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butterfly, any of a large group of insects found throughout most of the world; with the moths, they comprise the order Lepidoptera. There are about 12 families of butterflies. Most adult moths and butterflies feed on nectar sucked from flowers. In the process they may transfer pollen from one flower to another, and many plants depend on moths or butterflies for pollination. Like moths, butterflies have coiled, sucking mouthparts and two pairs of wings that function as a single pair; the wings are covered with scales that come off as dust when the insect is handled.

Butterflies can be distinguished from moths in several ways: the antennae of butterflies are knobbed at the tips, while those of moths almost never have terminal knobs and are often feathery; the body of a butterfly is more slender and usually smoother than that of a moth; butterflies are active by day, while most moths are nocturnal; when at rest most butterflies hold the wings vertically, while most moths flatten them against the surface on which they are resting. The skippers are intermediate in characteristics, but they are usually called butterflies. Some butterflies migrate, usually traveling toward the equator in the fall and away from it in the spring. The North American monarch butterfly and the painted lady butterfly make mass migrations of several thousand miles.


The Lepidoptera, especially the butterflies, are known for the beautiful colors and patterns of their wings. Red, yellow, black, and white pigments are found in the scales; the blues and greens, and the metallic, iridescent hues found especially in tropical species, are caused chiefly by refraction. Some butterflies are protectively colored to match the environment. Many conspicuously colored species are distasteful to birds, which learn to avoid them, and others are protected by their resemblance to the distasteful species (see mimicry). Among the most beautiful butterflies are the swallowtails, found all over the world, the monarchs, and the peacock and tortoiseshell butterflies.


Metamorphosis is complete, that is, the insect goes through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The eggs, which hatch in 2 to 30 days, are usually laid on a plant that the larva (called a caterpillar) uses for food. Most caterpillars eat leaves. After the last of several molts the larva is transformed into a pupa with a hard, often sculptured outer integument, within which it changes to the adult form. The butterfly pupa is called a chrysalis, or chrysalid. Most chrysalids (unlike the pupae of most moths) are not enclosed in a cocoon; however, they are usually suspended from some object by a silken thread and may have a partial covering. Except in those species that winter in the pupa stage, the adult usually emerges from the integument in two or three weeks. Members of some species winter in the egg stage, others as larvae or adults. The adults of most species, however, live only about a month.


Butterflies are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Lepidoptera. The true butterflies form the superfamily Papilionoidea, and the skippers form the superfamily Hesperoidae.


See A. B. Klotz, Butterflies of the World (1976); R. M. Pyle, The Audubon Society Handbook for Butterfly Watchers (1984); M. Daccordi et al., Simon & Schuster's Guide to Butterflies and Moths (1988); D. Carter, Butterflies and Moths (1992).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


In Christian art the butterfly symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also represents the resurrection of all humanity. Butterflies sometimes appear in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus (see also Mary, Blessed Virgin). Often the butterfly rests in Jesus'hand.

The butterfly's own stages of growth require a dramatic transition from one form of life to another. This transition suggests the following symbolic formula. The caterpillar stage represents our earthly existence, the cocoon death, and the emerging butterfly eternal life. The ancient Greeks recognized a similar symbolism in the butterfly. They named the creature psyche, the same word they used for "soul." Although apparently not a popular symbol among the Greeks and Romans, butterflies flutter above the departed in a number of works of Greek art. Christians adopted the symbol sometime during the Middle Ages. In Christian art the butterfly usually stands for resurrection. Nevertheless, its beauty and short, meandering flights also led to its occasional use as a symbol of vanity and aimlessness.

Further Reading

Becker, Udo. "Butterfly." In his The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols. New York: Continuum, 1994. Hogan, Julie. Treasury of Easter Celebrations. Nashville, TN: Ideals Publications, 1999. Hulme, F. Edward. The History, Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Chris- tian Art. 1891. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1969. Knapp, Justina. Christian Symbols and How to Use Them. 1935. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1974. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Webber, F. R. Church Symbolism. 1938. Second edition, revised. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1992.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

What does it mean when you dream about a butterfly?

Butterflies sometimes carry the same range of meanings as birds. However, because of the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies, butterflies are potent symbols of transformation. They also represent beauty and pollination.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


(invertebrate zoology)
Any insect belonging to the lepidopteran suborder Rhopalocera, characterized by a slender body, broad colorful wings, and club-shaped antennae.
A color imperfection in a lime-putty finish caused by lumps in the lime that were not broken up during mixing.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

butterfly wedge, butterfly

A double dovetail for joining two boards at their edges.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. any diurnal insect of the order Lepidoptera that has a slender body with clubbed antennae and typically rests with the wings (which are often brightly coloured) closed over the back
2. a swimming stroke in which the arms are plunged forward together in large circular movements
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


Some say that the butterfly represents the spirit or the essence of the individual: the soul. Butterflies are generally symbols of transformation because they go through a metamorphosis. They are beautiful, evasive, and, at times, inspiring. Your unconscious mind may be pointing out the most positive part of yourself or another.
Bedside Dream Dictionary by Silvana Amar Copyright © 2007 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.
References in periodicals archive ?
Last summer, overall butterfly numbers were up 110% on 2017 in England and 94% in Wales, according to the charity.
"This butterfly undertakes an extraordinary 7,500-mile round trip from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle every year - almost double the length of the famous migrations of the Monarch butterfly in North America.
TV naturalist Chris Packham is urging people to take part in the world's largest insect citizen science survey, the annual Big Butterfly Count, to see if the painted ladies are arriving in their millions to the UK's shores this year.
The land, on which 200ft long and 60ft wide Butterfly House is built, was previously used for garbage dumping for two decades in the Board of Revenue Society in Johar Town.
Soon, Ino Manalo, Patrick Reyno, Adjie Lizares and Raul Manzano were frequenting Butterfly. There were times when we couldn't accommodate everyone due to lack of space.
Spread over an 80-acre area in the eastern part of the park, the Punjab government built the mesmerising butterfly house in 2016 to create an artificial breeding facility for butterflies.
Despite all these challenges, increased rainfall is the main spur in this year's Disney-worthy butterfly migration.
'Butterfly Diversity and Pollution: The Case in Manila City' is a Commission on Higher Education (CHED)-funded project of Universidad de Manila that uses wireless environmental monitoring sensors in assessing the impact of megacity environmental pollution and the local climate on butterfly diversity in Manila.
She was 18-years old when she got into the butterfly business.
The European butterfly is not listed as being under threat at the (http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/174334/1) International Union for Conservation of Nature , but it has experienced steep declines in some areas, including the United Kingdom.
As every farmer empties her bucket, I keenly follow Mama Tumaini Henry, a butterfly farmer from Ngamani village, who has brought pupae from her group members.
It is the first ever butterfly house which has been set up for the entertainment of people.