Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Long Ago, Spring Was Called Butter Season

Years ago, springtime was frequently referred to as the butter season. It was a practical name. In those days, European milk animals-cows, goats and sheep-gave birth in the spring. The new births and fresh grass meant milk. Milk meant cream. And cream was churned into butter. So, ‘twas the season of abundant butter.

Spring also marked the first appearance of some of the most recognizable insects-butterflies. Of course, other flying insects show up in the spring, too. But butterflies are conspicuous because of their size and color. So they were dubbed flies of the butter season.

Probably also supporting the name butterfly was the early season presence of bright yellow ones. They, of course, were the color of butter.

The German equivalent for the word butterfly is schmeterling. Schmeterling means “from cream," which also reflects the abundance of milk during the spring.

In actuality, butterflies are more abundant during summer and early fall than in spring. No matter, the name has stuck-not just to the early season or yellow ones but to all of these day-flying Lepidoptera. But all butterflies are not the same; their names frequently describe how they look or act.

The yellow butterflies are commonly called the sulfurs. They and the whites, named because they are mostly white, are among the most common of butterflies. This group also includes some pest insects. For instance, the common alfalfa butterfly is a sulfur.

One of the whites is the cabbage butterfly. This white butterfly frequently is seen fluttering about cabbage or other cole crops. And for good reason. It is laying eggs on these plants. Eggs that hatch into cabbage worms. Worms that delight in devouring our cabbage or hiding in our broccoli only to be found bleached white in the cooking process!

Other butterflies include the swallowtails. Their name comes from the “swallow-like" extensions of the hind wings. These include the black, yellow and tiger swallowtails that are among the favorites of flower gardeners.

Milkweed butterflies, the monarch and queen, lay their eggs on the milkweed, thus their name. Neither the queen or the monarch can survive in temperate regions. The monarch makes its famous migration-north in the spring and south in the winter.

Anglewing butterflies are brown butterflies with black markings and wings that have sharp angular margins. A couple of species even have punctuation markings-the comma and the question mark.

Buckeyes are brightly colored butterflies. They all have large eyespots on the hind wings. The buckeye overwinters as an adult and is commonly one of the first butterflies found in the spring.

Thistle butterflies feed on many plants, including some thistles. These butterflies also hibernate during the winter and show up very early in the season. One of the most common is the painted lady. This group includes the red admiral, which is a common visitor to garden flowers.

Another group of butterflies that overwinter as adults is the tortoise shells. The name reflects the coloring of some, which is a bit like the shell of a tortoise. One of the most common is the morning cloak. It doesn't look at all like a tortoise. In fact, it is dark brownish purple with a yellowish border on the edge of its wing.

In temperate regions, the buckeyes, painted ladies and morning cloaks are the true flies of the butter season. You know when you see these butterflies that summer cannot be far behind!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox