Aug 7th, 2016

Butterflies: Believe It or Not

Fun Butterfly Facts to Know and Tell

Kelly Riley McGranahan looks at caterpillars for butterfly facts

See how many fun butterfly facts you know.

Robert Frost called them “flying flowers.” The French call them papillon, which also means “parking ticket.” In the United States we call them butterflies, there are lots of theories about why, but no one knows for sure.  Want to learn more about these curious creatures? Grab your magnifying glass and take a look at this list of 10 fun butterfly facts.

  1. Do butterflies sleep? At night, or when it’s cloudy or cool outside, butterflies land and might look like they are sleeping. But they never close their eyes. They don’t have eyelids!
owl butterfly close up for butterfly facts

To see or be seen? They look a lot like eyes, so don’t be fooled by the spots on this Giant Owl’s (Caligo memnon) wings.

2. How do butterflies see? Butterflies have two eyes just like we do. But butterfly eyes are called compound eyes because they have many, many lenses. That means butterflies can see many different things in many directions all at the same time. Their butterfly brains collect all of that information and make one whole picture from all those tiny parts. Try looking through the special compound lens in the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit space and you’ll see the world just like a butterfly does. Most butterflies can see red, yellow, blue, and green, but some species can see other colors, too.

lantana through a compound eye butterfly Anna Estep

Lantana flowers as seen through a compound eye. Photo by Lead Butterfly Curator Anna Estep

3. Can butterflies smell? Butterflies don’t have noses. They “smell” with their antennae. (See no. 5 to learn how they taste!)

4How do butterflies eat? Butterflies don’t eat. They drink! They use their mouth, called a proboscis, like a straw to sip their food. When they’re not drinking, they roll their tongue up and tuck it under their chin.

butterfly profile with proboscis for butterfly facts

Proboscis coiled and antennae on alert, this Torquatus Swallowtail (Papipo torquatus) is ready to soak up some sweet nectar.

5. Can butterflies taste? Butterflies “taste” with their feet! Tiny organs on a butterfly’s feet can sense the chemical signature of anything they land on. That’s how they know if something is good to eat.

butterfly on fruit for butterfly facts

A slice of orange passes the Postman butterly (Heliconius melapomene) taste test.

6. What do butterflies drink? Butterflies like to sip nectar from flowers and juice from fruit, which gives them plenty of sugar for energy. But they also need salts and minerals that they get from “puddling” — drinking out of mud puddles, or wet spots on the ground. A group of male butterflies enjoying a puddle together is called a “puddle club.”

7How do butterflies defend themselves?  The bright color patterns on some butterfly’s wings help them hide them from predators by blending in with the other colors in the garden. Other butterflies taste bad (or look like other butterflies that do), which is a warning to hungry predators to stay away. Some are even poisonous.

orange dead leag butterfly 1000

A orange oakleaf or deadleaf butterfly (Kallima inachus) passes as a dried leaf thanks to some clever camouflage.

8Do butterflies have bones and muscles and skin like we do?  A butterfly’s skeleton is not inside their body, but on the outside and is called the exoskeleton. Its like having skin made of bones. They have muscles just like we do, and that’s how they move.

9How many wings does a butterfly have? A butterfly has four wings. A pair of fore wings in the front and two hind wings in the back. When they fly, their wings move up and down in a figure-eight pattern. A group of butterflies flying together isn’t called a flock — it’s a “flutter!”

orange butterfly for butterfly facts

It’s clear that butterfly wings are transparent, even though they are covered with thousands of tiny scales that reflect light in different ways to make different colors. Julia (Drayas julia)

10. How do butterflies communicate with each other? Butterflies don’t need to do much communicating. They sometimes move their wings to send a message. And because they can see ultraviolet light, they look for the ultraviolet light patterns on each others wings that identify their species and gender.

Many thanks to Lead Butterfly Curator Anna Estep who provided all of these fun facts!

Susan Higgins writes about what she learns and loves in the Garden, first as a volunteer in PR & Marketing and now as Corporate & Foundation Relations Director.

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