Where Butterflies Come From
Back when God first made the Earth, folks say that he was pleased with the mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes that he had created. But as he rocked on his front porch and gazed out at the world, these lands looked awfully bare and drab. So he set aside his cigar and got busy again. He clothed the mountains with trees! He filled the valleys with bushes, grasses, and flowers! He sat back down and admired the colors as the wind gently ruffled the leaves he had made. Mighty pretty!
After a bit, however, he decided the world was still rather boring. No activity! So he got up again and put birds in the trees, grazers and predators in the valleys, fish in the waters. Now there was something to watch! He sat back down and relit his cigar. Yes, this was more like it!
So he was surprised when he heard some little voices below the porch. “We're lonely!”
He looked down and saw the flowers gathered pleadingly at his feet. “Lonely?” he said. “What do you want?”
The flowers explained that the trees, bushes, and grasses all had particular animals that visited them regularly, but nobody came to the flowers. “We have put on our prettiest outfits, but nobody appreciates us!”
So God got up one more time. He fetched his pruning shears and began to clip. He clipped blue from the sky, green from the leaves, white from the clouds, and all sorts of colors from the flowers themselves. Then he threw the bits into the air and, before they could fall, he gestured at them and the bits took wing: butterflies!
“There,” he said to the flowers. “Each kind of butterfly will choose its own favorite plants as food for its babies. Then they'll visit you to sip nectar from your blossoms. You will never be lonely again!”
And when we see the multicolored butterflies fluttering over the fields and gardens, being very particular about where they land, lay eggs, or sip nectar, we can appreciate God's care for the needs of the flowers.
Biologists tell us that indeed, moths and butterflies developed along with flowering plants. The earliest Lepidoptera (“scale-winged”) may have appeared 200 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs when plants did not yet bloom. Wing scales have been found in ancient lake bottom deposits, but unfortunately their soft bodies did not fossilize well. The oldest fossil moth is Jurassic (dinosaurs!). A butterfly fossil was found in deposits from about 40 mya, long after the dinosaurs disappeared, when mammals and flowering plants already predominated. But their highly specialized proboscis argues that they developed during the Cretaceous (75-140 mya) with the later dinosaurs, when flowering plants began to flourish.
Did humans understand about them? Ancient wall paintings show that the Egyptians appreciated the emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis as a metaphor for the rebirth of the soul. Scholars such as Leonardo da Vinci understood that the beautiful winged creature came from a lowly caterpillar, but farmers often saw the voracious “worms” as entirely separate creatures, pests sent by Satan. It took the meticulous observations of artist/scholars such as Maria Merian to reveal how specific some caterpillars were in their food choices. She found that some larvae would eat only certain “host” plants, although the adults would sip nectar from a wide variety of flowers.
We hear a lot about Monarch caterpillars' need to eat the various milkweeds (Oklahoma has 26 Asclepias species), but other caterpillars are almost as picky. Eastern Black Swallowtail “cats” will munch anything in the dill family including fennel, queen ann's lace, even parsley and carrot; but Zebra Swallowtails need the leaves of pawpaw trees. Painted Ladies like hollyhock leaves, while Pipevine Swallowtails demand (you guessed it) pipevine.
Once they have completed their metamorphosis and emerged from their chrysalis, the adult butterflies can't bite or chew but can only drink through their proboscis. They sip water and minerals from puddles (even wet poop!) but get their energy from the sugars in flower nectar – meanwhile carrying pollen from plant to plant, a service the flowers ensure by arranging their stamens where the pollen is likely to brush off on the insects' legs and body. Fragrance and bright colors help the butterflies find the flowers from a distance. The flowers are not lonely!
Retold from “How God Made the Butterflies” retold by Julius Lester in Black Folktales (Richard W. Barron, 1969) which was based on creation of butterflies in Zora Neal Hurston's Mules and Men (J.B. Lippincott 1939).
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian's Art Changed Science by Joyce Sidman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2018.
The Life Cycles of Butterflies: from Egg to Maturity, Visual Guide to 23 Common Garden Butterflies by Judy Burris &Wayne Richards, Storey Publishing 2006.
The Kerr Center Guide to Native Milkweeds of Oklahoma by Maura McDermott, Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture 2015. https://kerrcenter.com/publication/native-milkweeds-oklahoma/