b-22Butterflies belong to a group or Class of animals called Insects. There are 26 major divisions or Orders. Butterflies are in the Order Lepidoptera from the Latin words “lepido” which means scale and “ptera” which means wing. Lepidoptera (scaly wings) refers to the fact that their bodies and wings are covered with tiny scales. This Order includes both butterflies and moths.They are the only insects with scales (like fish!).

Moth or Butterfly?

They have different antennae.The butterfly’s antennae are club shaped with a long shaft and bulb at the end. The moth’s are feathery or saw-edged. The pupa or intermediate stage between larva and adult of the butterfly is called a chrysaliswhich is hard and smooth with no weblike covering. The moth makes a cocoonwhich is wrapped in a silk covering and often looks weblike. 

Viceroy butterfly <em>Limenitis archippus </em> photo below by Jeffrey Pippen 2006


“Mimicry” is a similarity of one species to another that protects one or both. Some butterflies use mimicry to copy other butterflies with scale patterns and colors that give them protection. The  has a toxin that makes most birds sick. The viceroy butterfly uses mimicry to look like the poisonous monarch and fool predators at first glance. Since the viceroy caterpillar doesn’t eat milkweed like the monarch, the viceroy doesn’t actually taste bad.  Butterflies also use the colors orange and black in their scales to warn predators that they may be poisonous.

Monarch butterfly - <em>Danaus plexippus </em>


Drinking Nectar with a Proboscis

Butterflies sip nectar through what we might think is their nose, but is really a long straw-like feeding tube called a proboscis. The tiger swallowtail above is drinking nectar from a red Pentas flower. Shortly after they first emerge from their chrysalides, butterflies have to put the two pieces of their proboscis together by rolling it back and forth until it zips toghether. Without successfully completing this delicate task, butterflies can’t drink and will die.


Butterflies do not have chewing mouth parts. They can only sip liquids like water and nectar through a long, straw-like tube called a proboscis. Adult butterflies do not go to the bathroom. Butterfly feet or “tarsi” possess a sense similar to taste. They taste their food by standing on it.

Compound eyes for greater sight!

Butterflies do not have the same sense of taste, smell, and sight that people have. They “taste” through their feet and “smell” with their antennae. If they are thirsty and sense food, they will roll out their proboscis. The butterfly above has its proboscis curled up. Their eyes have many lenses (unlike ours that have just one). Their compound eyes look like disco-balls.

Anise with long scales

Butterfly Scales Provide Warmth and Protection

Butterfly scales have many functions, besides pigmentation (color) that make them beautiful, bright, and visible to each other and us during daylight. Scales also keep their bodies warm. Dark scales allow sunlight to be absorbed. Longer scales near the thorax and abdomen (Anise Swallowtail – above) provide greater warmth to enable flying.  Scale patterns also create camouflage to protect from predators. Multiple eye spots on the wings can confuse predators and may lead attacks away from their head, thorax, or abdomen where injury would do the most damage.

Learn more about some of the butterflies you might find in your garden…

ButterflyInfoCardsCLICK HERE to view some quick guides to learn about the host plants you need to attract them. As you plan your butterfly garden, determine which butterflies are native to your specific region. Some are found worldwide while others are not.