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Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa: Butterflies

Picture of a monarch butterfly.
Monarch butterfly. Credit: Unsplash

Butterflies do not flap their wings like birds. So, how do they fly?

Schumann, Debussy, Grieg, Schubert, Chopin, and countless composers of all musical forms throughout the world have tried to epitomize graceful flight of butterflies with music.

But, the fluttering flight remained a mystery to scientists until advances in high speed photography made it possible to capture the rapid, minute wing adjustments that make flight possible for these charismatic insects.

Clearly, butterflies do not flap their wings like birds. So, how do they achieve lift?

In his fascinating book "The Secrets of Animal Flight," Nic Bishop wrote the following:

“A painted lady butterfly starts with both wings pressed together above its head. When it opens them, something curious happens. Rather than a simple downstroke, the wings peel apart like two pages of a book. The front edges of the wings part first, and air rushes in from the front of the butterfly to fill the space between the opening wings. This gives the painted lady a little tug and lifts it into the air. After the wings open out, they give lift the same way as the wings of other animal.”

Apparently, by clapping wings together, butterflies get an extra push. That also works from a resting position. Other butterflies exhibit variations on this theme.

A new generation of monarch butterflies are now drifting into the Great Lakes region, literally.

Most are the first or maybe even the second generation offspring of the monarchs that overwintered in Mexico.

They migrate long distances by spiraling up in thermal updrafts and then gliding, aided by wind.

Scientists are still puzzling how monarchs navigate and with the help of computers and video, continue to learn the more about mechanics butterfly flight.

But, whatever they are, cultures around the world have always and probably will always consider butterflies a metaphor for transformation and hope.

According to Chinese proverb, “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.