Butterflies are beautiful, flying insects with large scaly wings. Like all insects, they have six jointed legs, 3 body parts, a pair of antennae, compound eyes, and an exoskeleton. The three body parts are the head, thorax (the chest), and abdomen (the tail end).
The butterfly's body is covered by tiny sensory hairs. The four wings and the six legs of the butterfly are attached to the thorax. The thorax contains the muscles that make the legs and wings move.
Butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis in which they go through four different life stages.
- Egg - A butterfly starts its life as an egg.
- Larva - The larva (caterpillar) hatches from an egg and eats leaves or flowers almost constantly. The caterpillar molts (loses its old skin) many times as it grows.
- Pupa - It turns into a pupa (chrysalis); this is a resting stage.
- Adult - A beautiful, flying adult emerges. There is no growth during this stage. This adult will continue the cycle and reproduce.
Butterflies are complex creatures. Their day-to-day lives can be characterized by many activities. If you are observant you may see butterflies involved in many of the follow activities. To observe some activities, such as hybernation, may involve some detective work. To observe other activities such as basking, puddling, or migrating, you will need to be at the proper place at the proper time. Keep an activity log and see how many different butterflies you can spot involved in each activity. The information from the individual butterfly pages may give you some hints as to where (or on what plants) some of these activities are likely to occur.
The larval or caterpillar stage and the adult butterfly have very different food preferences, largely due to the differences in their mouth parts. Both types of foods must be available in order for the butterfly to complete its life cycle.
Caterpillars are very particular about what they eat, which is why the female butterfly lays her eggs only on certain plants. She instinctively knows what plants will serve as suitable food for the hungry caterpillars that hatch from her eggs. Caterpillars don't move much and may spend their entire lives on the same plant or even the same leaf! Their primary goal is to eat as much as they can so that they become large enough to pupate. Caterpillars have chewing mouth parts, called mandibles, which enable them to eat leaves and other plant parts. Some caterpillars are considered pests because of the damage they do to crops. Caterpillars do not need to drink additional water because they get all they need from the plants they eat.
Adult butterflies are also selective about what they eat. Unlike caterpillars, butterflies can roam about and look for suitable food over a much broader territory. In most cases, adult butterflies are able to feed only on various liquids. They drink through a tube-like tongue called a proboscis . It uncoils to sip liquid food, and then coils up again into a spiral when the butterfly is not feeding. Most butterflies prefer flower nectar, but others may feed on the liquids found in rotting fruit, in ooze from trees, and in animal dung. Butterflies prefer to feed in sunny areas protected from wind.