Butterfly: Or should they be called Flutter-by?

Butterflies, often resembling fluttering petals play essential roles in pollination, flight, camouflage, and mate selection, while their fascinating behaviors, including migration and mud-puddling, reveal a hidden world waiting to be explored and understood by curious observers and citizen scientists.

If you ask me, butterflies should have been called flutter-bys. After all, that is what they do — flutter by like an aimless petal in the wind” according to the poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim. Unlike other insects’, which we tend to avoid, butterflies catch our attention because of the colour and vivid patterns on the wings. This is owing to pigmentation and arrangement of tiny scales on the wings — like the pixels of a digital image. Butterfly wings are not just for beauty. They help with flight, camouflage and selecting a mate. Butterfly wingspans are of different sizes too. Some butterflies have tiny wings, and the butterfly itself is as tiny as our fingernail. In contrast, the golden birdwing butterfly, has a wingspan of 7.6 inches making it as large as a small bird.

Whatever the size, all butterflies depend on plants, especially specific host plants to lay their eggs from which caterpillars emerge. While adult butterflies are constantly flitting about, in the caterpillar stage the only movement visible is the endless chomping on leaves. We all know about the transformation into the beautiful butterfly from the drab looking pupa state. Indian mythology has an interesting story around this. Lord Brahma, known as the Creator of the universe, had a garden of the most beautiful flowering plants. One day Brahma woke up to see that his carefully tended garden had been destroyed — not a single leaf was left. The culprit he knew was a caterpillar that had fattened itself by feeding voraciously on the plants. This destruction of his garden enraged Brahma who cursed the caterpillar to become an ugly, immobile pupa. The caterpillar was devastated and pleaded with Brahma. The forgiving Brahma had a change of heart and said that on emerging from the pupa stage the caterpillar would become a beautiful butterfly with the ability to fly.

We perceive butterflies as pretty, nectar-feeding insects. But not all behavior they depict is as appealing. One example is mud-puddling. We may have observed butterflies, either as individuals or in a group, alighting on rotting vegetation, dirty mud or stinking dung. They are also known to congregate on rotting flesh! While this may elicit an ugh” from us, what the butterflies are doing is sucking up nutrients they need. We commonly associate the phenomena of migration with animals like the wildebeest of Africa — where more than two million of these antelopes move as a mass from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. We have heard about birds that migrate across continents. But did you know that butterflies migrate too? Perhaps the most spectacular migration is that of the monarch butterflies from the northern USA southwards to Mexico in order to escape the winter. The monarchs cover more than 3000 km in this journey. What is fascinating is that while it is one generation of butterflies that travel south, it is another generation that travels north. 

India too witnesses butterfly migrations. Butterflies in Peninsular India migrate annually from the Western Ghats to the plains in the east to escape the monsoon downpours. During this migration they cross through cities such as Bengaluru mainly in the month of April. Many aspects of butterfly migration are still shrouded in mystery. A migration of the species crimson rose, with its brilliant black and red coloration, from southern India to Sri Lanka has sparked many questions. Why does this species migrate undertaking this perilous journey across the sea? What are the changes in climate or habitat that are causing the migration? 

Titli” in Hindi, Chitrashalabham” in Malayalam, Phoolpaharu” in Marathi or Pokhila” in Assamese. What’s in a name. That which we call a butterfly, by another name would still look beautiful. Butterflies may catch our eye because of how beautiful they are. But they can also be the window to learning about many interesting behaviors in the insect world of which we still know so little but could be critical for the planet’s health. We can start by learning about butterflies, observing them and contributing as citizen scientists to portals such as www​.ifound​but​ter​flies​.org.

About the author:

Seema Mundoli is part of the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Azim Premji University.