Like all insects, butterflies have three main body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. Because butterflies don’t have bones, they must have an exoskeleton that protects their soft bodies. This exoskeleton is made of chitin, which is a type of polysaccharide (carbohydrate--like sugar, but made into a long chain). On the top of their heads are two segmented, clubbed antennae.
While the head of a butterfly is the control center for sensing things, the thorax is what allows a butterfly to move. Attached to the underside are three pairs of segmented legs and four wings. Although it might seem like butterflies only have two wings, when you take a closer look you can see the forewing and hindwing on each side of the body. Butterfly wings get their color from the scales, or little hairs that have been flattened to give color. Without a microscope, these scales just look like powder to the naked eye!
A butterfly’s wings are used mainly for flight, but they also have other functions. Patterns on the wings can help camouflage the butterfly, warn predators that a butterfly is poisonous, surprise or distract predators with flashy displays, and help a butterfly attract and communicate with other butterflies of its species. There is also a certain type of scale that doesn’t produce color, but instead gives off pheromones to communicate with fellow butterflies or predators. These scales are called androconial scales.
After passing through the proboscis and pharynx, nectar goes through the rest of the butterfly’s digestive system in its abdomen. Also located in the abdomen are the heart and reproductive organs!
Life Cycle of a Butterfly
In a previous blog post about metamorphosis, we discussed how a butterfly goes from an egg to a caterpillar, before finally becoming a butterfly!
An adult female butterfly will often lay her eggs on the underside of a leaf to protect them from predators. There, the unfertilized eggs wait for a male butterfly to fertilize them so they can begin to form and hatch as larva. The word larva refers to the growth stage of all insects with complete metamorphosis; caterpillar refers only to a butterfly or moth in this stage.
When it emerges from its chrysalis, its wings are small and wet, and the butterfly can’t fly yet. It has to pump fluids from its abdomen through the veins in its wings to stimulate the wings to expand to their full size. Next, the wings dry and the butterfly must exercise flight muscles before it can fly. After a couple of days, the butterfly is ready to mate and the cycle begins again!
As a caterpillar, a butterfly’s first meal is its own eggshell. For the next three to four weeks, the caterpillar will munch on the leaves of the plant from which it hatched. Milkweed is a particular favorite of the monarch butterfly. Depending on how large the plant is, a caterpillar may adventure away from its place of hatching in search of more food. But in general, caterpillars aren’t very picky eaters, unlike human babies and toddlers!
When the butterfly is fully matured, it will use its proboscis to drink nectar from flowers. Although flowers are their preferred source of nutrition, butterflies will also eat from the soft tissue of rotting fruit. When feeling particularly thirsty, they will often drink water from mud puddles and elephant dung!
Make a Butterfly Feeder at Home
If you’ve ever visited a butterfly farm or garden, you might have seen an assortment of feeders the staff use to keep the butterflies fed and happy.
- Large glass jar
- nail and hammer
- half inch metal washer
Using a hammer and a nail, punch a hole in the center of the jar’s lid. Using a half-inch thick sponge, cut about a quarter inch from one end, then cut that piece in half lengthwise that the end is about a quarter inch on all sides. Trim this piece so the sponge is about one inch long.
Insert the little piece of sponge into the hole in the lid so there is half an inch of sponge on either side. To help squeeze the sponge in the hole, you can use the nail to carefully push a little bit of the sponge through, and then pull it from the other side. The sponge should not be able to slip around inside the hole.
Turn the glass jar upside down. Cut two pieces of string that are 48" long. Wrap each string around the base of the jar and tie a double knot. The two knots should be opposite each other on either side of the jar. You will now have four ends of string extending from the jar. Take two strings on one side of the jar and tie a double knot about half way up the inverted jar. Do the same with the remaining two. Try to get the two knots at an even height, on opposite sides of the jar.
Then, take one string from each opposing knot and tie another double knot at the top of the inverted jar. Now you have a macrame-style structure to hold the jar securely and keep it from tipping over. Tie the four strings together to the metal washer. You will use this washer to hang the feeder from a tree branch with some wire.
To make your own “nectar”, mix ten parts water and one part sugar in a pot over medium heat until all the sugar is dissolved. Allow the sugar solution to cool before pouring it into your feeder jar. Once the jar has been filled, screw the lid on to form a tight seal. You can tip the jar over right before hanging it from a branch so the butterfly solution saturates the sponge in the lid
To attract more butterflies, you could try gluing some fake flowers and glass beads to the jar/string to mimic colorful flowers in the wild!
Fong, Jonathan: “How to Make a Homemade Butterfly Feeder”. eHow.com
Scudder, Samuel Hubbard. “Prodryas - Prehistoric Lepidoptera”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 4/17/18 from commons.wikimedia.org
Bingham, C. T. “Butterfly Antenna Tips”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 4/19/18 from commons.wikimedia.org
Kraft, Robert. “Butterfly Face”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 4/19/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
Kratochvil, Petr. “Blue Morpho Butterfly”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 4/18/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
Klimkin, Sergey. “Caterpillar Color”. Released into the public domain. Uploaded on 4/19/18 from publicdomainpictures.net
“How to make a homemade butterfly feeder”. © Jonathan Fong. Uploaded on 4/19/18 from ehow.com