Connecting you with nature
I’ve never set out to intentionally photograph butterflies, but the places I travel to intentionally photograph other species and landscapes, at certain times of year, are often the same places I encounter amazing butterflies. Most of us learned something about butterflies during elementary school. We may even remember a bit about the astonishing lifecycle and transformation of butterflies. I remember some of what I learned about butterflies, but since I come across so many different butterflies doing all sorts of interesting behaviors – that I don’t remember learning about – I was curious to brush up on my butterfly facts. I’m glad I did.
Butterflies are beautiful and there’s a lot of them. There are about 28,000 butterfly species worldwide. Butterflies are found in all types of environments but most species are found in tropical areas, especially tropical rainforests. We should enjoy them while we can. With some exceptions, the average lifespan of an adult butterfly is roughly three to four weeks. Some butterflies, like the North American Monarch, can survive for nearly eight months.
Wings That Wow
One of the most eye-catching things about butterflies is their wings, and specifically, the color of their wings. Butterflies have scaled wings with colorful designs unique to each species. Those wings make butterflies good fliers. It’s a good thing that they’re good fliers because many species of butterflies migrate. Although butterfly migration isn’t well understood, some species like the Painted Lady, the Red Admiral, and the Common Buckeye are known to migrate a few hundred miles, but others like some Monarchs migrate thousands of miles. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do.
The fastest butterflies can fly at about 30 mph (about 48 km/h) or faster. Slow flying butterflies fly about 5 mph (about 8 km/h). It may look like butterflies have two wings but all butterflies have four wings – one forewing on each side closest to the head; and one hindwing on both sides in the rear.
Besides being eye-catching to us humans, butterfly wings also have an important optics function to other butterflies, and other species. The colors and patterns on a butterfly’s wings help it communicate and attract other butterflies of its species, and warn, camouflage, or distract it from predators. In the case of poisonous butterflies, like the Monarch, the wings store toxins. Just know that you would have to eat Monarchs to be exposed to the toxins. Hopefully no one you know is eating Monarch butterflies!!
Have you ever wondered what happens to butterflies when it rains? How is it that they just don’t disintegrate or get completely destroyed in a summer downpour? Butterflies take shelter, or roost, in or under plants, trees, leaves or any other area including human-made structures where they can stay dry, warm, and hopefully away from predators. Taking shelter obviously goes a long way for protection but research shows that butterflies have a layer of wax on their wings that repels water. Not only that but they also have “microscale bumps” on their wings that serve to break up and disperse water droplets. In short, when a water drop hits the surface of butterfly wings, it ripples and spreads.
Butterflies are cold-blooded so that means their body temperature isn’t stable but changes with the environmental temperature. One main reason that we typically only see butterflies on warmer days is because they can fly as long as the air is between 60°-108° F (15.5 – 42.2 C), but temperatures between 82°-100° F (27.7 - 37.7 C) are best. If the temperature drops too low, butterflies might bask in a sunny spot with wings spread out to soak up the sun's heat.
Butterflies can’t survive winter conditions in an active state. But they may be able to survive cold weather by hibernating in protected locations. They may use the peeling bark of trees, plants, logs or old fences, or the eaves of houses or buildings as their overwintering sites. They may hibernate at any stage (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis or adult) but generally each species of butterfly is dormant in only one stage. With that said, If the weather begins changing some species migrate in search of sunshine.
Again, because they’re cold-blooded, when the outdoor temperature gets too warm, butterflies may head for shade or for cool areas like puddles. Some species will gather at shallow mud puddles or wet sandy areas, sipping mineral-rich water.
One butterfly fact I didn’t forget from my elementary school days is the metamorphosis of butterflies – the caterpillar (larva); the chrysalis (pupa); and then the butterfly (adult). Well, it’s a little more complicated. A butterfly starts its life as an egg, often laid on a leaf. The female butterfly attaches the eggs to leaves or stems of plants that will also serve as a suitable food source for the larvae (caterpillars) when they hatch. Caterpillars are very particular about what they eat, so the female lays her eggs only on certain plants. Caterpillars don't move much and may spend their entire lives on the same plant or even the same leaf, so it needs to be the right leaf!
The female butterfly can recognize the right plant species by its leaf color and shape. Just to be sure, she may beat on the leaf with her feet. This scratches the leaf surface, causing a characteristic plant odor to be released. Once she’s sure she found the correct plant species, she lays her eggs. The eggs get fertilized as they’re being laid with the sperm stored in the female’s body since mating. A sticky substance produced by the female enables the eggs to stick where ever she lays them, either on the underside of a leaf or on a stem. Male butterflies search for and pursue female mates. As with many species, mating involves some courtship dances and cool maneuvers designed to win the attention of that special lady butterfly.
The larva (caterpillar) hatches from the laid egg and then eats almost constantly. This constant eating means the caterpillar increases up to several thousand times in size before pupating (turning into chrysalis); it also means the caterpillar molts (loses its old skin) many times as it’s growing. Molting occurs because the outer skin (exoskeleton) doesn’t grow as the caterpillar enlarges and grows. A caterpillar may go through as many as four to five molts before it becomes a pupa.
When the eating is done, it’s time to rest and turn into a pupa (chrysalis). The caterpillar attaches itself to a twig, a wall or some other support and the exoskeleton splits open to reveal the chrysalis. The chrysalis hangs down like a small sack until the transformation to butterfly is complete. Although the chrysalis is motionless during this resting phase, this is where the caterpillar's structure is broken down and rearranged into the wings, body and legs of the adult butterfly. WHAATT??? I’ve been underestimating caterpillars and leafy greens. 😊 Depending on the species, the chrysalis stage may last for a few days or a year or more. Many butterfly species overwinter or hibernate as a chrysalis.
The fourth and final stage of the metamorphosis of butterflies is becoming an adult. Once the chrysalis casing splits, the butterfly emerges. It will quickly go on to find food, locate a mate, and lay eggs to begin the cycle all over again.
Most butterflies live on nectar from flowers. Some butterflies sip the liquid from rotting fruits and a rare few prefer rotting animal flesh or animal fluids, including fluid found in animal droppings. Butterflies drink through a tube-like tongue called a proboscis. The proboscis uncoils to sip, and then coils up again when the butterfly isn’t feeding. The butterfly proboscis doesn’t have taste buds or similar sensors to determine taste. Instead, those sensors are located on the back of the butterfly’s legs. So, yes, one of the coolest facts about butterflies is that they use their feet to taste. If they land on you, they’re probably tasting you.
There’s many useful, free, resources that identifies steps for attracting butterflies and other pollinators to your yard. These may help, or do a search on your web browser of choice!
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