Nine fluttery facts about butterflies

1. Underworld connections

The meadow brown butterfly’s Latin name is Maniola or ‘little spirit from hell’. It has been represented as a demon in art.

2. Body and soul

The Greek word psyche means both spirit and butterfly. The Greeks saw the two as intrinsically linked – the emergence of the butterfly from the cocoon was the soul ascending from the body.

3. Net worth

Sir Winston Churchill was an avid collector of butterflies as a boy and as a young man. It was a very popular hobby at the time.

Golden birdwing butterflies © The trustees of NHM, London

4. Milk thief

One explanation for the name ‘butterfly’ is that butterflies were attracted to milk and were seen as evil spirits trying to steal it.

5. Eye to eye

The eyes on some butterflies’ wings are designed to distract a predator. In mythology they were seen as either the ‘evil eye’ or something that was able to see our souls.

6. Butterflies with bullet holes

Some collectors shot large butterflies out of the sky with shotguns filled with mustard seed. The unusual ammunition was used to limit the damage caused to the specimens.

7. Fluttering away

In the UK, 70% of butterfly species are in decline.

8. Mighty migrating monarchs

In one of the world’s greatest animal migrations, North American monarch butterflies fly 2,000 miles to hibernate.

9. The art of the butterfly

The Natural History Museum butterfly department is often visited by artists including Damien Hirst and Mat Colishaw who have used butterflies in their work, and designers studying the wings to develop clothing ideas, and paint for cars. Butterfly wings have also inspired bomb detectors.

Tranquility by Damien Hirst

Sources: Natural Histories, Natural World, Wonders of Life and BBC Science & Environment.

Butterflies

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