Bee and butterfly on flower

"The First Butterflies,"

a tale from China
retold by Cathy S. Mosley

Many years before now there was a Prime Minister in the Emperor's court. The Prime Minister had served long, and he had served well, but with each passing year he became more fatigued by the rivalries and dangers of court. Nor was there any promise of retiring soon to some quiet country estate.

One day he decided to take a brief respite, and ordered his sedan chair. He did not even bother to change from his court robes; silken garments of such beautiful colors that they gleamed like gems in the light.

The Prime Minister ordered his bearers to carry him up into the mountains, and leave him near a meadow; then he ordered them not to return until the sun began to sink behind the mountains. Once his men had left the Prime Minister went to sit on a rock warmed by the sun, and from there he watched the sweet grass wave in a mild breeze, and watched squirrels play amongst the branches of nearby tree.

Slowly his world became the whisper of the breeze and the buzzing of the bees as they danced from flower to flower, and he noted that often the
bees came to dance about his robes. He chuckled, "You think my robes are a flower bed do you?"

Still laughing he took his dagger and cut free a piece of silk, and threw it onto the breeze. "There you hungry bees!"

But then the Prime Minister stared in amazement as the silk, instead of wafting to the ground, began to flutter and flit, and began to go from flower to flower.

"Am I dreaming?!" he questioned himself, and to test the reality of his vision he cut free another piece of silk.

And watched it to begin to dance across the field.

When the sun began to set his bearers returned, and stared in disbelief at their now ragged Prime Minister, who was smiling happily amongst a
flittering field of beautiful, but strange, insects.

The Prime Minister bowed to the creatures and returned to the sedan chair. He  was content to return to court - for now his soul had meaning; he had brought about something of beauty - which are  called butterflies.


The scientific name for both butterflies and moths is Lepidoptera ("scaly wings") since their wings are covered in overlapping scales, which can be highly colored in order to provide camouflage, and to scare off predators.

Butterflies can be recognized by their clubbed antennae, and the fact that their wings are held together over their backs when they are at rest.  The base of the hindwing is expanded to support and couple with the forewing when in flight.

Moths lack the clubbed tip on their antennae, which are "feathered." Many of the moths have a wing coupling device at the base of their hindwing, which consists of bristles; these engage with a flap on the forewing. Males have one single stout bristle, while females have several slender bristles.

Of all the butterflies and moths in China the most famous is the Silkworm moth, who was domesticated over 2500 years ago,  and is thought to have originated in China. As it was the Chinese held the secret to silk production for thousands of years; to tell the secret that the thread came from a cocoon was death.

How the secret was revealed is subject to several legends. One tells of how four maidens were captured by the Japanese, along with mulberry sprigs and silkworm cocoons. Another concerns the tale of a princess who smuggled the silkworms and mulberry sprigs in her head dress so that she could take them with her to India after her wedding. And yet another tale tells of two old monks who brought the knowledge to  Emperor Justinian of Constantinople.

Carter, David. Smithsonian Handbook: Butterflies and Moths. London: A Dorling Kindersley Book. 1992.

MacDonald, Margaret Read. Three Minute Tales: Stories from Around the World to Tell or Read When Time is Short. Little Rock: August Publishers, Inc..  2004.

Metzger, Berta. Picture Tales from China. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1934.




Department of Entomology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

Journey of the Heart: Butterfly myths

Chinaculture Starttips

History of Silkworms

The photograph is Swallowtail Butterfly and Bee on Thistle, by John and Karen Hollingsworth. A public domain photograph from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.