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Scientific Classification

Superfamily Hesperioidea

Superfamily Papilionoidea

Butterflies are insects that make up several taxonomic families of the Order Lepidoptera, which also includes the moths. Their coloring makes them as unique as they are beautiful, and they live almost everywhere there is vegetation. They have an almost cult-like following from people involved with endangered species protectors and habitat destroying collectors. These animals are a true blessing for us, though their early development can be a nuisance in gardens!


The butterfly is often mistaken for its fellow lepidopteran, the moth. This is easy because both the moth and butterfly have two pairs of scaled-wings. Moths are mostly nocturnal, whereas butterfly activity is usually done during the day. The butterfly has bright, beautiful coloring, but the moths coloring can only be described as "drab".[1]

Defenses and Predators

European Peacock butterfly (Inachis io)

Many butterflies have developed wonderful defenses against predators such as reptiles, bats, birds, and bugs (spiders, mantids, dragonflies, etc.). Birds are a butterflies number one predator.

Butterflies have two techniques for "eluding" predators. The first is mimicking the coloring of a large animal such as an owl. This effectively scares away birds and bats with the spread of their delicate wings.

The second adaptation that butterflies (and moths) have as a defense is camouflage. The special coloring on butterflies is sometimes associated with the coloring of their specific habitat. This allows them to disappear from the eyes of hunters like mantises and dragonflies.[2]

Reproduction and Life Cycle

God created the caterpillar with amazing suction-like feet
Unidentified butterfly larvae with a cocoon

Once a male and female butterfly locate each other, the male initiates a courtship dance. Scientists believe that this ritual exposes the female to pheromones, chemical signals released by the male that induce the female to mate. Males of many species have patches of specialized scales called androconia on their wings, thorax, or abdomen that release pheromones. Females also release pheromones from their abdomens. The butterflies sense each other’s pheromones with the smelling organs on their antennae. During the courtship ritual, the male may flutter around the female or bump her with his wings or body. The pair may also alight on a plant or other perch and stroke each other with their antennae. In some species the courtship ritual is elaborate, but in most it is simple and brief.

This process still mystifies scientists. To the best of their ability, the male does a special dance for the female releasing pheromones form the androconia on his abdomen, wings, and thorax that introduce the female to mating. The female also has some androconia, but only on the abdomen. this whole courtship ritual is brief and includes a lot of antenna action and flying around in the pheromones. Males and females are distinct in this order, and sexual reproduction is the method of furthering butterfly generations. The butterfly produces eggs, that grow into caterpillars.

There are four basic stages in a butterflies life: egg, larva (also known as the caterpillar stage), pupa, and adult. In the egg stage, the female butterfly lays eggs with hard shells covered in wax (to keep them moist). The eggs are attached to a leaf and have tiny male-butterfly sperm sized holes for fertilization. After the eggs hatch, out comes a caterpillar. The caterpillar's main focus is eating food and preparing for the pupa stage. The pupa stage is by far the most important in the butterfly's life. The larva finds a spot on a leaf and builds a chrysalis around itself. It then develops inside the chrysalis, using the nutrients it stored from the leaves it ate as a caterpillar. An interesting fact: if a butterfly wing was to be removed while inside the chrysalis, the other three wings would grow larger to support the butterfly in flight and balance. The adult stage is marked by completed chrysalis transformation and sexual maturity.[3]

Hibernation and Migration

Butterflies that live in North America are much too fragile to survive the cold winters of most regions. Some have to find holes to burrow into. The caterpillar stage survives this by becoming a pupa (even if prematurely). Most butterflies that live in North America fly south to Mexico for the winter and return back when the weather gets warm enough to survive. The caterpillar will eat until a certain day when it will start looking for a place to undergo its metamorphosis. The caterpillar (or larvae) will then begin to form a chrysalis around itself. In this cocoon stage, the larvae is now a pupa. It will only remain a pupa as long as it's suspended inside the chrysalis. When the development is done, the caterpillar will break out of its chrysalis with fully developed wing-disks. This final adult stage the animal is called a butterfly.[4]


butterfly feeding from flower nectar

Most butterflies have a tongue-like tube connected to the front of the head. This tongue is what butterflies use to suck the nectar out of flowers. Some butterflies don’t even eat from flowers, and they instead eat sap and other rotting organic matter. This is only a small number, though, and a majority of butterflies survive in a symbiotic relationship with flowers.

Caterpillars' diets are quite diverse. Some will eat any kind of plant in their habitat, some can only survive on one specific organism. Most caterpillars (which are baby versions of the adult butterfly) get their nutrition from leaves. Many caterpillars are viewed by gardeners as being 'pests' for destroying (or eating) entire gardens.

There is one special caterpillar that is not considered a pest in any sense of the word. In fact, this caterpillar is quite helpful to gardeners. Its name is the Harvester. This special caterpillar eats the aphids that live on, and destroy plants.[5]

Habitats and Life Span

There are about 20,000 species of butterfly in the world. Butterflies are everywhere--estimates have projected a possible 100 species just in the region of the average home (this, of course, varies significantly due to climate and temperature). The average life span of the butterfly is only one month, depending on the size and habitat. More dangerous habitats (i.e. more predators) can yield fewer living butterflies. Size is also connected to life span. Small butterflies may only live as long as a couple of weeks. Whereas the larger species may live as long as nine months.[6]

Endangered Species

Karner Blue Butterfly

Aside from the many special varieties of butterfly, there seem to be more and more ending up on the endangered species list. Among these is the Karner Blue butterfly.

The Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is found in the upper mid-west section of America, and can be found in the states of Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Illinois, and Ohio. These animals are small, with an open wingspan of only one inch. They feed on the nectar of flowers as adults. The reason they are going extinct: habitat loss. As a caterpillar the Karner Blue can only feed on the leaves of the wild lupine plant. As this plant disappears, so does the Karner Blue. This leads to the second reason for imminent extinction: collecting. Butterfly collectors view the Karner Blue as a rare and beautiful addition to a collection, leading to the further degradation of this species. Measures of habitat protection have been taken to protect the Karner Blue.[7]

Conservation, Gardens, and Weddings

Butterfly gardening is a way for people to turn their backyards into havens for butterflies. By merely planting nectar plants and host plants (for the caterpillar to develop on) people can start to save the butterfly population. "Urbanization" is slowly destroying the butterfly's habitat by destroying the plants that they need to survive. So by planting flowers such as the Aster, Yarrow, and Cosmos, people are saving the butterfly population.

A popular event at outdoor weddings is releasing butterflies. This has been found to be very harmful to both butterflies and the environment. The certain species of butterfly released may breed with the species in the neighborhood and cause genetic defects. These defects that were not meant to happen also lead to confusion on migration and evitable survival of that animal.[8]


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