Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Butterflies Star On Summer Stage

The good old summertime is show time. 'Tis the season of abundant flowers and butterflies. No human theatrical production can rival the beauty and drama that plays daily on nature's summer stage.

Like human stage stars, many of the shining lights of the butterfly world have stage names. But unlike their human counterparts, the stage names sometimes are descriptive of the butterflies. But not always.

John Wayne is no more descriptive of the individual than was his given name of Marion Morrison. Danus plexippus is the scientific name of the migratory butterfly we know as the monarch. Neither name tells you much about the insect. Another common name of the monarch is the milkweed butterfly, a name that makes some sense because it is based on the plant the immature monarch eats.

Some of the more beautiful of the butterflies are called swallowtails - and for good reason. Most of these insects have extensions on their hind wings that look like the tail of a swallow. The largest butterfly in the United States and Canada is a swallowtail and is appropriately called the giant swallowtail.

Tiger swallowtails are mostly yellow with black stripes - hence the suggestion of tiger. There is a white tiger swallowtail and, as the name suggests, it is white with black stripes.

There is also a two-tailed swallowtail. It has two swallowtails on each wing! The zebra swallowtail is white with black stripes but, unlike the white tiger swallowtail, it has red dots on the hind wing.

The most common butterflies are called sulfurs and whites. Sulfurs are named that because they are yellow, and whites are white. These medium-sized butterflies are not appreciated by gardeners and farmers because immatures of some whites feed on cabbage, and some sulfurs feed on alfalfa.

There are several groups of small to medium-sized brownish butterflies, some of which have descriptive names. These include the checkerspots, which have alternating colored spots on the wings. Related to the checkerspots are the crescents. Crescents are slightly smaller than the checkerspots and get their name from the crescent markings on the outer part of the hind wing.

Another group of brown butterflies is called angle wings. They have sharp angular margins of the wings. One of the angle wings is called the question mark because it has a question-mark-shaped design on the hind wing.

The butterflies called buckeyes have large eyespots on the wings. Metalmarks are small butterflies with metallic spots. Among the small butterflies are groups called blues because they are blue and coppers because they are brown. Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between the various blues. So there is a silvery blue, an orange-bordered blue, and a square-spotted blue.

Trying to tell all the butterflies apart during the summer is a difficult task. But you don't have to know the names of the actors to enjoy a good stage show!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann