The Beautiful Butterfly

Butterflies are a member of the insect family, and together with moths make up the order known as "Lepidoptera". The dividing line between butterflies and moths is fairly fuzzy and some creatures could seem to fall into either category. However, the main difference between them is butterflies are generally active in the day and moths are active at night. Also, in a resting position, moths lay their wings down over their bodies, while butterflies stand their wings up so that their undersides may be seen.

butterfly diagram

Fairly large colorful wings grace the butterfly and give her the ability to fly. The large number of yellow winged varieties is probably responsible for the name. The wings seem uniquely designed to help avoid predators, but at the same time to attract mates. Eye patterns in some wings will ward off discerning birds and colorful displays sometimes serve as a warning of bitter flavors to keep away the epicureans. Meanwhile these patterns are recognized by other butterflies of the same species as a call to mate.

Butterflies have a large proboscis, which is actually a mouthpart, and is used to suck nectar and fluids from flowers. While feeding themselves butterflies also serve the function of helping to pollinate flowers. Some pollen sticks to them and is transferred from one flower to another as they flit about. Like other insects, butterflies have a head, thorax and abdomen. They also have six legs, but in some butterflies the forward legs are mere stumps and not very useful. Their antennae are generally "clubbed" and covered with tiny hairs that also may be found on much of the rest of the body. These hairs tell the butterfly about wind currents, water, vibrations and nearby objects. Butterflies have two compound eyes that see a broad spectrum of light including ultraviolet.

Most butterflies spend only about a month as an adult. Their life cycle is well known and begins with a mating ritual that might include spiralling in the air or some other unusual activity. This routine, of course, serves to fertilize the eggs, which are laid by the female directly on a food source. In many eggs there is a small opening at the top, where the fertilization takes place. It also may serve to allow the developing embryo to breathe1.

It may take anywhere from ten days to all winter for an embryo to hatch. When it does, the caterpillar begins to look immediately for a food source. Once food is found the embryo, now a caterpillar, begins a feeding frenzy that lasts until it is ready to make its cacoon. The caterpillar will normally find a height upon which to hang and then begin to spin a web around itself. Once it has finished the job, it is thought that a hormone is released within the insect that causes all the body parts to break down into a soup like mixture, that is then sorted out to result in the pupa, and then to the adult butterfly itself. The butterfly breaks its way out of the chrysalis, to take flight to begin the process all over again.

The time lines for butterflies vary widely, from a few weeks to a couple of years. Some, such as the monarch butterfly actually migrate for various stages and activities. Butterflies also vary widely in size, color and activity. They have even been metaphorically blamed for beginning hurricanes and tornadoes in an application of the idea in chaos theory that very little movements may have very great resulting effects somewhere far away. Inspiring poets and scientists, pollinating plants and feeding birds, and perhaps setting off a few windstorms the butterfly has had a great effect on our world.


1. Economic Botany at UCLA

Interesting Link: Butterfly Woodkits
Predatory Stink Bugs

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W.J. Rayment

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