Answers to Kids' Questions About Butterflies

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The following questions were answered by zoo biologist Ellen Dierenfeld and entomologists John VanDyk and Steve Kutcher.

Q: How many different kinds of moths and butterflies are there in the world?
A: There are about 115,000 species of moths and butterflies.

Q: Why are butterflies so colorful?
A: Color is important in many ways. It functions as camouflage, to absorb heat, aids in finding a mate, serves as warning, and in many more ways.

Q: Which butterfly is bigger, the male or female?
A: Though it depends on the species, the female butterfly is often larger.

Q: What do butterflies eat?
A: The majority of butterflies feed on flower nectar and pollen.

Q: What are some of the differences between moths and butterflies?
A: Moths fly mostly at night, have thick bodies, antennae without enlargements on the end, and they spin a cocoon.

Q: How can you tell male or female butterflies apart?
A: The females are usually larger, but an entomologist will look for an ovipositer, which is an egg-laying device only found in females. The males have a clasping device in their reproductive area.

Q: How did the butterfly get its name?
A: There are a number of stories about this. The story I like comes from Europe. During the spring, cows would have their calves. The cows would produce milk that would be turned into butter. Springtime is also when butterflies start to come out. These flying bugs were named butterflies because they would fly around while milk was churned to butter.

Q: Why do butterflies taste with their feet?
A: When you think about it, it's pretty handy. When a butterfly lands on a plant, it can instantly "taste" whether it is the kind of plant it is looking for! Aren't you glad YOU don't taste with your feet? I would get pretty tired of the taste of socks.

Q: What are butterflies'enemies?
A: Butterflies have many enemies. Insects may eat their eggs, birds like to eat the caterpillars and lots of things like to eat the adults. A butterfly may land on a flower only to find itself in the clutches of a hungry crab spider or being attacked by a praying mantis or damsel bug. Some butterflies, like the monarch, taste awful and advertise this fact by being bright orange. They taste awful because as caterpillars they feed on milkweeds, which contain a special chemical.

Q: Why do butterflies fly? Why don't they walk?
A: Well, since butterflies feed on nectar from flowers, compare how hard it would be for the butterfly to walk from one plant to another versus flying. It would have to walk all the way down one plant and climb all the way up the next. I'm getting tired just thinking about it! By flying they can get there in just a few wingbeats. Flying also comes in handy to get away from enemies who might be waiting for them on the flowers.

Q: How do they lay eggs, turn into caterpillars, get energy to make a chrysalis, and turn into butterflies?
A: The adults lay eggs on the plants that the caterpillars like to eat, so that when the caterpillars hatch they are right there surrounded by food. In fact, a lot of caterpillars even start out by eating their own eggshell! The caterpillar spends most of its time eating, storing up energy to turn into a butterfly or moth. Caterpillars are basically eating machines!

Q: How long do butterflies live? How long do they stay in their cocoons?
A: Butterfly life span varies greatly. Opler and Krizek in Butterflies East of the Great Plains, state that the "expected life span" (which is usually much shorter than the "maximum life span" because of predators, weather, etc.) ranges from about 2 to 14 days after they emerge from the chrysalis. Maximum life span ranges from about 4 days (spring azure) to 10 to 11 months (mourning cloak). Females generally live longer than males.

Q: If you touch a butterfly's wing, does it die?
A: Not unless you rub too many of the protective scales off. When you touch the wing of a butterfly or moth, some dust seems to rub off on your fingers. This "dust" is made up of tiny scales take a close look at a butterfly wing to see them. These scales help the butterfly to fly and are responsible for the colors we see on their wings. It is generally not a good idea to touch a butterfly's wings.

Q: How does a caterpillar turn into a butterfly?
A: It's an amazing process and we don't understand how it all works yet. We do know that some things that the adult needs (like wings) are already starting to develop while it is still a caterpillar. Some people have checked out the progress of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly by taking a lot of caterpillars and, after they have pupated, opening a new chrysalis each day to see how it changes.

Q: Why are butterflies symmetrical?
A: Symmetry is something that's very common throughout biology. There are two common kinds: radial symmetry (like a starfish or anemone) or bilateral symmetry (like humans, cats, butterflies and frogs). Perhaps a better question is, "why are humans symmetrical?" Probably because that's the most efficient way to build a human being!

Q: If insects have six legs, why do painted lady butterflies have four?
A: The painted lady is in the family Nymphalidae, which are known as the brush-footed butterflies because their front legs are much reduced and lack claws. Thus it can appear that the butterflies actually have only four legs.

Q: How long is a butterfly's tongue?
A: Some butterflies have tongues almost as long as their body. One moth actually has a mouthpart that is three times as long as its body.

Q: Do you have any clues why the monarch butterflies group together and travel to Mexico?
A: Monarchs have probably been migrating for a very long time. They are a strong butterfly. With the aid of wind currents, they can fly a long way. They are able to survive for months in cold temperatures if there is enough water present.

Q: How big is a caterpillar when it's born?
A: Maybe twice as long as the diameter of the egg. Find an egg. They are small. The caterpillars grow fast.

  • Subjects:
    Animal Classification, Life Cycles, Insects, Animal Hibernation and Migration, Animal Structure and Movement, Animal Survival and Adaptation, Predator and Prey Relationships