I’ve watched you now a full half-hour; Self-poised upon that yellow flower. And, little Butterfly! indeed I know not if you sleep or feed. (William Wordsworth)
In England, whence I came, butterflies are usually only seen in the spring and summer, but here in Israel butterflies flutter by all year, though spring does mark the peak flight season. Butterflies are remarkable little creatures with a fascinating life cycle. As you know, the life cycle of butterflies is an incredible adventure in metamorphosis. From eggs, caterpillars are hatched which subsequently sort of die, forming a chrysalis from which a butterfly develops. Nature is truly wondrous! It takes a month or so for the egg to transmogrify into a butterfly and then the butterfly has just a few weeks to lay its eggs to continue the cycle of life before it dies.
Being insects, they have six legs, of course, which is particularly useful for them, as they have taste buds, so to speak, in their feet. They don’t have teeth, so they can’t bite, and they don’t eat, as such, but they certainly do drink. They drink the nectar of flowers, which as well as sustaining the butterfly helps the plants to pollinate. They don’t have just two wings but four, a sort of bi-plane, and it is said that a tiny flutter of their wings on one continent can magnify exponentially as it ripples outwards, to have a huge effect on another continent thousands of miles away – the butterfly effect!
Parpar, the Hebrew word for butterfly seems to have been coined by the Ben Yehudah family and was based on the Hebrew word pirper, to flutter. Prior to this, butterflies were known by a Mishnaic name tziporet, a flying insect – bird-like, like the Hebrew word for bird, tzipor. In English one wonders what the connection to butter is and it isn’t clear what the answer to this question is. Some suggest that it was thought, in centuries long past, that butterflies ‘stole’ butter and milk – perhaps because of the predominance of white butterflies, particularly the cabbage white, in some regions. We’re lucky that they’re not called cabbageflies, which really doesn’t sound nearly so nice.
We mentioned that butterflies don’t have teeth and don’t bite or eat. Caterpillars, though, do – as we know from Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar. Caterpillars might look cute but don’t be misled – some are covered in little hairs that can severely irritate those that touch them, and some can be quite dangerous to people.
The butterfly effect can be felt in places far away from its source, but some butterflies actual travel incredible distances, undertaking a migration that is a little different from bird migrations in that the individuals who stoically start out aren’t necessarily the ones that finish the journey. An individual butterfly may not live long enough to complete the course; that is left to its progeny.
Israel, being the crossroads between Europe and Asia, is well-positioned to observe the butterfly migration, as those who witnessed the Purim 2019 butterfly-fest will testify. In Israel some hundred-and-ten or so different species of butterfly can be seen, whereas in the old country there were just seventy or so. Perhaps Israel’s climate and location accounts for this.
My favorite butterfly is most definitely the stunning yellow swallowtail with the trailing edges of its hindwings, which are thought to improve its flight maneuverability, resembling the tails of swallows. I’m saddened to think that such a beautiful creature will not survive for very long. But I also love to see the bright orange painted ladies and the large salmon Arab, unsurprisingly a splendid salmon-pink color. This butterfly, which is actually not nearly as large as either the swallowtail or the painted lady, is known scientifically as the Colotis fausta. I’m guessing that just as its name including large doesn’t signify its real size, so too it doesn’t suffer particularly from any diseases of the colon.
Vanessa and Cynthia were popular girls’ names some decades ago. The painted lady (and even the painted gentleman) is known with its scientific name as Vanessa cardui or Cynthia cardui. The vanessids make up quite a large group of commonly found butterflies in more northern parts of Europe, including peacocks, commas, red admirals and tortoiseshells, although here in Israel, it’s the painted ladies that abound. It’s interesting to note that Vanessa is a name made up by the literary giant, Jonathan Swift, most famous for being Gulliver’s daddy. He invented the name after meeting a lady called Esther Vanhomrigh. He combined the first part of her family name together with the first part of her first name and so arrived at the name Vanessa. So perhaps we can say that Swift fathered hefty giants and the fragile, ephemeral vanessas too. Quite a combination!