Butterflies: Flying Flowers — July - August 1994

by Janice Welsh

red admiral

Admirals, monarchs, painted ladies, commas, and question marks. What do they have in common? They all are among the more than 140 different kinds of butterflies that live in Minnesota.

Why do butterflies have such strange names?Many butterflies are named for the markings on their wings - stripes like the bars on an admiral's uniform, or spots that look like commas.

What about the name butterfly? No one knows for sure where the word came from. One story tells of British landowners a long time ago saying that yellow butterflies looked like "flying butter." Another old story tells of butterflies stealing milk and butter - something butterflies do not do.

comma butterfly

Winging It

Butterflies are insects. Like all insects, they have three body parts: the head, thorax (middle), and abdomen. Like a knight's suit of armor, a hard outer shell called an exoskeleton covers their body. Butterflies have three pairs of legs.

A butterfly's most noticeable feature is its two pairs of wings. The wings are covered with thousands of tiny, colorful scales - about 125,000 scales per square inch. The scales overlap, like shingles on a roof. Have you ever noticed scales on your hand after you have held a butterfly? The scales come off easily.



Some butterflies look like other kinds of butterflies to confuse birds. This imitation is called mimicry.

monarch viceroy

Six Common Butterfly Families

Pictured below are common Minnesota butterflies. Each one belongs to a family of similar kinds of butterflies.

tiger swallowtail monarch
eastern tailed blue red admiral
silver-spotted skipper eastern cabbage white

Four Stages of Growth

butterfly egg on milkweed caterpillar
chrysalis adult butterfly


Butterfly or Moth?

Butterflies and moths belong to the insect group called Lepidoptera. How can you tell them apart? You are more likely to see butterflies during the day. They are diurnal, feeding during the day and resting at night. Most moths do the opposite: They rest in the daytime and feed at night. They are nocturnal creatures.

Moth Myths

People think moths are not as colorful as butterflies. Not true. Most moths in Minnesota are dull colored, but the luna moth and many others are as colorful as butterflies.

People think moths eat clothing. Only three common moth caterpillars eat wool and other things made of animal hair.

A butterfly's antennae are thin and end in a knob. Moths do not have knobs on their antennae.

Plant a Flying Flower Garden. Butterflies are more likely to visit your back yard or garden if you give them these things:

1. Flowers. Plant certain kinds of flowers that butterflies use for laying eggs and sucking nectar. This drawing shows a garden with some of the flowers they like. Remember, butterflies are insects, so it you spray your garden to kill insects, you will get rid of the butterflies too.

question mark butterfly

2. Rocks. Put large, flat rocks in a sunny spot. Butterflies will perch on the rocks and spread their wings to warm up.

3. Mud puddles. Soak a small, muddy spot in your garden. Butterflies like to drink from mud puddles. When a lot of butterflies gather to drink, some people call them a "mud puddle club."

To make a longer-lasting puddle, dig a hole and bury a plastic ice-cream bucket in the ground up to the rim. Fill the bucket with sand or dirt. Then soak the sand or dirt with water. Add water if rain does not fill your garden puddle.

4. Brush. A pile of branches and hollow logs makes a good place for butterfly eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult butterflies to hibernate over the winter.

Janice Welsh, who wrote this story, works for the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the July-August 1994 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.