The word ‘butterfly’ was probably first used to describe a common European butterfly, the yellow brimstone. At first, people called it the ‘butter-colored fly.’ Then they shortened the name to ‘butterfly.’ Scientists group butterflies and moths in the category, or order, known as Lepidoptera, which means ‘scaled wings.’ This name fits butterflies and moths very well, because their wings are covered with tiny scales. These are the only insects that have scales.
Butterflies smell with their antennae to find nectar. To sip nectar, they have a long hollow tube called a proboscis. This lets them probe deep into flowers to reach the nectar. When the proboscis is not being used, it stays coiled up underneath the butterfly’s head. When flying from flower to flower, butterflies use their wings in the same way birds do. And while butterflies are not as fast as birds, some tropical species can maintain a flying speed of 24 miles per hour.
Butterflies love the sweet nectar in flowers. And as incredible as it sounds, a butterfly tastes with its feet! As soon as it lands on a flower, it uses its feet, called tarsi, to tell whether this is the flower it wants. If you tasted your food the way a butterfly does, you would have to put your toes in your dessert to sample it!
There are four stages to a butterfly’s life cycle. The first is the egg laid by the female. After 5 to 10 days, a tiny caterpillar hatches from the egg. The caterpillar begins an eating binge that continues through its stage in a butterfly’s life. The well-fed caterpillar then becomes a pupa or chrysalis. During this dormant but transitional stage, no food is taken in. At the end of this stage, the adult butterfly emerges from the chrysalis.
Butterflies can be found in all but the hottest and coldest parts of the world. More butterflies live in the tropics than anywhere else. That’s because in the tropics, there are always plenty of plants for the caterpillars to eat and many blossoms to produce nectar for butterflies. Tropical butterflies also live the longest—some for up to one year. Butterflies that live in more temperate climates have an average lifespan of just a few weeks or a few months. Some live a mere few hours.
The future of tropical butterflies and other tropical species is linked to the future of the rain forest. While butterfly farms in many parts of the world help to conserve butterflies, they don’t do much to save rain forest habitat. Butterfly species in other parts of the world are less vulnerable.