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Butterflies are absolutely beautiful creatures. Their transformation from caterpillars also fascinates many people as a powerful, natural symbol for struggle, rebirth, and triumph over change.
There are more than 20,000 different species of butterflies, but they have a great deal in common in terms of what they need to survive and thrive. Butterflies are remarkably active animals, especially given their size; they engage in many activities throughout the course of their typical lifetime.
In addition, butterflies have different needs at different stages of their life cycle. They start as eggs, hatch into caterpillar (larvae), then form a cocoon (chrysalis or pupa), and finally emerge as adult butterflies.
These airborne insects have more in common with people than many realize as well. Some of their basic needs are the same, such as air, water, and food, which are detailed below.
Remember that even when conditions are ideal, the average butterfly only lives as an adult for about a month, and often a much shorter amount of time because of predators and other environmental hazards. Smaller species have shorter lifespans (as short as one week), and some, such as monarchs, live for several months.
That’s right, just the same as us, butterflies breathe the oxygen in the air around them, but that is where the similarities end.
Butterflies do not breathe through their mouths, but through tiny openings called spiracles, which is actually how most insects breathe. They have nine sets of spiracles in all, which are found up and down their body (not the wings).
Once they take the oxygen in, tiny tubes carry it throughout their bodies. If you plan to catch and keep butterflies, make sure their home has plenty of fresh air flow.
Butterflies may not breathe through their mouths, but they do use them to eat. Their mouths have something called a proboscis that resembles a tongue, but it is actually closer to a straw.
They use their straw-like tongues to suck nectar from flowers. Nectar is a sweet substance that is also used by bees to make honey and is important to flowers for pollination.
Fun fact: butterflies do not taste with the proboscis; they actually taste using their feet!
Just as you have favorite foods, butterflies also have favorite flowers. There is actually a plant called the butterfly bush (Buddleia), which they love.
In general, butterflies like flowers that are orange, pink, purple, red, and yellow, but they can only see red, orange, and yellow. Butterflies can eat the nectar of most types of flowers and they know instinctively not to eat those that they cannot.
Even though butterflies are able to eat most types of flowers, they have favorites. If you want to see butterflies in your garden, you may also want to plant some varieties of these flowers and plants: echinacea, salvia, verbena, goldenrod, snapdragon, mint, and sunflowers, among many others.
There are some types of butterflies that do not eat from flowers at all. Instead, they prefer tree sap, or (as with many of their insect relatives), they feed off of decomposing matter and even eat animal feces.
Just the same as most animals on earth, butterflies also need water. They drink water in order to get important minerals from it.
Butterflies prefer to drink shallow water or water that they can extract from soil. The soil provides them with extra minerals.
Butterflies have an interesting habit called “puddling” in which they splash around in puddles, which is a fascinating activity to observe. They do this not only to drink, but also to cool their bodies down when their environment is too hot.
A lot of people will buy butterfly water feeders for their gardens in order to attract butterflies, but this is not necessary and is largely ineffective. Butterflies can get the water they need from the ground; your time and money would be better spent planting flowers such as the ones listed above to attract the butterflies.
Warmth, Sunshine, Migration, and Hibernation
Insects are cold-blooded animals, meaning that they are not able to regulate their body temperatures and therefore need their surroundings to support life. That is why butterflies can only survive in warm climates.
Butterflies need their environment to be at least 55 degrees Fahrenheit, but this is a minimum threshold and is actually too cold if the butterflies are wet. They cannot fly when temperatures are this low, and they die.
It can also become too hot for butterflies to survive. Anything above about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on humidity and other weather conditions) might also endanger butterflies’ lives.
In addition to the temperatures around them, butterflies need sunshine. They rely on the sun’s rays to warm them up enough for their wings to fly.
They use a technique called dorsal basking in which they lay flat on a sunny surface with their wings open. Their wings absorb energy from the sun, and this technique is especially effective in early spring when it is very sunny but not very warm.
If sunshine is in limited supply or not available, or if it is a bit too cold outside, butterflies also shake their bodies to create warmth (similar to how people shiver in the cold to warm up).
The sunshine is not just about warmth, either. As do many other animals, butterflies also use the sun for direction and orientation.
Butterfly species migrate in order to seek out warm weather and survive. Even though their individual lifespans may be short, the species as a whole must seek a favorable climate.
Some butterfly migrations are quite famous, including the monarch migration, which takes place in North America. Monarchs move north to the northern United States and southern Canada for the summer, and back to the southern United States and Mexico for the winter.
Alternatively, some butterflies hibernate in the winter. They choose even more protective locations to do so, such as underneath tree bark, and they can hibernate during any of their stages of their life cycle (which are described above).
Reproduction and Development
Most people know that butterflies begin as caterpillars, and caterpillars need a few distinct things separate from the needs of butterflies in order to survive.
Caterpillars need a plant called milkweed for food. Eating milkweed is vital to caterpillars’ survival for more than one reason; the poisonous plant means that caterpillars are poisonous to most of their natural prey. It is a remarkable evolutionary adaptation.
Caterpillars are heartier than butterflies in some ways. Often, butterfly species in colder or more variable climates spend the winter as caterpillars.
In order to form cocoons and become butterflies, caterpillars need to eat a lot of food, especially their favorite milkweed. Creating a cocoon and evolving into a butterfly takes a great deal of energy.
In addition, caterpillars need a safe, quiet place to make their cocoon that is not susceptible to environmental hazards (such as extremes in temperatures) or prey.
Once the caterpillars become butterflies, they then need to reproduce, just the same as all species need to do in order to survive. Reproduction requires finding a mate of the opposite sex, and butterflies attract mates using pheromones.
Female butterflies then need to find a safe place to lay their eggs in order to give them the best chance at survival. Some common places include the underside of a leaf; caterpillars have to start eating as soon as they are born, so placing the eggs on the type of plant they will eat is fairly common to the species.
Just as with butterflies themselves, the eggs need certain environmental conditions. It cannot be too cold or hot and there cannot be too much moisture or humidity, or fungus will grow on the eggs and kill them.
Finally, butterfly eggs are often targeted by predators, and scientists believe that the majority of butterfly eggs lain are consumed by predators such as ants, bats, and birds before they hatch. In many ways, the existence of butterflies in nature at all is miraculous.
Rest, Shelter, and Sleep
Butterflies get tired, and flying is hard work. Butterflies need to be able to land and stay grounded in between flights in order to rest.
In addition, since butterflies are cold-blooded, they need safe places to stay when the temperature around them dips, or at night when there is no sunshine.
Some places that butterflies like to land include between thin blades of grass on the ground or underneath a large leaf. They often find cozy spots such as these to spend the night.
The fact that butterflies sleep at night and are active during the day is one of the biggest differences between their species and that of their close relative, the moth. Moths are typically nocturnal.
While resting, butterflies also need to be safe from prey. Some types of ants, flies, and wasps eat butterflies, as do other small animals such as birds, rats, lizards, snakes, toads, and monkeys.
For further reading, did you know that some types of butterflies are endangered? They need extra help surviving and there are lots of things that we can do to help them.