I always love seeing the beauty of butterflies this time of year as they flit around from flower to flower! I love the vibrant orange of the Monarchs and Viceroys, the yellow of the Tiger Swallowtails, and the blue-ish spots of the Red-Spotted Purple. Colorful butterfly wings also have fascinating anatomy that helps them fly and function!

Wing Scales

Butterflies have 4 wings – two forewings and two hindwings that connect to the thorax. Under the microscope, we can clearly see that each butterfly wing is made of thousands of tiny scales made of chitin. The individual scales have their own color and make up a mosaic-like pattern of the wing. 

Color is super important for butterflies – it’s not just for decoration! The orange and black of the Monarch butterfly signals to potential predators that they are toxic. This is called “Aposematic Coloration”. The Monarch caterpillar ingests the toxic milkweed plant and keeps those toxins in its body as it develops into an adult. Birds, reptiles, or other insects know to stay away if they want to stay healthy! The Viceroy butterfly also is orange and black, however it is using Mimicry. The Viceroy is not toxic, but would like predators to think that it is, and confuse it with the Monarch! A few butterflies use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings to avoid predation. Some others have eye spots on their wings that look like large eyes. This confuses and scares predators into thinking the butterfly is much larger or more dangerous than it is, so they may avoid those butterflies.

Solar Powered Flight

Another role of these tiny scales is thermoregulation. Butterflies are poikilotherms, meaning that they need to rely on external heat sources in order to warm their bodies. Humans warm their own bodies through metabolism and can stay warm even in cold conditions. The scales on a butterfly’s wings can absorb the heat and light of the sun, keeping them warm enough to fly. When it’s extremely hot out, the scales can also reflect light, keeping them cool.

Monarch butterfly wing under the microscope 200x

Touching Butterfly Wings

We often hear not to touch butterfly wings, as this can damage them. While this is true, touching a wing will not mean immediate destruction of the butterfly. When a butterfly lands on you or if you touch one as you observe it, you may see several scales come off the wing. The butterfly can still fly and survive with tears, rips, or missing scales, so don’t worry if you accidentally bump it. Some butterflies, like swallowtails, have tail-like projections that distract predators and can be torn off without impacting their flight!

Problems start occurring when too much damage happens. Wings, as they are damaged, cannot be repaired, so being gentle is very important! If too many scales are lost, the butterfly loses a lot of its ability to thermoregulate properly. If the wings are torn too much, it impacts flight patterns and prevents them from escaping predators. It’s best to avoid touching their wings aggressively and simply watch them as they land on your finger or flower.

Butterfly Conservation

Do you love butterflies AND want to protect them? Check out my sustainable crafts for pollinators blog post, or snag some butterfly sticker merch! A portion of all proceeds benefit wildlife conservation and habitat preservation efforts. This ensures that animals, like the beautiful butterfly, thrive for years to come.

Planting flowers in a variety of colors will help attract different things. For instance, hummingbirds like red, while many butterflies and moths like purple.

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