FEBRUARY
2000

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-24-00

Butterfly Watchers Know When Spring has Sprung

That famous groundhog called Punxsutawney Phil is purported to be able to predict it by observing his shadow. Some say that seeing a robin is a sure indicator that it is here. For others, it arrives when major league baseball teams open spring training. “It” is the spring season. And most people living in temperate regions look forward to spring, if for no other reason than to kiss winter goodbye.

While that fuzzy fellow Phil garners headlines each year on February 2, whether he sees his shadow or not has nothing to do with the arrival of spring. And robins, those red-breasted harbingers of things green and growing, actually spend the winter in protected sites in many temperate regions. Robins can frequently be seen hopping around on snow-covered lawns, a good indicator of how accurate they are in predicting the spring season.

But the humans that organize baseball teams are no better at predicting the onset of spring than groundhogs or robins. That is why they have spring training in nice, warm southern areas. And even then, when the teams return to their home cities, they frequently have to play a summer game in very cold temperatures.

Robins and groundhogs are warm-blooded and, within reason, survive undesirable temperatures either by going back in their burrow or fluffing up and sitting on an icy limb. Baseball players just put on more clothes and get their hands stung when ball meets bat or glove.

Butterflies, like all other insects, are cold-blooded and cannot function in low temperatures; butterflies can't afford a mistake when it comes to spring emergence. If they are out and about too early, it means death. The butterfly motto when it comes to spring emergence could be “better safe than sorry!”

Butterfly watchers have long recognized that the target of their observations are good indicators of warm temperatures. Even the name butterfly is an indication of the association with spring.

The name “fly” was used in ancient times for any insect that had the power of flight. So, the flyers we now know as butterflies got their name partially because they flew.

Spring is a time of birth and renewal. That is when cows, sheep and goats gave birth. The animal births and the increasing green vegetation meant excess milk for human use. The milk provided cream, which was used to churn butter, so that time of the year became known throughout much of Europe as the cream or butter season. 

Hence, the day-flying, scale-winged insects became known as flies of the butter season. We have shortened that common name to butterflies.

In another twist to the association with the butter season, some writers have suggested that many of the early butterflies actually resembled butter in color. Those butterflies, called sulfurs, include many bright yellow species and are some of the first to arrive in the spring. 

Regardless of the actual source of the name butterfly, it is obvious that when butterflies show up, it is a good bet that spring is here to stay. After all, butterflies have staked their lives on it!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox