What is a butterfly?

Butterflies are defined as insects because like all insects, they have an exoskeleton, three pair of joined legs, three distinct body segments (head, thorax, and abdomen), one pair of antennae, and two pair of wings.  Butterflies evolved 40 to 50 million years ago and inhabit every part of the world except Antarctica.  There are about 800 species native to North America and over 15,000 species throughout the world.  Along with moths, butterflies are classified in the order Lepidoptera.  In turn, Lepidoptera is classified into the class Insecta along with all other insects (ants, dragonflies, beetles, wasps, flies, grasshoppers, termites, bees, mantids, etc.).  Insecta is classified into the phylum Arthropoda along with all other arthropods (crabs, lobsters, spiders, scorpions, millipedes, centipedes, pill bugs, etc.).  And finally, Arthropoda is one of many invertebrate phyla within the kingdom Animalia (Metazoa) which includes all animals.


Butterfly Life Cycle

Butterflies have a unique lifecycle called complete metamorphosis.  It is characterized by four distinct stages:

Stage 1: Ovum (Egg)

The female butterfly lays eggs on the leaves of a host plant.  The eggs are attached with a glue-like substance, almost always on the under-side of a leaf.  Eggs can be perfectly smooth or have longitudinal ridges; they can be translucent or solid of almost any color; they can be spherical or egg-shaped; but all butterfly eggs are extremely tiny.  Most are smaller than a pinhead.  The purpose of the egg stage is the development of the embryo, which takes about 4 to 7 days.

Stage 2: Larva (Caterpillar)

The egg hatches to produce the butterfly larva, or caterpillar.  The caterpillar has chewing mouthparts which it uses to first eat its exuvia, or egg case, and then the leaves, stems, and flowers of the host plant.  Caterpillars are picky eaters so their host plant is very specific and is different for each butterfly species.  For example, the Monarch caterpillar will only eat Milkweed (Asclepias sp.).  The caterpillar molts (sheds) 4-7 times as it outgrows its old skin and the period of time between each molt is called an instar.  The purpose of the larval stage is to eat and grow.  Therefore, the time the butterfly remains in the larval stage is dependent on the availability of food and can be anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months.

Stage 3: Pupa (Chrysalis)

The caterpillar’s final molt results in a chrysalis, the structure the butterfly takes during its pupa stage.  The purpose of the pupa stage is metamorphosis, or transformation.  The butterfly remains in the chrysalis for 7 and 10 days unless it enters hibernation, in which case it can spend 6 to 10 months in the chrysalis depending on latitude.  Inside, the caterpillar’s body gradually changes, repurposing cells to form the adult butterfly.  When the transformation is nearly complete, the chrysalis slowly becomes transparent so the color of the adult butterfly inside can be seen.

Stage 4: Imago (Adult)

When the adult butterfly is ready, the transparent chrysalis pops open easily and the butterfly works its way out.  Unused or excess waste fluid from the transformation process is expelled during emergence.  Once free of the chrysalis, the butterfly clings to its empty pupal case for several minutes, pumping hemolymph (a fluid similar to blood) into its wings.  Pressure from the hemolymph expands the wings to their full size and once the wings dry, the butterfly is ready for flight.  The process of expanding and drying its wings may take an hour or more.  The purpose of the adult stage is to reproduce.  A female will mate once and lay 200 to 300 eggs, but will lay them only on the host plant – the only plant the hatching caterpillar will eat.  The males will mate as many times as possible.  Generally 2 to 3 weeks, the lifespan of the adult butterfly, is all the time in which they have to complete those goals.  Besides host plants for egg-laying, the only plants adult butterflies use are nectar sources.  Nectar, along with sunlight, give the butterflies the energy they need for flight.

For Tips & Tricks for creating your own butterfly habitat:

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