Butterfly adults are characterized by their four scale-covered wings, which give the Lepidoptera their name. These scales give butterfly wings their color: they are pigmented with melanins that give them blacks and browns, as well as uric acid derivatives and flavones that give them yellows, but many of the blues, greens, reds and iridescent colors are created by structural coloration produced by the micro-structures of the scales and hairs.
As in all insects, the body is divided into three sections: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The thorax is composed of three segments, each with a pair of legs. The long proboscis can be coiled when not in use for sipping nectar from flowers.
Nearly all butterflies are diurnal, have relatively bright colors, and hold their wings vertically above their bodies when at rest, unlike the majority of moths which fly by night, are often cryptically colored (well camouflaged), and either hold their wings flat or fold them closely over their bodies.
Butterfly larvae, caterpillars, have a hard head with strong mandibles used for cutting their food, most often leaves. They have cylindrical bodies, with ten segments to the abdomen, generally with short prolegs on segments 3–6 and 10; the three pairs of true legs on the thorax have five segments each. Many are well camouflaged; others are aposematic with bright colors and bristly projections containing toxic chemicals obtained from their food plants. The pupa or chrysalis, unlike that of moths, is not wrapped in a cocoon.
Many butterflies are sexually dimorphic.
Butterflies range in size from a tiny 1/8 inch to a huge almost 12 inches.
Butterflies are distributed worldwide except Antarctica, totaling some 18,500 species.
Many butterflies, such as the painted lady, monarch, and several danaine migrate for long distances. These migrations take place over a number of generations and no single individual completes the whole trip. Many migratory butterflies live in semi-arid areas where breeding seasons are short. The life histories of their host plants also influence butterfly behavior.
Butterflies feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Some also derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, decaying flesh, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt. Butterflies are important as pollinators for some species of plants. In general, they do not carry as much pollen load as bees, but they are capable of moving pollen over greater distances.
Adult butterflies consume only liquids, ingested through the proboscis. They sip water from damp patches for hydration and feed on nectar from flowers, from which they obtain sugars for energy, and sodium and other minerals vital for reproduction. Several species of butterflies need more sodium than that provided by nectar and are attracted by sodium in salt; they sometimes land on people, attracted by the salt in human sweat. Some butterflies also visit dung and scavenge rotting fruit or carcasses to obtain minerals and nutrients. In many species, this mud-puddlingbehavior is restricted to the males, and studies have suggested that the nutrients collected may be provided as a nuptial gift, along with the spermatophore, during mating.
Butterflies use their antennae to sense the air for wind and scents. The antennae come in various shapes and colors. The antennae are richly covered with sensory organs known as sensillae. A butterfly's sense of taste is coordinated by chemoreceptors on the tarsi, or feet, which work only on contact, and are used to determine whether an egg-laying insect's offspring will be able to feed on a leaf before eggs are laid on it. Many butterflies use chemical signals, pheromones; some have specialized scent scales or other structures. Vision is well developed in butterflies and most species are sensitive to the ultraviolet spectrum. Many species show sexual dimorphism in the patterns of UV reflective patches. Color vision may be widespread but has been demonstrated in only a few species. Some butterflies have organs of hearing and some species make stridulatory and clicking sounds.
Many species of butterfly maintain territories and actively chase other species or individuals that may stray into them. Some species will bask or perch on chosen perches. The flight styles of butterflies are often characteristic and some species have courtship flight displays. Butterflies can only fly when their temperature is above 27 °C (81 °F); when it is cool, they can position themselves to expose the underside of the wings to the sunlight to heat themselves up. If their body temperature reaches 40 °C (104 °F), they can orientate themselves with the folded wings edgewise to the sun. Basking is an activity which is more common in the cooler hours of the morning. Some species have evolved dark wingbases to help in gathering more heat.
Butterflies in their adult stage can live from a week to nearly a year depending on the species. Many species have long larval life stages while others can remain dormant in their pupal or egg stages and thereby survive winters.
Butterflies may have one or more broods per year.
Courtship is often aerial and often involves pheromones. Butterflies then land on the ground or on a perch to mate. Copulation takes place tail-to-tail and may last from minutes to hours. The male passes a spermatophore to the female; to reduce sperm competition, he may cover her with his scent.
The vast majority of butterflies have a four-stage life cycle; egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis) and imago (adult). In the genera Colias, Erebia, Euchloe, and Parnassius, a small number of species are known that reproduce semi-parthenogenetically; when the female dies, a partially developed larva emerges from her abdomen.
Butterfly eggs are protected by a hard-ridged outer layer of shell, called the chorion. This is lined with a thin coating of wax which prevents the egg from drying out before the larva has had time to fully develop.Butterfly eggs vary greatly in size and shape between species, but are usually upright and finely sculptured. Some species lay eggs singly, others in batches. Many females produce between one hundred and two hundred eggs.
Butterfly eggs are fixed to a leaf with special glue which hardens rapidly.Eggs are almost invariably laid on plants. Each species of butterfly has its own host plant range and while some species of butterfly are restricted to just one species of plant, others use a range of plant species, often including members of a common family.The egg stage lasts a few weeks in most butterflies, but eggs laid close to winter, especially in temperate regions, go through a diapause (resting) stage, and the hatching may take place only in spring.
Butterfly larvae, or caterpillars, consume plant leaves and spend practically all of their time searching for and eating food.Although most caterpillars are herbivorous, a few species are predators.Some larvae, especially those of the Lycaenidae, form mutual associations with ants. They communicate with the ants using vibrations that are transmitted through the substrate as well as using chemical signals. The ants provide some degree of protection to these larvae and they in turn gather honeydew secretions.
Caterpillars mature through a series of developmental stages known as instars. Near the end of each stage, the larva undergoes a process called apolysis, mediated by the release of a series of neurohormones. During this phase, the cuticle, a tough outer layer made of a mixture of chitin and specialized proteins, is released from the softer epidermis beneath, and the epidermis begins to form a new cuticle. At the end of each instar, the larva moults, the old cuticle splits and the new cuticle expands, rapidly hardening and developing pigment. Development of butterfly wing patterns begins by the last larval instar.
When the larva is fully grown, hormones such as prothoracicotropic hormone (PTTH) are produced. At this point the larva stops feeding, and begins "wandering" in the quest for a suitable pupation site, often the underside of a leaf or other concealed location. There it spins a button of silk which it uses to fasten its body to the surface and moults for a final time. While some caterpillars spin a cocoon to protect the pupa, most species do not.Most of the tissues and cells of the larva are broken down inside the pupa, as the constituent material is rebuilt into the imago. To transform from the miniature wings visible on the outside of the pupa into large structures usable for flight, the pupal wings undergo rapid mitosis and absorb a great deal of nutrients.
The reproductive stage of the insect is the winged adult or imago.After it emerges from its pupal stage, a butterfly cannot fly until the wings are unfolded. A newly emerged butterfly needs to spend some time inflating its wings with hemolymph and letting them dry, during which time it is extremely vulnerable to predators.