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Butterflies: Top 10 Questions

May 2012

Thanks to Dr. Paul Castrovillo, Butterfly Curator, Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History; and Steve Burns, Director, Zoo Boise for the answers.

1: Which butterfly is the largest?

That would be the Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterfly. Its wingspan is about 11 inches. (From Humzza in Mrs. Hurd's class at Owyhee-Harbor Elementary School in Boise)

2: Does a butterfly have a brain?

Yes, a butterfly has a brain. It is attached to a long nerve cord in its body and the brain is up near its head, just like most animals. (From Paige in Mrs. Hunt's class at Cynthia Mann Elementary School in Boise)

3: How long can butterflies fly without resting?

Some butterflies can fly for hours and hours because they fly to where the wind can move them along. The butterflies that fly for a long distance usually use the wind for assistance. (From Taley in Mrs. McCamish-Cameron's class at Grace Jordan Elementary School in Boise)

4: Do monarch butterflies hibernate?

They don't technically hibernate. They fly south, land in a grove of trees, and remain mostly inactive throughout the winter. Then they wake up and fly off again, but they don't go to sleep like a hibernating animal. (From Claire in Mrs. Childers' class at Hayden Meadows Elementary School in Hayden)

5: How many butterflies exist?

There are about 10,000 in the world, 1,000 in the United States, and 150 in Idaho alone that are scattered throughout the state. (From Madison in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)

6: How long is an average butterfly's life?

It depends on the species that you are asking about. Some butterflies live for a few days and some live for a few months. (From Joie in Mrs. Schweitzer's class at Riverside Elementary School in Coeur d'Alene)

7: Do butterflies die if you touch their wings?

A person can touch a butterfly's wing and sometimes the color will rub off. This will not kill a butterfly. It can die if its wings are touched too roughly, as this could cause the veins to become broken causing it to be unable to fly. So, it all depends on how rough a person is with their touch. Most butterflies are fairly tough, and you should be able to handle them carefully without worry. (From Kayla in Mrs. Childers' class at Hayden Meadows Elementary School in Hayden)

8: How do butterflies grow wings?

Butterflies always have the cells for wings inside their bodies, even when they are caterpillars. When they reach the pupa part of their cycle, those cells start to grow rapidly and form wings. (From Adam in Mrs. Hudson's class at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)

9: Why do butterflies like milkweed plants?

Butterflies have what are called host plants. They lay their eggs on the host plant because it is that's what the caterpillars eat. When the eggs hatch and the caterpillars come out, milkweed is one plant caterpillars like to eat. That's why you will see monarchs on milkweed plants. If you want to protect butterflies, you also have to protect their host plants. (From Hayden in Mrs. McCamish-Cameron's class at Grace Jordan Elementary School in Boise)

10: What is a butterfly's defense mechanism?

Butterflies stay safe in a few different ways. The color on their wings can protect them by allowing them to blend into the background. There are a number of butterflies that look like leaves, bark or dead grass. Also, the ability of flight helps to keep them safe. Being able to get away can be very important to the safety of a butterfly. Then, some butterflies are poisonous like the monarch butterfly. It feeds on milkweed and there are poisons in the milkweed plant that go into the caterpillar's body and end up in the adult butterfly's body. So a predator that feeds on the monarch will have a bad taste or even get sick. The poison protects the other monarchs that weren't fed on. (From Jake in Mrs. Childers' class at Hayden Meadows Elementary School in Hayden)


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