Frequently Asked Questions About Butterflies
Butterfly and Moth Questions
- Can I get more information on the butterfly's life cycle?
- When will the migrating monarchs get to my neighborhood?
- How do you say "butterfly" in . . . ? (now over 300 languages)
- How do butterflies breathe? Smell? Taste?
- What colors can butterflies see?
- What kinds of butterflies and moths live in my neighborhood?
- How can I learn about butterfly farming?
- Why are they called "butterflies"?
- What is my state insect?
- I'd like to start a butterfly garden. Can you help?
- What do Wooly Bear caterpillars become?
- Do butterfly hibernation boxes (butterfly houses) work? How can I build one?
- How long do butterflies live?
- How can I tell a moth from a butterfly?
- How many kinds of butterfly are there?
- Where do butterflies go at night?
- What do butterflies eat?
- What do caterpillars eat?
- How do butterflies communicate?
- My school wants to build a butterfly garden but we need donations. Where should we look?
- What are the largest and smallest butterflies?
- What are the world's rarest and most common butterflies?
- Are there more moth species or butterfly species?
- Which state has the most butterfly species?
- What makes their wings colorful?
- What is a caterpillar?
- What are 'prolegs'?
- How do caterpillars see?
- How do caterpillars breathe?
- How do caterpillars hear?
- Is frantic wriggling normal?
- What does it mean when a caterpillar arches the front of its body and remains motionless?
Can I get more information on the butterfly's life cycle?
Animation by Tammy Steele
We have several articles on butterfly and moth biology in our article index, including their life cycle, HERE.
When will the migrating monarchs get to my neighborhood?
We have several articles on monarch migration, which you can find in our Article Index. The best place to find out where monarchs are RIGHT NOW is Journey North. You can see up-to-date maps of both northbound and southbound migrations, and you can also enter your own sightings.
How do you say "butterfly" in . . .
Click HERE to see a list of the words for "butterfly" in many languages. If you know of any others, please let us know.
How do butterflies breathe? Smell? Taste?
Adult butterflies, as well as caterpillars, breathe through a series of tiny openings along the sides of their bodies, called "spiracles." From each spiracle, a tube called a "trachea" carries oxygen into the body. Butterflies don't have noses and lungs as we do. Butterflies "smell" with their antennae. Many butterflies can taste with their feet to find out whether the leaf they sit on is good to lay eggs.
What kinds of butterflies and moths live in my neighborhood?
We've put together a world atlas to help you find butterflies in any locality. In the USA, we have butterflies and moths listed by state. In the United Kingdom, by postal code. We also have lists sorted by continent, country, and some localities.
How can I learn about butterfly farming?
The Butterfly WebSite has many articles on butterfly and moth farming HERE.
- Is it expensive to get started?
- Extensive capital investments are not required. Attend a seminar and/or buy the books; join the free mailing lists; purchase some larvae and learn from experience. Our website, as well as our seminar, emphasize the use of recycled materials to build much of what you need.
- Do I need a lot of space?
- No. You don't need a greenhouse or a butterfly house. Larvae can be kept in plastic cups, adults in a hanging cage. You'll need a source of larval plants, which you might gather locally, or you might need to plant for yourself.
- What kinds of butterfly are normally raised?
- Monarchs and painted ladies. A majority of requests are for monarchs.
- Who can do this?
- Anyone with the time to attend to these critters. It is necessary to tend them daily. Unlike other kinds of farming, you use a Q-tip instead of a shovel. It's excellent work for families, or for the elderly. Watching your butterfly crop can be as relaxing as watching an aquarium.
- What are the biggest drawbacks?
- 1: The length of the selling season - temperature must be in the mid-60's or higher for a successful outdoor release. Many farmers augment this by other butterfly-related ventures, such as education in schools, or supplying butterflies in hanging cages to be displayed, but not released, at events.
- 2: A supply of larval host plants. Milkweed for monarchs can often be obtained from the wild or from friendly farmers, but it is necessary to check for bug sprays or infestations.
- 3: Governmental regulation. While we strongly endorse the many governmental regulations which seek to protect butterflies and agricultural products, wading through this morass, without the assistance of experienced people to guide you, can be a problem. Fortunately, the International Butterfly Breeders Association exists to help with this and other problems. These must be considered primarly in inter-state shipment of butterflies.
- 4: Shipping. Unless you are dealing exclusively in your local area (which is certainly feasible in any of the 'wedding capitals'), you must master the art of packaging and shipping live insects, with an eye to long shipment delays, excessive temperatures, and recipients not available to receive their butterflies.
- Can I make a good living doing this?
- As with every other business, it depends on the level of effort you're willing to put into it. Many people are doing it on a part-time business for extra income. Some have made it into a full-time business, but there is a seasonality to the business, so the answer depends heavily on where you reside. Since we cannot answer this question fully, we suggest you go the the mailing list described above and ask this question of the people on the list. Also, we suggest you visit the IBBA website since this is the main gathering place for people in the business.
- Where can I learn more about USDA regulations?
- USDA Agricultural Permits Site; The International Butterfly Breeders Association.
Why are they called "butterflies"?
Click HERE for an article by Rick Mikula.
What is my state insect?
I'd like to start a butterfly garden. Can you help?
We certainly can. Check out our Butterfly Gardening section.
What do Wooly Bear caterpillars become?
The wooly bear caterpillar eventually becomes an Isabella Tiger Moth, Pyrrharctia Isabella
Do butterfly hibernation boxes (butterfly houses) work?
If you intend them as an attractive garden decoration, they work
superbly. If you'd like to provide shelter to butterflies, these
two articles say they most likely will not use them. However, several
of our visitors have been successful.
Hibernation Boxes: Do They Work?
If you'd like to build one, go here: Butterfly House Plans
For info on where to put it in your garden, go here: Where to Place your Butterfly House
How long do butterflies live?
Opler and Krizek discuss this difficult question in Butterflies East of the Great Plains, where they state that the expected life span, which is usually much shorter than the maximum life span (because of weather, predators, and many other factors), ranges from about 2 to 14 days. Maximum life span ranges from about 4 days for the Spring Azure to 10 to 11 months for the Mourning Cloak. Just as with people, females generally live longer than males. Butterflies which hibernate or go into reproductive diapause also tend to live longer.
How can I tell a moth from a butterfly?
Butterflies and moths both belong to a group of insects called "lepidoptera", meaning that they have wings covered with scales. They are related in many ways. Butterflies are generally brightly-colored while moths are generally drab, though they are many dramatic exceptions to this. Almost all butterflies are active during the day, and most (but by no means all) moths are active at night. A good way to tell the difference is by their antennae. Butterfly antennae are shaped somewhat like a golf club, with a long shaft. Most moths have either simple filaments tapering to a point, or complicated affairs with many cross-filaments.
How many kinds of butterfly are there?
Worldwide, there are approximately 28,000 species. There are about 725 species in the USA and Canada. About 2,000 species have been found in Mexico. About 80% of all species are in the tropics. The United Kingdom has 58 species of butterfly and 2,000 species of moth.
Where do butterflies go at night?
At night or during bad weather, butterflies will usually hang from the undersides of leaves, or crawl into crevices between rocks or other objects, and sleep.
What do butterfies eat?
Adult butterflies sip nectar from flowers through their tongues, which act like straws. A very few butterflies do not visit flowers, but instead feed on tree sap or rotting organic material.
You can feed butterflies with a butterfly feeder and homemade nectar. Mix 1 part sugar to 9 parts water. Boil this solution for a few minutes. Pour cooled mixture into your butterfly feeder. Store the rest in the refrigerator. You can also buy nectar here >
What do caterpillars eat?
Almost all caterpillars eat plant materials. Most eat leaves, but some eat seeds, seed pods, or flowers. The caterpillar of the Harvester butterfly eats aphids.
My school wants to build a butterfly garden but we need donations. Where should we look?
There are several organizations that provide money to school for wildlife habitat enhancement projects such as creating a butterfly garden. For more info, click here.
What are the largest and smallest butterflies?
Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), with a wing span of 11-1/8 inches (280 mm), is found only in the rain forest of New Guinea. Destruction of its habitat is threatening this beautiful creature with extinction.
The smallest butterfly, the Pygmy Blue (Brephidium exilis), is found in the southern United States. Its wingspan is 1/2 inch (15 mm).
What are the world's rarest and most common butterflies?
Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), is found only in the rain forest of New Guinea. It is the rarest and biggest of all butterflies. Destruction of its habitat is threatening this beautiful creature with extinction.
The most common butterfly is the Cabbage White.
Are there more moth species of butterfly species?
Moth species outnumber butterfly species by 16-to-1.
Which state has the most butterfly species?
Arizona, with 220.
How do butterflies communicate?
Butterflies communicate mostly through chemical signals. Males produce 'pheromones' to attract females. A few species communicate with sound. For example, the male Cracker Butterfly can produce noises with its wings.
What makes their wings colorful?
Butterfly wings are covered with scales (that's the meaning of the word 'lepidoptera'). Each scale is a single color, most of which are produced by pigments. The iridescence that's sometimes seen is produced from a reflective microstructure on the surface of the scales.
What colors can butterflies see?
Butterflies can see red, green, and yellow.
What is a caterpillar?
Most insects have a larval stage known as a 'grub', with six legs. Butterfly and moth grubs have up to ten extra legs, called 'prolegs.' Since these extra legs cause them to look and act differently, these grubs are called 'caterpillars.' Some caterpillars turn into butterflies, but most turn into moths.
What are 'prolegs'?
Caterpillars have the 6 legs of other insects, plus up to ten 'prolegs' that distinguish them as the grubs of moths or butterflies. The 6 true legs are jointed, with a little claw on the end of each. Prologs are cylindrical, not jointed, with a tiny hook that makes them good for walking or clinging. The 6 true legs on the thorax remain throughout pupation, and these become the legs of the adult butterfly or moth. The prolegs disappear.
How do caterpillars see?
Most have six simple eyes, called 'ocelli' or 'stemmata.' Some species have fewer than six.
How do caterpillars breathe?
There is an oval opening called a 'spiracle' on each side of each segment. These are connected to a tube, the 'trachea.' As the caterpillar moves, air is pumped into the trachea, causing oxygen to be taken in and carbon dioxide to be pushed out. Caterpillars do not actually breathe as we do, but air is exhanged by the compression and extension of each segment.
How do caterpillars hear?
It's not really known if caterpillars can hear. They make no noise other than chewing.
Is frantic wriggling normal behavior?
Yes, it is their response to feeling threatened.
What does it mean when a caterpillar arches the front of its body and remains motionless?
Caterpillars go through several stages, called 'instars', in which they change their skin. To break through the old skin, which they've outgrown, some caterpillars arch their backs.