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Bear with me today, valued readers, as I flutter through a train of thought centered around the fragile and mystical nature of butterflies.

I realize the subject is a far cry from a 16-year-old girl's unsolved killing, questionable incarcerations, or contamination in our Buffalo National River.

Yet these insects fascinate me for all they represent. I recently found myself admiring the butterfly painted on the funeral home's program for my aunt Imogene Hammerschmidt's service. Back home that same day I became mesmerized by the swarm of vivid hues engulfing a butterfly bush that teemed with flowers.

Such experiences always cause me to reflect on how we humans need look no further than this seemingly simple transformational creature to satisfy curiosity about a divine creator.

Butterflies naturally compel our sense of wonder largely because they represent the mysterious intricacies of conscious life itself. How can a lowly, unappealing caterpillar possibly become a fully transformed and magnificent flying piece of graceful art?

A lot has been written about many cultures and religions that associate a butterfly with the human spirit. In their magnificent variety of species, they're considered a symbol of resurrection, endurance, hope and existence for many within the human species.

Over the decades, I've encountered butterflies in the most unexpected places and timing, leading me to believe they must represent an unseen message or symbol.

If you're like me, the most recognizable butterfly is the orange-and-black Monarch we see in our yards each summer. But there are as many as 750 species in the United States and 17,500 worldwide.

Here are interesting facts I didn't know before a bit of research. They have unusual activities such as basking, puddling, migrating and hibernating.

According to the University of Kentucky, during the larval or caterpillar and the adult butterfly stage, they have vastly different food preferences, largely due to the differences in their mouth parts. Caterpillars are particular about what they eat, which is why the female butterfly lays her eggs only on certain plants, instinctively understanding which will serve as suitable food for the caterpillars.

Their goal is to consume as much energy as possible to make the transformation into a butterfly. They acquire water from the plants they consume.

Unlike caterpillars, butterflies roam to locate suitable food over a broad area. In most cases, adult butterflies can only feed on various liquids.

They drink through a tube-like tongue called a proboscis that unfolds to sip liquid food, then recoils into a spiral when not feeding. Most butterflies prefer flower nectar but some feed on other liquids.

Butterflies belong to an order or group called Lepidoptera, which includes moths. The word "Lepidoptera" means scaly wings in Greek. Their wings are indeed covered with rows of thousands of overlapping tiny scales arranged in colorful designs unique to each species.

Butterflies are active during daylight hours (most moths aren't) and feature three primary body parts: Head, thorax (chest or midsection) and abdomen (at the tail end). As with bees, they visit flowers and wildflowers, but are not as efficient at transporting pollen between plants. Their long, slender legs prevent them from collecting much pollen. They probe for nectar which fuels their flights and explains why they prefer clustered flowers (like those butterfly bushes) that offer plenty of nectar. They have good vision but a weak sense of smell.

Some, like the Monarch and the Painted Lady, migrate long distances. Many are attacked by parasites such as wasps, protozoans, flies, and other invertebrates, or by other organisms. The larvae of a few butterflies eat harmful insects, while a few are predators of ants, while others live in association with them.

Butterflies live on every continent except Antarctica because they are cold-blooded and typically need warm weather to survive.

What else might you not know about these creatures? Evidence exists that certain butterflies demonstrate intelligence and reasoning. Experiments have proven Heliconius butterflies can learn home ranges within which they memorize the locations of nectar and pollen, host plants and communal roosting sites.

As with other insects, butterflies have a brain and heart. The center of a butterfly's nervous system is located in the insect's thorax, rather than its head, with a chambered heart that runs the length of its upper body.

Finally, valued readers, rather than dying after laying their eggs, many butterflies, like us, succumb when they grow old. In many instances, females still have eggs in their bodies when they die. Their average life span is about two weeks, although some survive only a few days and others have lived as long as one year.

Now flutter out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

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