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How Do Butterflies Fly?

How do butterflies fly? Why are butterflies called butterflies? How do airplanes fly? If gravity pulls everything down, how do planes and rockets get up in the air? Why do planes have engines and how do they make them? We're visiting ECHO, the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for answers.


"How do butterflies fly?" - Jack, 4, Beverly, Mass.

"If you look really closely at a butterfly's wings you'll notice that they're very different from a bird wing. Birds have feathers on their wings and the wings are rounded. Butterflies have scales on their wings and they actually have a sharp edge.

When they fly they actually cut the air, kind of like a knife, maybe a butter knife moving through something, like a cup of tea. And then the wings will move and swirl the air, like if you move that knife through your hot cup of tea. That creates a little bit of a vacuum because of a change in pressure and it sucks the butterfly up so it moves higher up in the air. Then they do it again, they cut with the wings, they swirl and that keeps pushing them forward as they fly. The effect is the wings of most butterflies look like they're moving in a figure eight shape, but it happens so fast that it's hard to see and appreciate that figure eight pattern."

— Cailee Smith, ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain

"Why are butterflies called butterflies?" - Juanito, 11, Santiago, Chile

Credit Jane Lindholm / VPR
A glasswing butterfly at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.

"People aren't completely sure where the name butterfly came from, but I found a few really good hypotheses, or educated guesses, about where that name came from. Butterfly is believed to be an English word, and there's a few different potential origins. There is the old English word for butterfly which comes from a butter-colored fly. In Great Britain there is a very common butterfly that is yellow. It's called the brimstone. It's kind of a buttery color, so people might think, well maybe it came from the brimstone butterfly. It had butter-colored wings, or was a butter-colored fly before they knew the difference between flies and butterflies. So that's one hypothesis.

"One of the other educated guesses is that [the name] comes from a German word "butterfliege," and then another word that also means "milk thief." Apparently some butterflies in Europe, used to be attracted to buttermilk, when they were making buttermilk. So another guess is that the name butterfly came from those butterflies that were trying to feed from the buttermilk and that led to the name butterfly. We're not completely sure but there are two really interesting ideas and fun to think about for sure." 

— Cailee Smith, ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain

Credit courtesy from parents
Jack, 4, lives in Beverly, Mass. He loves dancing and going to the beach. Marty, 5, loves planes and Legos. He's a proud Texan, and currently living in San Jose, Calif.


Listen to the full episode to learn about how planes and rockets fly with help from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

For an animation of how things fly, visit the Smithsonian'sHow Things Fly site.

Read the full transcript.

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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