Butterflies have long captured our imagination. They appear in art dating back to ancient Egypt and even cave paintings. But to many people, butterflies remain mysterious creatures. In honor of our new butterfly bedding and outdoor pillows featuring magnified butterfly wings, we spoke to Fred Gagnon, the curator at Magic Wings, a butterfly conservatory and garden in South Deerfield, Massachusetts (not too far from our Pittsfield headquarters) to learn more about these captivating insects.
Butterfly wings appear differently when closed than they do in flight. “They’ll use their underside of their wings as a way to hide,” says Gagnon, who notes that one side of their wings are often dull, woodlike tones. “That way they can rest in peace and not have to worry about being found and eaten.” But when butterflies spread their wings, the colorful side is revealed.
Butterflies sometimes use their colorful wing design as a way to trick predators (some look like bird’s heads, for example) or to mimic a poisonous species that predators will avoid. Mostly, however, Gagnon says, their bright colors are for showing off. “The males can prove their genetic superiority over other males by the fact that they are flashy. They stand out like a sore thumb and are still alive to mate.”
There are no butterflies that live more than a year (most live a few weeks to a month), but some species live long enough to travel thousands of miles in their short lives. Here in North America, the monarch butterfly is famed for its annual journey to Mexico, but Gagnon points out that the Painted Lady butterfly flies even farther, starting its life in Europe and migrating to Africa and even Australia!
They’re not as ancient as cockroaches, ants, or bees, but butterflies have been around for a long time. The first butterflies appear at the end of the Mesozoic Era, around 66 million years ago, just as the last of the dinosaurs were dying off.
The fleeting nature of life, a metaphor for our souls, butterflies have been used as symbols in art and literature throughout the centuries. According to Peter Marren, the author of Rainbow Dust: Three Centuries of Butterfly Delight, the ancient Greeks even linked them to the human soul: ‘Psyche’ is the Greek word for both a butterfly and a soul.
In her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Ingrid Fetell Lee writes that images of butterflies and patterns that include them suggest flight, which offers us a vicarious feeling of transcendence, and in turn, a feeling of joy.
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