What do butterflies eat?

The question of the butterfly diet is very popular, and relatively simple to answer. In brief, most butterflies do not eat anything, although they do drink liquids.

While butterflies do not eat in the traditional sense, they have a proboscis, or long tube in their mouth that acts like a straw for drinking.

Their tastes tend to be eclectic, with many opting to perch on flowers, manure piles and fruit gathering different nutrients.

Another common butterfly behavior called puddling refers to butterflies that congregate in shallow water or wet areas to grab a drink on a warm sunny day. The top picture highlights some puddling butterflies.

Butterfly photographers take note of potential butterfly puddling areas such as water patches in ditches on the side of the road because they are great places to find a variety of butterfly species.

There are always exceptions to the butterflies do not eat rule. Dr. Paul A. Opler of the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, says,

Longwing butterflies such as the Zebra butterfly are able to collect pollen from certain flowers with their proboscis and to break it down and absorb amino acids (proteins) which contribute to the ability to survive, mate and lay eggs for long periods (6 months or so). With their short proboscis (tongue) the adults of Harvester butterflies can actually pierce the bodies of woolly aphids and drink their fluids--this would be the only bugs that adult butterflies eat. The caterpillar of almost all butterflies eat various parts of plants. Each species may specialize of only a few kinds of plants or plant parts. The caterpillars of the Harvester butterfly and its relatives are exceptions in that they feed solely on aphids.

Click on any heading in the accordian to discover additional butterfly information.

The question of butterfly longevity can be addressed in one of two different ways.

The entire butterfly life cycle, from egg to larvae to pupa to adult can span a few months to a year, depending on the species.

The life span of an adult butterfly also differs from species to species. Some species such as Monarch Butterflies and Red Admirals are known for their long migrations. Adults fly great distances to overwinter in warm areas, prior to flying north for breeding season.

Other butterfly species typically live a week or two, usually a sufficient amount of time to mate and produce a new generation.

Taking notice of the butterfly species in one specific area over the course of the spring, summer and fall months, usually provides more specific information on the life spans of the native species.

Some species produce only one brood of young during the course of a year, while other species produce multiple broods.

Over the course of a couple months investigation, the careful observer often discovers that a group of butterfly species tend to appear, only to be replaced by another group of butterfly species one month later.

The following two butterfly poems, one original, the other an American classic, examine the theme of butterfly fate from a temporal distance of one hundred years.

Inspiration for the first poem came from a late autumn butterfly excursion, and seeing one blue butterfly.

What do you do when you are the last of the season's butterflies?

October Butterfly

Born to mate,
Born too late,
October butterfly,
A terrible fate.
@copy 2001-2014 Patricia A. Michaels

The Butterfly's Fate

Have you heard the story of the butterfly's fate,
Who flitted in a garden and chose no mate,
His wings so goregous, bright and gay,
Captivating the flowers, and none said nay.
As gayly from flower to flower he trips,
And a sweetness from all he sips,
The butterfly's life was happy and free,
He stole the honey from the busy bee.
One day he was caught in a little net,
Pinned to a card without regret,
Underneath was written, "Butterfly, useless, the date,
That was the butterfly's fate."
Estelle Pugsley Hart 1911

Butterfly enthusiasts across the United States recognize many species, such as the Zebra Swallowtail, Texan Crescent and Common Buckeye, by their English names rather than their scientific names.

How did butterflies get those names, and, who names them?

The short answer to the first part of the question is butterfly marketing. Butterflies get their common names as part of a butterfly promotion effort.

In 1874, one of the leading entomologists of the day, Samuel Hubbard Scudder, proposed a system for naming butterflies that would appeal to the average American.

He said,

In our own country all the common birds and flowers have also received such names, and it is my belief that the study of butterflies would be far more popular, if they also had common names.

Today, thanks in part to Scudder's vision, butterflies are the most popular insects in the United States.

Since 1874, approximately 750 different butterfly species have been given common names, based primarily on the butterfly's physical characteristics or geographical location.

As the number of still to be discovered butterfly species decreases, the butterfly naming competition heats up.

In 2007, The University of Florida held an auction for the rights to name a newly discovered owl butterfly species. A winning bid of $40,800, was received to name the butterfly the Minerva owl butterfly, in memory of Margery Minerva Blythe Kitzmiller of Ohio. The proceeds of the auction help fund continued research about butterfly species in Mexico.

Apart from the marketing angle, butterfly etomology can be difficult to determine. Why, for example, are butterflies called butterflies or admiral butterflies called admiral butterflies or monarch butterflies called monarchs?

Again, there is no easy answer, and the questions continue to amuse butterfly enthusiasts. Here are some possible explanations.

The 1869 Webster's Dictionary says, "Butterfly, so named from the colour of a yellow species".

The book, Folk-etymology: A Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions Or Words, published in 1862 suggests,

It may be noted that the handsome butterfly called the admiral, is also known as the admirable, which was probably its original name.

The book, Insect Potpourri By Jean Ruth Adams, says,

the early settlers of Colonial America were impressed with this striking insect and gave it the name "monarch" in honor of "King William, Prince of Orange, stateholder of Holland, and later King of England.

The following five questions show pictures of different butterfly species with shades of orange, along with other patterns, on their wings. Click on the circle next to a butterfly name that matches the picture and description provided for each question.

Each butterfly is represented by only one picture. When you are finshed, click on the results button to see your score.

1. Some butterfly enthusiasts might suggest that this butterfly often pauses on the roads and rocks.

a. Orange Tip
b. Purplish Copper
c. Green Comma
d. West Coast Lady
e. California Tortoiseshell

2. Polite might be an appropriate term to describe this butterfly. It often sits still on flowers, making it relatively easy to photograph.

a. Orange Tip
b. Purplish Copper
c. Green Comma
d. West Coast Lady
e. California Tortoiseshell

3. Slow and steady could be a slogan for this butterfly as it searches for a good perching branch.

a. Orange Tip
b. Purplish Copper
c. Green Copper
d. West Coast Lady
e. California Tortoiseshell

4. The striking butterfly in the picture represents one of a handful of this type of Western butterfly species. The underside of the wing is less colorful than the top side and serves as camouflage when the wings are folded.

a. Orange Tip
b. Purplish Copper
c. Green Copper
d. West Coast Lady
e. California Tortoiseshell

5. You have not struck gold if you see this butterfly. It is common in the Mid-west and West.

a. Orange Tip
b. Purplish Copper
c. Green Copper
d. West Coast Lady
e. California Tortoiseshell

Rainy day activities for butterflies follow much the same pattern as rainy day activities for many children.

Butterflies are fragile insects that typically fly during warm, sunny days.

Watching butterflies during times when the sun comes in and out of clouds leads to the discovery that they often sit still, or disappear during cloudy periods.

Because of their fragile wings, in rainy times, butterflies seek shelter. Sometimes the shelter can be as simple as heading to the closest tree and folding their wings.

Other butterflies might hide under branches or the overhanging areas of roofs.

© 2005-2014 Patricia A. Michaels.