Top 10 Fun Facts About Butterflies

Monarch in flight by photofarmer, cc2.0

Top 10 Fun Facts About Butterflies

Monarch in flight by photofarmer, cc2.0

Butterflies are some of the world’s most beautiful creatures, daintily fluttering by on a warm summer’s day. Aside from inspiring awe because of their striking appearance, they also give hope, especially since they start out as tiny eggs and sluggish, sometimes ugly, caterpillars. Here are ten facts you might not know about these dainty creatures…

1. Butterflies taste with their feet.

Public domain image from
Butterfly. Photographer: Jon Sullivan, PD Image.

Butterflies do not only taste their food. They taste their nests in a sense. You see, butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves of a plant, which stick to it like the stickiest glue. After the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat not just the leaf but all the other leaves of the plant, that is, if they like the taste of it. If they don’t, they’ll starve and die. So the butterfly has to choose the plant well, making sure its leaves are tasty enough for its young to eat.

2. Butterflies can’t fly if it’s too cold.

Image by swampcat1943, PD image.

What do butterflies have in common with snakes and crocodiles? They are cold-blooded. This means that butterflies cannot control their own body temperature, their temperature changing with that of their surrounding environment. If it’s too cold, such as temperatures below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, they cannot move and so they cannot fly. When it finally gets warm, they bask under the sun, spreading their wings to absorb the heat. They also cannot stay out in the sun too long, though, or they might get burned.

Butterflies also don’t fly when it is raining because their wings get too heavy. Instead, they perch on tree trunks or branches.

3. Butterflies were once believed to steal butter.

Papilio machaon – photographed at central Europe, summer 2009. Image credit: Bodow, cc2.5

Have you ever wondered why butterflies are called such? There are several theories. Some say it was because many butterflies are yellow like the color of butter. Others say it was because butterflies have wings that were as soft as butter. Others, still, say that it was because the poop of butterflies is yellow just like butter.

There is another theory – in medieval times, butterflies were often seen on butter churns, those barrel-like containers where cream is made into butter (probably because butterflies like sweets). In fact, this was such a common sight that some folk started to believe that the butterflies were witches that stole butter.

Butterflies are known by different names in different countries. They are called petalouda in Greece, papillon in France, farfalla in Italy, mariposa in Spain, schmetterling in Germany, babochka in Russia, chouchou in Japan and paru-paro in the Philippines.

4. Butterflies need to assemble their proboscis.

Image credit: Josch13, PD image.

Caterpillars spend most of their time eating and when they become butterflies, they no longer eat. All they do is drink nectar, water, tree sap or the juice from fruits. Some also drink from muddy puddles to get the minerals there.

Butterflies drink using their straw-like mouthpart which is called a proboscis. Think of it as something like an elephant’s trunk. When not in use, it is coiled and tucked inside the butterfly’s head just like some straws are hidden inside tumblers and when it is time to drink, the proboscis is rolled out.

The butterfly did not always have this proboscis, though. When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon, one of the first things it has to do is to assemble the two parts of its proboscis into one. If it isn’t able to do this, it won’t be able to drink and it won’t be able to survive. Once the butterfly is done with the assembly, it tests its proboscis out which is why newly emerged butterflies can be seen curling and uncurling their proboscis.

5. Butterflies have transparent wings.

South-American butterfly wings. Image credit: Eddy Van 3000, CC BY-SA 2.0

If you think butterflies have wings that are like leaves or flower petals that have their own colors, you’re wrong. Butterfly wings, which are made of a special type of protein, are actually transparent. However, they are covered in scales, which can easily come off when they are touched. These scales are what give butterfly wings their color as well as some measure of protection. Sometimes, these scales also release certain chemicals that play a role in finding a mate.

6. The common Mormon butterfly mimics other butterfly species to protect itself.

Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) Female, form stichius. Image credit: Jeevan Jose, Kerala, India, cc4.0

Butterflies have a number of predators such as spiders, dragonflies, wasps, birds, snakes, frogs, rats, lizards and monkeys. How do they protect themselves? Some of them are poisonous or release a nasty chemical that makes them taste bad. Some use camouflage, hiding themselves or pretending to look like something else.

The common Mormon butterfly is one species of butterfly well-known for its mimicry. It mimics the appearance of the common rose swallowtail or the crimson rose swallowtail, both of which are inedible because of their nasty taste. In this way, it avoids getting eaten. Clever, isn’t it?

7. Mourning cloak butterflies sometimes attack predators in numbers.

Mourning Cloak by ressaure, cc2.0

Think butterflies are all timid? Think again. Mourning cloak butterflies may prefer to hide or fly away in the presence of a predator but when there are many of them, they join together and make a counterattack. They may be small but as they say, there is strength in numbers, and this tactic often succeeds in driving away the bird or the predatory insect. It doesn’t work on larger predators, though.

8. Squinting bush brown butterflies can change their appearance depending on the season.

Squinting bush brown by Oregon State University, cc2.0

Few insects can change their color or appearance to match the season just like some hares or birds do. But the squinting bush brown butterfly has this very talent. During the wet season, squinting bush browns have large spots on their wings that look like eyes, which either startles predators so they fly away or tricks them into going for the wing, giving the butterfly a chance to escape. During the dry season, these spots disappear and the butterflies better blend with their surroundings. The eyespots also play a role in mating since the females tend to choose males with larger eyespots. They tend to choose males that are older, as well.

It isn’t just the appearance of the squinting bush brown butterfly that changes with the season. During the wet season, more eggs are laid while in the dry season, there are fewer but larger eggs.

9. Monarch butterflies travel around 4,000 miles each year.

Monarch Butterfly by mikebaird, cc2.0

The monarch butterfly is one of the best known butterfly species and is particularly common in North America. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants and as a result, the eggs are not just protected – because milkweed is toxic – but the caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves and use the poison as their own, making them inedible even when they become butterflies.

The most amazing thing about monarch butterflies, though, is their migration. Every year, they travel 2,000 miles from the Great Lakes of North America to Mexico or southern California during winter. This is usually the last journey of the butterflies who die after laying their eggs. Then in spring, the new butterflies journey back north, to as far north as Canada. This is one of the longest migrations among insects.

10. In some parts of the world, butterflies are believed to be souls.

An American Lady butterfly against a cloud-filled sky. Image credit: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, GFDL.

In ancient Greece, butterflies were called psyche and were believed to represent the souls of the dead. In ancient Rome, it was believed that after a person died, a butterfly would leave its mouth, symbolizing the departure of its soul. In the Philippines, a black butterfly inside the house is often regarded as a sign that the soul of a loved one is visiting or that a loved one is soon to die.

In Japan, butterflies are also believed to represent souls, not just of the dead but also of the living. In fact, when a butterfly perches on the bamboo screen, it is a sign that the person you want to see the most is coming to see you.

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