Butterflies are beautiful, brightly coloured insects that are well-known for the complex patterns on their wings, but they are for more than just flight. The bright colours act as a warning for predators, and the wings act as miniature solar panels. In fact, they are so effective that they inspire the design and development of efficient solar panels for renewable energy.
Amazing Facts About the Butterfly
Butterflies are beautiful, brightly coloured insects with a fascinating life cycle that makes them one of the greatest examples of transformation and growth. They have many magical associations in folklore. According to Irish folklore, butterflies are the souls of humans able to pass between worlds; it is bad luck to harm one. And in Native American folklore, butterflies can carry wishes and prayers to the Great Spirit – if you catch one without causing harm and whisper it a wish, your wish will come true once you set it free.
Why are insects so successful?
Insects are everywhere. Scientists estimate that there are around 200 million insects on the planet for every living person and that we have yet to discover most of them. There are a number of reasons why scientists believe insects are so successful, including their hard exoskeleton, their use of chemicals and their complex life cycles. Each stage of an insect’s life cycle has a specific function to which they are adapted – caterpillars are purely designed to eat. They have no wings or sensory systems that require energy; they put everything into eating!
How many species are there?
There are around 18,000 species of butterfly in the world. The largest, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly, lives only in Papua New Guinea and has a wingspan of 20-30 cm. On the opposite end of the scale, the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly in western USA has a wingspan of just over 1 cm!
Butterflies live on every continent except Antarctica, but because they are cold-blooded (unable to maintain their own body temperature), they most often inhabit tropical environments.
What is the difference between butterflies and moths?
Butterflies and moths are members of the classification order Lepidoptera, and they are similar in many ways. In fact, it can be hard to pinpoint differences as there are always exceptions to the rules – butterflies can be dull; moths can be colourful. It is a myth that colourfulness is a difference.
In general, though, moths are nocturnal and leave their wings open when resting, while butterflies are diurnal and close their wings when resting. A further difference is in the antennae: moth antennae are thin or feathery, while butterfly antennae often resemble clubs with wider tips.
What do Butterflies eat?
Butterflies have a poor sense of smell and typically use their eyes to search for food. They use their feet to taste! Their feet are covered in receptors that help them find plants that are good for them and caterpillars to eat. This is important as caterpillars need as much energy as possible to survive pupation. Adult butterflies feed with a proboscis (mouth part that works in a similar way to a drinking straw) and eat only liquids. Most commonly, they eat nectar from flowers, but some species eat tree sap and rotting organic matter.
What do Butterflies see?
Butterfly eyes contain thousands of tiny lenses and special photoreceptors for ultraviolet light that scientists believe help them navigate during long migrations. Many flowers use UV markings invisible to human eyes to attract butterflies, which are crucial pollinators. Unlike bees, butterflies can see the colour red.
How fast and far can Butterflies fly?
Every species is different, but when it comes to speed and distance, a few species stand out!
Skippers are the fastest of all butterflies. There are about 4,000 species, and their reaction times are twice as fast as ours! They can reach speeds of up to 37 mph and keep pace with a horse in a race!
Painted lady butterflies make the longest migration, travelling 9,000 miles from tropical Africa to the Arctic Circle. This is too far for an individual to travel, so they complete the journey like a relay race – six successive generations spend their whole lives flying north.
One of the most famous butterfly species is the orange and black monarch butterfly. Every year, millions of individuals migrate across North America to their hibernation site in Mexico to avoid the approaching winter.
What is the life cycle of a Butterfly?
Butterflies have four different life stages; egg, caterpillar, pupa and adult. They undergo a metamorphosis (complete change) during their development.
- A female butterfly lays her eggs on the leaves of a suitable plant. The length of time it takes for the eggs to hatch depends on the species, with some hatching in a few weeks and others waiting until the weather is warm enough.
- At the right time, the caterpillar eats its way out of the egg and immediately starts eating the leaves of the host plant. Caterpillars grow rapidly, shedding their skin four or five times as each skin becomes too tight and splits, revealing new, larger skin beneath. A caterpillar can increase its weight by 10,000 times in just three weeks!
- Once fully grown, a caterpillar finds a safe place and forms a pupa (or chrysalis) with a hardened case to protect it both from predators and the weather. Over time, hidden inside the pupa, the caterpillar changes into an adult Butterfly.
- When the case eventually splits open, the Butterfly must patiently wait for its soggy, wrinkled wings to dry, during which time it pumps fluid into them to make them stronger before taking off to feed and mate.
How do Butterflies defend themselves?
The brightly coloured wings of butterflies act as a warning to predators that their tiny bodies are packed with toxic chemicals. Many butterflies share the same warning colouration (black and yellow or red), and many harmless species mimic these colours too! Small birds that prey on butterflies are themselves prey for owls and hawks. To deter them, many butterflies have patterns on their wings that resemble large eyes, which can be startling when revealed suddenly!
Caterpillars are slow and rich in protein, making them an easy meal for predators. Different species have developed different strategies for defence, including venomous hairs and barbs and camouflage as a leaf or flower. Some contain toxins that make them taste unpleasant, while others use elaborate disguises. The Spicebush Swallowtail and Snake-mimic Hawkmoth caterpillars both inflate their rear ends and sway them to resemble an angry snake. Some even have a fake forked tongue to make it more realistic.
What are the threats to Butterflies?
Habitat loss is the main reason why butterflies and moths are in decline. And increased urbanisation, land management and climate change are all to blame. For many species, such as the North American population of Monarch butterflies, deforestation is a major threat. Removing trees destroys the protective canopy, which acts as a blanket and an umbrella to hibernating butterflies. Snow and rain can knock butterflies from trees to the forest floor, where they quickly freeze. These sites are protected, but the regulations can be difficult to enforce.
How can you help Butterflies?
Even the smallest garden can become a wildlife-friendly space for butterflies with some imagination.
- Avoid using chemical pesticides
- Ensure wooden furniture is FSC accredited, as this helps protect the forest habitat of endangered butterfly species.
- When flowers are scarce during autumn, leave an old mushy banana out as a sweet boost for butterflies, but be aware that other species, like wasps, may appreciate this treat too!
- Fill garden borders with flowering plants and shrubs so butterflies have plenty of nectar-rich food. It’s a good idea to research what species are best in your area. And include a variety of plants that flower at different times to appeal to many different species. The wider the variety of plants, the wider the variety of Butterflies!
- Include plants such as hedge garlic and buckthorn bushes in your garden, as they make good breeding sites for butterflies to lay their eggs.
Find more animals like this
- Type: Insect
- Diet: Nectar
- Life span: 1 week to 10 months
- Size: From 1-30cm
- Weight: 0.003-3g
- Habitat: Wetlands, meadows, woodlands, rainforests, coasts and gardens
- Range: On all continents except Antarctica
- Scientific name: Lepidoptera