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Butterflies: Facts

Butterflies

Butterfly on Lilac

Butterflies are one of the most diverse and most recognizable creatures in the insect world. They are famous for their symmetrical wings that often display amazing colors and patterns. But the life of a butterfly is far more than their beautiful wings. The butterfly's life is one of complex change.




Butterfly in Jar

The butterfly's scientific name is Lepidoptera which is Greek for "scale winged." They have three body parts: the head, the thorax and the abdomen. Just like the other members of the insect family, butterflies have 6 jointed legs which are joined to the thorax. The wings are attached to the thorax also. There are 4 wings: two forewings and 2 hind wings. The head holds the eyes and the mouth, or proboscis, which is a tube that they use to drink nectar from flowers. Their eyes are what are called compound eyes and have many, many lenses. They also have antennae on the tops of their head which they use for smell and for feeling things. Their body is protected in a hard covering known as an exoskeleton, since they don't have an interior skeleton like a human's.

Butterfly vs. Moth

Butterflies and moths are often confused. They do look similar and have similar body structures, but they are two distinctly different creatures.

Butterflies are day feeders so their wings are colorful. The moth, which feeds at night, has a more neutral color scheme so that they can hide themselves from predators and blend into the colors of the night.

Butterflies' bodies and antennae are slim and sleek. Sometimes the antennae have small knobs at the ends. The moth tends to have a fatter, furry body and antennae. Their antennae can even take on a featherlike appearance. Notice the differences in these two specimens.

Butterfly
Butterfly
Moth
Moth

Life Cycle

Butterflies lay very small eggs that can be almost invisible to the naked eye. These eggs are usually laid on the underside of a leaf to protect them from rain and wind. When the eggs hatch, a small caterpillar begins to eat this same leaf. The caterpillar is known as the larva stage of life.

The caterpillar eats and grows and eats and grows. As it grows, it sheds its skin several times. Once the caterpillar is as big as it will get, it is ready to form its chrysalis. At this stage, the caterpillar crawls to a sheltered location and hangs itself upside down by spinning a small cobweb-like material to attach itself to a branch or other structure.

As it sheds its skin one last time, the caterpillar's outer skin is now a special container where inside it will change from caterpillar to butterfly. This stage is known as the pupa. Inside this chrysalis, exciting changes are taking place.

When it is time, the adult butterfly will work very hard to emerge from its chrysalis. As it unfolds its wings, blood is pushed into the outer sections of the butterfly's body and the insect is ready in a few days to fly away to find food, a mate and lay eggs itself. And then the process, known as metamorphosis, begins all over again.

Caterpillar Chrysalis Hatching

What They Eat

Butterfly Feeding
Goldenrod

Butterflies are herbivores. They typically eat from plants, but that could be any variety of forms including grasses, leaves or nectar from the center of the plant's flowers, depending on the stage of their life. Different butterflies are attracted to specific plants. The Monarch caterpillar enjoys milkweed leaves; Painted Lady butterflies drink the nectar from Thistle. In Idaho, the Western Branded Skipper loves the Goldenrod flower.

Habitat

Flock of Butterflies

Butterflies are cold-blooded which means that they cannot adjust their own body temperature for the weather conditions. In order to survive, they must live in generally comfortable temperatures where it does not get too hot or too cold.

Butterflies are one of the most numerous members of the insect world and live on all of the continents except Antarctica. Many species migrate with the food or weather conditions and can travel thousands of miles in order to locate the best resources. When flowers die off during the winter, butterflies will fly south to find new ones.

The butterfly lives a very short life. The Brimstone Butterfly is said to be the longest living with a 9-10 month life span.

Monarch Butterfly

The Monarch Butterfly is recognized as the state insect or butterfly for seven different states in the U.S. This butterfly is very familiar to most people because of its black, white and orange coloring during its adulthood and the distinctive black, yellow and white stripes of the caterpillar.

The Monarch caterpillar eats the leaves of the milkweed which is a very bitter plant. Because of this, the butterflies take on this same bitterness which protects them from being eaten by birds and lizards.

They are famous for their migration to Mexico and parts of California. This migration is unique in that it takes four generations for the Monarch to make this journey. The first through third generations only live about six weeks, which is not enough time to make this incredible journey. The fourth generation lives four to six months and so is able to make the trip and still have time to begin a new generation by the time springtime arrives.

Monarch lifecycle

Mimicry

Many butterflies use mimicry to protect themselves from prey. The Viceroy butterfly looks very similar to the Monarch which feasts on bitter tasting milkweed plants. This trick confuses predators into avoiding the Viceroy, thinking that it will taste bitter like the Monarch.

Another clever looking butterfly that uses mimicry is the Owl butterfly which has a large "eye spot" on its wings to confuse its predators into thinking it is an owl. No smart bird, lizard or other butterfly predator would attack an owl.

Owl Butterfly
Owl Butterfly

Viceroy
Viceroy
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