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.

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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.

As a general rule of thumb for understanding butterfly dietary practices, 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.

Butterfly Life Span

picture of a variable checkerspot butterfly

Knowing that some longwing butterflies can life up to six months naturally leads to the next question, how long do butterflies live. Well, butterfly life span can be measured two 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.

Adult life spans also differ from species to species. Some species such as Monarch Butterflies and Red Admirals are known for their long migrations. Newly hatched adults fly great distances to overwinter in warm areas, prior to flying north for breeding season. Generally the long distance migrating butterflies can live for an entire year in order to complete the life cycle.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, many 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.

How did butterflies get their name?

picture of a common buckeye butterfly

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.

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.

Where Do Butterflies Go When It Rains?

picture of acrimson patch butterfly

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.

© 2005-2016 Patricia A. Michaels.