Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







All Things Called Butterflies Are Not Insects

Butterflies are the most conspicuous insects. Their size and bright colors make them highly visible. Butterflies are so recognizable that their name is used to describe many things. 

There are plants that have butterfly in their name. Some because their showy flowers are suggestive of the bright colors of butterfly wings, such as the butterfly lily and the butterfly orchid. In other plants, the flower is shaped like the wings of the butterfly. Such is the case of the butterfly pea, which is a wild pea found in the eastern United States. A Chilean herb also has a flower suggestive of a butterfly shape and is called the butterfly flower.

Some plants have butterfly in their name because they are attractive to feeding butterflies. Buddleia is known as the butterfly bush because its insect namesake is attracted to its flowers. A showy milkweed plant is called butterfly weed because it is the host plant for caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly in addition to having bright flowers that attract butterflies.

The butterfly name also shows up under the oceans. A group of variegated colored fish, some of which have winglike fins, are known appropriately as butterfly fish. A sting ray is known as the butterfly ray because of an overall shape suggestive of butterfly wings.

Engineers have used the shape of the butterfly in design. For instance, the butterfly valve, which uses two moveable wings that pivot on a central core to control liquid flow through a pipe. The same principle is used to construct a butterfly dam, where water flow is controlled by a large butterfly “valve.” In furniture, a butterfly table has wings that fold down in butterfly fashion.

Even mapmakers can't avoid butterflies. When a map of the global earth is placed on a flat surface, the area of the poles have less than the equator. So to avoid distortion, the pole areas of the map look like wings on a butterfly. Such a map is called a butterfly map.

There is a butterfly dance in which the dancers use their arms to manipulate the folds of a skirt in such a way as to mimic the fluttering wings of a butterfly. The dance ends when the dancer sinks to the floor as if in death, the end of a fragile creature. There is a clan of the Hopi tribe of Native Americans known as the Butterfly Clan. These people do a ceremonial dance known as the butterfly dance. Some young women of the clan even wear their hair in a style shaped like a butterfly.

The style of riding pants known as jodhpurs, with the flair above the knee, and similarly styled Dutchman's breeches have also been called butterfly banners.

You can even buy meat at the butcher shop known as butterfly fillets.

The butterfly shape is one that everyone recognizes — something that can't be said for many groups of insects. But all insects aren't as beautiful as butterflies.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann