We all love to see butterflies move around in our gardens, local parks, and open spaces. From the tiniest to the largest butterflies, these beautiful insects give our world a little bit more color. But what else do we know about the butterfly? Read on as we explore some fascinating butterfly facts.
Or, for more from these often beautiful insects, you might like our compilation of butterfly quotes.
Butterflies are winged insects in various colors, sizes, and patterns. You can find around 19,000 different butterfly species all over the world2. The butterfly falls under the Insecta class and branches into different families, genera, and species. One of the most common butterflies in the United States is the Cabbage White which belongs to the Pieridae family.
A group of butterflies has different names. It is called a kaleidoscope, flutter, flight, swarm, army, wing, rabble, flock, roost, or bivouac. These names apply to the same group of butterflies in different situations. For example, a group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope when in flight and a bivouac when resting. When looking for liquids in puddles, we refer to these butterflies as swarms.
However, you are less likely to find most butterflies in groups since they only live for a short time. Most butterflies group themselves for food, migratory rest, and hydration. You may also see two butterflies fluttering during mating season. They flutter in the air to show that they are ready to mate. But these fluttering friends only have a brief union.
One of the most fascinating facts about butterflies is that they come with four separate wings instead of two. We refer to the two wings near its head as forewings, while those at the back are called hindwings. All four of the butterfly’s wings move up and down during flight thanks to its strong flight muscles.
The butterfly's wings have tiny scales, which are tiny hairs that overlap and give it its distinct color form and patterns. These color forms are structural and pigmented. Pigmented colors are dense, inky, and definite, while structural colors shift with lighting and produce a more rainbow-like effect3.
As we mentioned above, adult butterflies have four wings and tiny scales. What's even more fascinating is that their wings are transparent! The color of a butterfly in your yard is simply a reflection of different colors through these scales. The adult comes with wings formed from chitin layers, the same protein that makes up an insect's exoskeleton. Mushrooms and crabs are examples of animals that are made out of chitin.
The Western Pygmy Blue butterfly has a wingspan of only 0.5 inches6. The upper side of this butterfly comes in copper-brown with dull blue at the base of its wings. The underside of its hind wings comes in copper brown with white at the base. You can find these butterflies in alkaline areas like deserts, salt marshes, and barren lands in North America, as well as in other locations like Hawaii, the Persian Gulf, Eastern Saudi Arabia, and so on.
The biggest living butterfly is Queen Alexandra's Birdwing, found in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, and it is also one of the rarest butterflies in the world. The male and female differ in size, color, and wingspan.
However, the female is larger than the male butterfly, having a wingspan of more than 25.4cm. They come in brown wings with white markings. The males are smaller, with a wingspan of around 17.8 cm.
These beautiful creatures live on every continent except Antarctica. Butterflies can survive in almost any habitat. From tropical areas to temperate forests, open woods, swamps, and so on.
However, butterflies thrive in warm areas. These creatures are cold-blooded and depend on warm climates to survive. This is why you won’t find them in Antarctica. During the winter, butterflies do one of two things. They could either stay in a state of dormancy until the winter passes or migrate to warmer locations.
Also, butterflies feed primarily on nectar and need access to flowers. This is why cold locations like Antarctica are not ideal for a butterfly's survival.
Most adult butterflies have an average lifespan of only a few weeks. They live for an average of two to three weeks. However, some butterfly’s life cycles can be as long as two to eight months. Some adult butterflies may last for only 24 hours. While the monarch butterfly and others can live as long as eight months5.
The butterfly's lifecycle happens in four stages: the butterfly egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa, and the adult stage.
Female butterflies lay eggs on the leaf or stems of plants. They lay these eggs in spring, summer, or fall.
Next, these eggs turn into caterpillars. The host plants become food for the emerging caterpillars. The caterpillar continues to eat and eat until it grows and sheds its skin up to four or five times.
Most caterpillars feed on plants, while some may eat other insects. Caterpillars may even become destructive to your garden as they need to eat to grow into the next stage of their life cycle. Caterpillars can increase their size many times during this stage.
Depending on the surrounding conditions and species, they can stay in this stage for about two to five weeks. The female butterfly lays many eggs; however, only a few make it out of the caterpillar stage.
When the caterpillar grows fully, it stops eating and moves to the next stage, called the pupa stage. We refer to a butterfly's pupa as a chrysalis.
The pupa or chrysalis remains suspended under branches or leaves of plants or underground. The developing butterfly remains in this stage for a few weeks and eventually evolves into an adult butterfly.
The next stage is what we all know as the butterfly. At this stage, the butterfly develops fully with long legs and antennae, compound eyes, and wings. It sits for a few hours until its wings dry off before taking its first flight. The females seek different plants looking for the correct host plant for their eggs. While caterpillars primarily eat, the adult lays eggs.
Adult butterflies feed mainly on liquid - typically nectar. The butterfly has mouthparts called the proboscis, which functions like a straw. One of the first things adult butterflies do is to assemble their mouthparts.
When a new adult emerges from the chrysalis, its mouth has two pieces. However, the butterfly then begins to curl and uncurl the proboscis to form one single proboscis. With the proboscis, butterflies drink nectar from plants. The proboscis stays curled up until it finds nectar or any other liquid. Apart from nectar, butterflies drink from mud puddles which contain minerals and salts.
Butterflies require a certain body temperature to fly. These cold-blooded animals cannot regulate their body temperature, so cooler weather can make butterflies immobile. This makes them unable to feed or flee from predators, which can quickly end their already short lifespan.
Some butterflies, like the monarch butterfly, migrate away from the cold. Monarch butterflies can migrate as far as 3000 miles in search of warmer weather. When the days are shorter, and the weather is cooler, Monarch butterflies leave their breeding grounds in North America and Canada and set out to the south, all the way to Central Mexico. These butterflies use the sun to travel on course. They also have a magnetic compass to help them move on cloudy days4.
Butterflies typically eat nectar. But how do these creatures taste their food? Well, one of the fun facts about butterflies is that they use their feet as taste receptors. When a butterfly lands on a plant, it uses its feet to check if its food is edible, thanks to the chemoreceptors on its feet.
One of the most fascinating facts about butterflies is that they can perceive more colors than humans. Butterflies may not have eyes as sharp as the human eye. Still, these creatures have larger visual fields and can also distinguish ultraviolet colors that are invisible to the human eye. Butterflies also have some ultraviolet markings on their wings to help them locate a potential mate1.
Most adult butterflies are not poisonous. One way a butterfly defends itself from predators is to make itself unpalatable. Butterflies don't have any stingers or fangs to inject toxins into predators. Many butterfly species will store toxins in their bodies at the caterpillar stage.
The monarchs lay their eggs on the poisonous milkweed plant and feed on it, collecting toxins from it. Other species, like the Pipevine Snowtail and Red Lacewing, also feed on poisonous plants.
Butterflies rank low on the food chain and are food sources for many hungry predators. To protect themselves from these predators, butterflies perform different tricks. Some butterflies can fold their wings to blend into their environment and become invisible to predators. Viceroy butterflies transform into monarch butterflies, mimicking their appearance to warn predators that they are toxic.
Butterflies help to pollinate plants. Typically, butterflies move from one plant to another in search of nectar. Once the butterfly lands on a plant, it uses its long proboscis, which it uses to drink nectar from flowering plants. Butterflies feed on nectar from these plants and carry pollen to other plants. Most plants need pollinators like butterflies to reproduce.
Related: you might also be interested in reading up on our bee facts for more about our world’s most important pollinator.
Butterflies also play a major role in increasing biodiversity and are good indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Climate changes can affect migratory patterns and butterfly temperatures. Loss of habitats can also increase predation and migration of butterflies.
Many ecologists study butterflies to determine the health of our ecosystem. Butterflies are also an important part of the food chain. They are food sources for animals like birds. Animals like birds, lizards, and spiders eat caterpillars.
Butterflies and moths are closely related and belong to the same insect family and order - Lepidoptera. They both pull nectar from flowers and other liquid sources.
However, the many different types of moths are shorter and have thicker bodies and hairs than butterflies. While butterflies rely on the heat from the sun to fly, moths prefer to stay in dark environments and generate heat through their own wings.
The butterfly caterpillar eats solely to grow, and once it becomes an adult, its job is to mate and lay eggs. However, female moths may lay batches or only a single egg.
In the pupal stage, the butterfly caterpillar creates a hard and smooth chrysalis. On the other hand, the moth creates a cocoon wrapped in a silk covering.
We know butterflies for bringing color and beauty to nature. These creatures also have unique features that help them survive. They can deter predators by storing up poison or performing other tricks to camouflage themselves.
Butterflies are also important to our ecosystem. They are excellent pollinators and help to promote biodiversity.
Ghiradella, H., Aneshansley, D., Eisner, T., Silberglied, R. E., & Hinton, H. E. (1972). Ultraviolet reflection of a male butterfly: interference color caused by thin-layer elaboration of wing scales. Science, 178(4066), 1214-1217.
Mahaulpatha, Dharshani & Silva, Praneeth & Dasanayake, Tharanga & Jayasekara, Dulan & Meegamage, Prabhath & De Silva, Wathmini & Dilrangi, Kulathungage. (2021). New Study Finds 33 Species of Butterflies at Maduru Oya National Park, Sri Lanka.
Tayeb, GÃrard & Gralak, Boris & Enoch, Stefan. (2003). Structural Colors in Nature and Butterfly-Wing Modeling. Optics and Photonics News. 14. 38-43. 10.1364/OPN.14.2.000038.
Guerra, P. A., Gegear, R. J., & Reppert, S. M. (2014). A magnetic compass aids monarch butterfly migration. Nature communications, 5(1), 1-8.
Gillis, J. (2003). Life Cycle of a Monarch Butterfly. Carson-Dellosa Publishing.
Deaton, C. C., & Nicholson, H. (2015). Interacting with butterflies. Teaching Children Mathematics, 22(5), 280-281.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.