7 Fascinating Facts About Butterflies

Did you know that some butterflies only live for 5 days or that they can taste plants with their feet? In this article, we look at incredible facts about butterflies.

Aug 31, 2023By Lisa Szymanski
facts about butterflies

Butterflies are among the most popular pollinators in the world, found everywhere, from your garden to patterns on clothing or contemporary wall art. While they’re certainly beautiful, these tiny winged creatures have some spectacular adaptations and behaviors that help them pollinate flowers and survive harsh environments. Their wings are colorful and brightly patterned but are actually transparent, and they can taste plants using their feet! Our 7 fascinating facts about butterflies explore their short lifespans, incredible eyesight, and how they’re adapted to their environment.

1. Butterflies Have Short Lifespans

blue butterfly on green leaf
A blue butterfly spreading its wings.

Butterflies don’t live very long, with most adults reaching only 2 weeks of age. There are some species, such as the Karner Blue Butterfly, that have an incredibly short lifespan of only 4-5 days. The longest-living species include the Brimstone and Monarch butterflies, which can live for a year. The longevity of a butterfly depends on the species and its location. Factors such as exposure to predators and pesticides on crops or garden plants affect the lifespans of these colorful insects. Despite their short lives, every butterfly plays an important part in pollination and the development of healthy ecosystems.

2. A Butterfly Can’t Eat Solid Food

butterfly proboscis
The butterfly’s proboscis helps it consume nectar.

If you look closely at the head of a butterfly, you’ll notice a tightly curled loop where you would typically find the moth. This loop uncurls and extends into a thin tube-like structure called a proboscis, which butterflies use to drink their food. Because they don’t have ordinary mouth parts, they can only consume liquids. Their favorite food is nectar, which is found inside blooms such as hibiscus, lavender, and zinnias. The proboscis helps them reach inside flowers, where they slurp up the sugary nectar or sap. Butterflies can be fed sweet fruits with a high amount of sugar and water, such as oranges and grapes. Add a sliced orange to a plate in your garden, and you may see a butterfly enjoying the fruit juice.

3. A Butterfly Sees More Colors Than Humans

close up of butterfly eyes and legs on purple flower
The large eyes of a butterfly.

A butterfly’s large eyes help them navigate their world, and they have excellent eyesight over short distances. Even more surprising is their ability to see a broad spectrum of colors that cannot be detected by people. Butterflies can see wavelengths of purple and violet, whereas humans lack the light-detecting cells in the eyes that are needed to see ultraviolet light. These light-detecting cells are called cones, of which humans have three, enabling us to see reds, greens, and blues. Butterflies have 6 to 15 of these cells in their eyes, depending on the species, helping them to see more complex wavelengths of color.

4. Butterflies are Cold-Blooded

orange and black butterfly in sunlight on purple flower
A butterfly warms itself in ample sunlight.

Much like snakes and lizards, a butterfly cannot generate its own body heat and is considered a cold-blooded animal. They are dependent on the temperature of their environment to move around and remain active, but if it gets too cold, butterflies simply cannot fly. These colorful insects have to either bask in the sun or physically stimulate themselves to get warm. In cold weather, butterflies become motionless, making them susceptible to predators. They need temperatures over 85 ℉ to move their bodies and flutter their wings so they can find food and complete their lifecycle.

5. Many Butterfly Species Exist Across the World

different butterfly species feeding on a log
Different butterflies feeding.

To date, approximately 17,000 to 20,000 butterfly species have been identified around the world. Apart from Antarctica, these pretty pollinators are found everywhere, from Africa to Asia. The country with the largest number of butterflies is Colombia, accounting for over 3000 different species. There are 200 types of butterflies that you will only find in this South American country, owing to its dense forests and lush tropical climate. The tiniest butterfly in the world, at half an inch, is the Western Pygmy Blue, which is found in the western United States and Venezuela. You’ll find the giant butterfly, Queen Alexandra’s birdwing, in Papua New Guinea, reaching over 10 inches in size.

6. Butterflies Have an Exoskeleton and Transparent Wings

butterfly transparent wings
The wings of a butterfly reflect light and color.

Butterflies are extremely nimble creatures, and part of their flexibility is due to their exoskeleton. As they are invertebrates, the skeleton is found outside of their bodies and protects their internal organs. In addition to their external skeletons, the wings of a butterfly are transparent. It might be hard to believe that these brightly colored insects are transparent, but each wing consists of light-reflecting scales that produce various colors. The scales are thinner than a standard sheet of paper and will disintegrate into powder if touched. When you notice transparent patches on a butterfly’s wings, it is because the scales have dropped and are no longer reflecting light.

7. Butterflies Taste Using Their Feet

butterfly sitting on a green leaf

A butterfly’s ability to taste with its feet is not one of nature’s oddities but an important survival tactic. Before a female butterfly lays its eggs, it tastes plants using the receptors in its feet to find food for the hatched caterpillars. Butterflies will march across the leaves of a plant to release chemicals that are detected by nerve cells in their feet, called chemoreceptors. These nerve cells help butterflies identify food by allowing them to test the different plants that they land on. With so many adaptations to help them pollinate and survive, butterflies are truly nature’s wonders.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.