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Why are butterflies called Butterflies?

This is a great question, one I probably should have looked up long ago! I always assumed it was because of the common sulfur butterflies, which are a buttery yellow colour. It turns out that’s just one possibility for the origin of the name. Here are some others:

Butterflies might be named for the colour of their excrement. Old Dutch had the term “boterschijte”, which literally means “butter $#!t” (trying to keep this family friendly!) When butterflies metamorphose, their first poop upon emerging from the chrysalis, called “meconium”, is brightly coloured, often yellow or orange.

Old German names included “botterlicker” (butter-licker), “molkendieb” whey-thief and “milchdieb” (milk-thief). It has been suggested that people in the middle ages believed that butterflies stole milk and butter. This makes me want to do an experiment! Looking to supplement their diet with minerals, butterflies will feed on lots of weird things, including urine, feces and dead animals. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could get them to come to a puddle of discarded whey or an old rotting cheese rind. I’ve got to try that! Back in the Middle Ages, when dairy products were made in the barnyard, it is possible that butterflies snacking on discarded dairy products gave rise to these names.

The tendency for butterflies to feed on poop might also explain the Old Dutch term. Butter-coloured sulfur butterflies feeding together on animal excrement might have given rise to the name.

The possibilities are delightful, aren’t they?! Below is a question mark butterfly (note the white question mark on its wing) feeding on nice fresh doggy doo on a trail in the Ottawa Greenbelt. You’re welcome! – Dr. Naomi Cappuccino