What is a butterfly?

A butterfly is a type of insect. Insects are distinguished from all other animals by having an external skeleton (a hard outer covering), three main body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), and three pairs of jointed legs (all attached to the thorax). Butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, which means “scaled wings.”


Are butterflies important?

Yes! They are important pollinators of flowering plants, much like bees. All life stages of a butterfly may serve as food for a wide range of other organisms including birds, lizards, spiders, small mammals, and other insects.  Butterflies also are very sensitive to changes in the environment, making them good indicators in assessing healthy or unhealthy conditions. As a result, they are widely used by ecologists to help evaluate the impacts of habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change.


How many species of Lepidoptera are there?

There are approximately 265,000 species of butterflies and moths. Only about 20,000 are butterflies.


What’s the difference between a butterfly and a moth?

Butterflies and moths are quite similar, but basic differences include:

  • Most butterflies fly during the day. Most moths fly at night.
  • Butterflies are often more colorful than moths – they attract mates with color (visible in the daytime) and sleep at night. Night-flying moths attract mates by smell, while their colors camouflage them in daytime resting places.
  • Most butterflies have club-shaped antennae. Moth antennae are feather-like or taper to a point.
  • Male moth antennae can be more elaborate than female antennae. The increased surface area allows males to pick up scents (female pheromones) of potential mates from a longer distance. Male butterflies rely less on scent and more on vision in the search for mates.
  • Moths have a thicker coating of scales than butterflies, giving them a furry appearance. Why? Moths fly at night and do not have the sun to warm their bodies for flight, as do butterflies. Instead, moths generate heat internally by vibrating their muscles and their heavy scales insulate them against heat loss.


How long does a butterfly live?

In the wild, most butterflies live about 7 to 10 days, if not eaten first. In captivity, butterflies can survive for 2 to 3 weeks. Some species of butterflies modify their nectar diet to include rotten fruit, pollen, and animal excrement, and can live as long as 3 to 6 months, or even longer. The modified diet provides the butterflies with valuable amino acids that can help prolong life spans.


What are the stages of a butterfly’s life cycle?

There are four stages in the life cycle of a butterfly: the egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis, and adult.

Briefly, a butterfly starts as an egg. After about 4 to 5 days (some species take up to 3 weeks or longer), the egg hatches and a tiny larva (caterpillar) emerges. The larva starts to eat and will shed its skin 4 to 6 times as it gets bigger and bigger. After about 2 to 4 weeks, the larva will be full-grown and transform itself into a pupa/chrysalis. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar’s body breaks down into a kind of soup and is reorganized into the adult structures of the butterfly! This stage can take between 10 to 15 days. Finally, the adult butterfly emerges from the pupa. Adult butterflies will mate, the female will lay eggs and the life cycle starts over. The whole process is called metamorphosis, which means “change of form.”


What’s the difference between a pupa, a chrysalis, and a cocoon?

Pupa and chrysalis have the same meaning: the transformation stage between the larva and the adult. While pupa can refer to this naked stage in either a butterfly or moth, the chrysalis is strictly used for the butterfly pupa. A cocoon is the silk casing that a moth caterpillar spins around it before it turns into a pupa. When the larval stage of some butterfly species is fully grown, it spins a button of silk and attaches the hind-most prolegs to it, and hangs upside down in the “J” position in order to pupate (some actually sit in an upright position). This is the larva’s final molt as it transforms into a chrysalis. Many butterfly pupae are cryptic and blend into their surroundings.


What do caterpillars eat?

Almost all butterfly larvae (caterpillars) eat plant material. Most eat leaves, but some eat seeds, stems, roots, fruits, seed pods, or flowers.


What do butterflies eat?

Most adult butterflies sip nectar from flowers through their proboscis which acts like a straw. Some species vary their nectar diet to include rotting fruit, pollen, animal excrement, and carrion.


Where do butterflies go at night?

At night or during bad weather, butterflies will usually seek shelter by hanging from the undersides of leaves, or crawling into crevices in the bark of trees, between rocks or other objects, and sleep.


What is a Host Plant?

A host plant is a plant that butterflies lay their eggs on. They lay their eggs on specific plants that they know their caterpillars will be able to eat. Butterfly host plants can also be called larval host plants or caterpillar host plants. Many of the 500 species of butterflies in the US rely on a small group of host plants for their eggs. For example, Monarchs only use Milkweeds as their host plant, Pipevine Swallowtails use pipevines, and Gulf Fritillaries use passionflower. Host plants play a critical role during the caterpillar stage and begins the lifecycle of the butterflies. If at all possible choose native host plants for your garden.


What is a Nectar Plant?

Nectar plants and host plants aren’t necessarily the same thing. While both are important butterfly plants, nectar plants provide food for adult butterflies. They come to these flowering plants to drink the nectar. Host plants provide the food for caterpillars. Again, you should always choose to plant native nectar and host plants. Native plants are tied to the lifecycle of numerous butterflies.


What are Native Plants?

Native plants can be defined as those that naturally occur in the region in which they evolved. They are adapted to local climate and soil conditions and, as a result, provide the most sustainable habitats.


Why are Native Plants Important?

Native plants play a crucial role in our local ecosystems by supporting pollinators such as birds, bees, and butterflies. Additionally, natives provide necessary food and shelter for wildlife. Unlike native plants, exotic plants do not offer the same energetic rewards for their visitors and disrupt the natural food web. In some cases, non-native plants can become invasive, out-competing native plants and further degrading natural habitats.