, earthbound larva of the butterfly, the caterpillar, into the delicate flying palette of the adult butterfly has captured the human imagination for millennia. It has served as a metaphor of hope and the longed for spiritual transformation of the soul as well as the transformation of the body. For instance, among the Temne people of Sierra Leone, West Africa the butterfly, particularly Dana chrysippus, is associated with the moon as its life cycle is approximately one month. This butterfly is considered female and has an important role in the symbolism of female initiation. During the initiation ceremony a woman, wearing a butterfly mask, dances in a manner suggestive of fluttering butterflies, and the transformation of pupa into butterfly is seen as analogous to the transformation of an immature girl into a beautiful and fecund woman. The natural beauty of the butterfly is clearly linked with the beauty of women.
In many cultures there is an association of the butterfly with the feminine. The delicate nature, graceful flight, and colourful beauty of the butterfly seems to have led it to become associated with the graceful walk and “painted” or “made-up” nature of women in many cultures perhaps as archetypally expressed by the geisha in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly. If a woman is described as a “social butterfly” it means she flits from person to person (or man to man) seeking resources and attention much as a butterfly flits from flower to flower. The form, symmetry and colour of the butterfly have led it to be a favorite subject of artists wishing to capture the beauty of Nature on canvas.
The butterfly is also used as a symbol of recovery for both the Chronic Fatigue Society and Al-Anon. It is also used by CORE (Centre for Organ Recovery and Education) as its symbol.
Butterflies were very important in the ancient Mexican cultures and were one of the most frequently represented animals in their art work representing warriors, the soul, death, travelers, fire and hummingbirds.
Xochiquetzal was the Aztec goddess of beauty and while associated with the quetzal, a beautiful bird of the Central American tropics with long and elegant tailfeathers, it is also thought she represented the Western Tiger Swallowtail which is a common Mexican butterfly.
In Aztec myth Tezcatlipoca,the god of night, kidnapped her because she was so beautiful. She became the goddess of love. Her name means “Precious feather flower” and links both the beauty of birds, flowers and women. She symbolized beauty, fire, and the spirits of the dead. She was the patron goddess of warriors and followed the young men into battle having intercourse with them, a butterfly in her lips, at the moment of their deaths. (You can read more about their Aztecs and their ambivalent attitude to beauty on this site at The Aztecs and Women in Aztec Times.
The Aztecs of Mexico were a highly developed peoples with astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and a developed aesthetic sense. ‘Flowers-and-song’ was their name for poetry, art and symbolism. Some of their poetry is emotionally very expressive. Yet, horrifying to us, they also practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism on an enormous scale. In the ritual center of their capital Tenochtitlan, amidst the beauty of its canals, walkways and gardens was the tzompantli, the skull rack, with its collection of the trophy heads of thousands of sacrificial victims. Even the Conquistadors, used to the brutality of the Inquisition and European warfare, were horrified by what they saw. It is impossible to read the eyewitness account The Conquest of New Spain by the Conquistador, Bernal Diaz, without shuddering.
The relationship of the beautiful butterfly to flowers was an object of interest to them with butterfly imagery frequently referred to in Nahautl (the language of the Aztecs) poetry and song. An interesting example can be read in translation in its entirety at Narration Text for the Tree of Life.
Butterflies, with moths and skippers, belong to the insect classification known as Lepidoptera. The name Lepidoptera is from the Greek and means “scaly winged.” The scales are the fine dust which comes off butterflies when they are handled. With the exception of Antarctica butterflies can be found on every continent. It is estimated that there are anywhere from 15,000-20,000 species of butterfly.The earliest known butterfly fossils are 48 million years old.
Butterflies generally fly during the day and are more colourful than moths which tend to fly mainly at night. This is probably one of the reasons why moths are primarily attracted to mauve and white flowers as these are more visible at night. When at rest the wings of butterflies are held vertical while those of moths are flat. The bodies of moths tend to be hairy and plump while those of butterflies are thin and hairless. The antenna of butterfly tend to have small clubs on the end of them. The bright colouration of many butterflies such as the monarch is a warning to potential predators of their bad taste. Monarch butterflies are members of the milkweed butterfly family and feeding on this plant gives them a bitter taste. The viceroy butterfly imitates the monarch in its coloration though it is not poisonous itself. This type of mimicry is known as Batesian mimicry after the nineteenth century English naturalist Henry Walter Bates who described it. Other butterflies have wings with tattered edges mimicking leaves which have been attacked by insects so that they do not appear so appealing to leaf-eaters. The Chinese character moth manages to make itself look unappealing by resembling bird droppings. Other butterflies emit repellent smells.
The colour of a butterflies wings can come from various sources. The whiteness of some butterflies and moths is caused by the wing structure which is colourless but contains tiny pockets of air and light is reflected. Both pigments and uric acid can also cause the whiteness.
Like humans and other animals some butterflies emit pheromones to attract mates. Female butterflies of genus Bombyx emit bombycol, a flower-like aroma, in order to attract mates and some male butterflies can smell attractive female butterflies from miles away. Many butterflies have their taste organs not on their antennae or tongues but on their front feet and taste a flower by touching it with some female butterflies using this method to determine if a plant is the right kind for them to lay their eggs on. Butterflies are probably the only insects which can detect red as a separate colour. Both moths and butterflies have very long tongues enabling them to reach the nectar of tubular shaped flowers. Many butterflies can also fly quickly in an erratic pattern which also helps to protect them from predators. Both the larva and butterflies have evolved many mechanisms to protect them from danger including an ability to blend into their backgrounds.
Monarch butterflies migrate and one of the ways in which they navigate is by “reading” the magnetic field of the earth.
The larva of some butterfly feed upon agricultural crops such as clover and cabbage classifying them as pests. Other butterfly larva are carnivorous and feed upon aphids. Other butterflies, particularly those from which silk is produced, are of economic benefit to humans.
There are four well-known stages to the life cycle of a butterfly and these are a) egg which is laid either singly or in a group under a leaf or around a stem and hatches within 5-10 days b) larva or caterpillar when the caterpillar feeds on plant material with the purpose of storing energy for the next stage c) pupa or chrysalis (the cocoon) which matures in about two weeks d) the adult stage when the adult emerges from the chrysalis with wet wings. Once these dry off it flies. Adult butterflies live, on average, from 6 (for males) to 9 (for females) days.
A fascinating example of this is the tiger swallowtail butterfly which during its life cycle goes through a series of fascinating changes using mimicry to protect itself. After hatching the larva resemble bird droppings thus making itself appear unpalatable. As a caterpillar it is green and so blends in with the colours of the leaves on which it feeds. Fascinatingly, it has false eyespots on its head which make it look rather snakelike and might function to frighten away predators. As a pupae it then, attached to twigs or trees, and blends in by appearing rather bark or twig like. Adult female tiger swallowtail butterflies mimic pipe vine swallowtails which are noxious tasting to birds.