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The Colorful World Of Butterflies

Updated on October 19, 2010

Doris Longwing


The technical name for the butterfly family is Lepidoptera. But, somehow that term doesn’t seem to do these beautiful insects justice. A young toddler would just point and say “Pretty”!

Moths are also included in the Lepidoptera family. Although butterflies and moths are very similar, there are many differences. Most butterflies have brightly colored wings while moths have dull colored ones. Butterflies fly during the daytime, moths at night.

The easiest way to differentiate the two is by looking at their antennae. A butterfly's antennae are knobbed at the ends whereas the moth’s is either feather-like or plain. Have you ever noticed butterflies rest with their wings held up above their bodies while moths rest with their wings spread out flat? In general, butterflies will have slender, hairless bodies, while moths are fat and furry.  Here’s another little tidbit. The smallest butterfly's wingspan is 1/8 of an inch long while the largest is almost 12 inches.

Blue Morpho

24,000 Different Kinds

There are approximately 24,000 different kinds of butterflies worldwide? Of these, Swallowtails are some of the largest and most beautiful. There are nearly 700 known species of swallowtails and about 35 of these live in North America. They are usually black, brown and yellow with red and blue spots. You can tell a swallowtail by looking at its wings. They usually have "tails" at the bottom.

Some of the prettiest types are in the Blue Morpho family. It is the one most sought after by collectors. While it appears the wings are metallic blue, they aren’t. The color is due to how the microscopic scales reflect light off the back of the wings.

They Live Almost Everywhere

The majority of butterflies are found in rain forests but they live almost everywhere. Some may live in cold climates, while others, in hot deserts. It is commonly thought butterflies have short life spans. However, butterflies can live from a week to nearly a year depending on the species.

Although butterflies are beautiful to watch with their brightly colored wings and odd fluttering flight, they didn’t start out that way. They begin as Larvae or caterpillars, quite ugly in comparison to the full grown adult. Caterpillars are voracious leaf eaters, but a few do eat insects.

Amazingly, some larvae are able to communicate with ants! They accomplish this using vibrations and chemical signals. The ants provide protection to these larvae while they gather secretions of honeydew.

Some species are considered pests by farmers because in their larval stage they damage crops and trees. On the other hand, others pollinate or eat harmful insects.

Some caterpillars have an ability to inflate parts of their head making them look like a snake and have false eye-spots adding to the deception. The eye-spots may also serve to attract mates. Additionally, others can produce obnoxious smells. The art of camouflage is used by many butterflies. Some like the Oak leaf butterfly are remarkable imitations of leaves. These are all self defense mechanisms.

When the larvae are fully grown, they stop feeding and begin searching for a suitable pupation site, like on the bottom of a leaf. The larva then transforms into a pupa called a chrysalis. The chrysalis is usually not capable of movement, although some species can move their abdominal segments to produce sounds in order to ward off potential predators.

At pupation, the wings are forced outside the epidermis. Within hours, the wings form a cuticle so hard they can be handled without damage. Wing coloration is created by minute scales and the way light reflects off of them.

Butterflies feed primarily on nectar and pollen from flowers. They consume only liquids and these are sucked by means of their proboscis. Several species need more sodium than provided by nectar alone. They are attracted to sodium in salt and will sometimes land on people for that reason.

Many butterflies, such as the Monarch, are capable of flying long distances. They use the sun for orientation. When it’s cloudy they can also perceive polarized light. The Monarch is famous for their migrations from Mexico to northern USA and parts of Canada, about 3000 miles.

Interestingly, some butterflies are territorial and will chase away other species or individuals. Others will use their flight styles as sort of a courtship display.

The world has always been fascinated with these colorful creatures…especially children. They can be very educational. In fact some companies specialize in butterfly growing kits where the whole family can watch as the butterflies go through their entire growing stages.

Maybe you should get one.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Barbsbitsnpieces, thank you very much

    • Barbsbitsnpieces profile image

      Barbara Anne Helberg 6 years ago from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA

      @JY3502...Colorful presentation and loads of interesting facts on nature's beautiful Lepidoptera family!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Well Sunny, there's a lot of it. right now I'm going through my paranormal and old west phase...some on women of the old west. I read some of your work. Good writing style. That's high praise coming from a strict disciplined, school trained, hard news styled reporter. But, I'm loosening up a little. LOL

    • Sunny Barb profile image

      Barbara Lease Walker 6 years ago from Central Florida

      I enjoyed this very much. Very informative and beautifully illustratated. I am currently writing a butterfly article with a different twist. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

      Thanks for sharing!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Thank you. We used to live in Virginia, and always saw lots of butterflies, but the move to the sage brush deserts of Idaho has cut that considerably. Too dry for most species, perhaps. I miss them.