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Because of the number of questions asked of us, and our small volunteer staff, for the most part we cannot respond individually to your queries, but if a number of people pose the same question, we will post the answer on this page. If you don't find the answer to your question below, please e-mail it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, remembering that for the most part we cannot respond individually.
What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?
Butterflies and moths are evolutionarily related group of insects, called lepidoptera, that share many characteristics, including having wings covered with scales. The word lepidoptera means scaly (lepido) winged (ptera). There are many families of moths and butterflies within the lepidoptera. Of these, we call 2 related super-families, the true butterflies (Papilionoidea) and the skippers (Hesperoidea) "butterflies."
Many butterflies are very colorful and almost all butterflies are active exclusively during the day. In contrast, most moths are fairly drably colored and are active at night. But there are quite a few butterflies that are dull and quite a few moths that are brilliantly colored and fly during the daytime. A better way to distinguish moths and butterflies is to look at their antennas. Butterfly antennas are shaped somewhat like a golf club, with a long shaft that has a "club" at its end. The vast majority of moths have antennas that are either simple filaments, tapering to a point at their ends, or are very complicated structures with many cross filaments, looking somewhat like radar antennas.
How many kinds of butterflies are there?
There are approximately 20,000 species of butterflies in the world. About 725 species have occurred in North American north of Mexico, with about 575 of these occurring regularly in the lower 48 states of the United States, and with about 275 species occurring regularly in Canada. Roughly 2000 species are found in Mexico.
How many kinds of butterflies can I find near where I live?
In most parts of the United States, you can find roughly 100 species of butterflies near your home. The number is higher in the Rio Grande Valley and some parts of the West, somewhat less in New England. As one goes northward into Canada the number decreases, while as one goes southward into Mexico the number greatly increases.
How long does a butterfly live?
An adult butterfly probably has an average life-span of approximately one month. In the wild, most butterflies lives are shorter than this because of the dangers provided by predators, disease, and large objects, such as automobiles. The smallest butterflies may live only a week or so, while a few butterflies, such as Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks and tropical heliconians, can live up to nine months.
What kind of binoculars should I use for butterflying?
The most important requirement of binoculars for butterflying is that they allow you to focus on objects (butterflies) that are close to you. With most binoculars, if an object is closer than 12 feet away, the binoculars cannot focus properly on the object and it will appear fuzzy. Since you can approach butterflies very closely, we strongly recommend that you use binoculars that focus sharply on objects that are under 6 feet away. Please Binoculars for Butterflying for more information on this topic.
What is the origin of the word "butterfly."
No one really knows the origin of this word. It is possible that it arose from the butter-yellow color of common European butterflies called sulphurs.
Where do butterflies spend the night?
At night, or during inclement weather, most butterflies perch on the underside of a leaf, crawl deep between blades of grass or into a crevice in rocks, or find some other shelter, and sleep.
How do butterflies spend the winter?
In areas where temperatures drop below freezing during part of the winter, at least one stage in a butterfly species' life cycle must be resistant to freezing if the species is resident. Most butterflies that live in cold climates spend the winter as caterpillars, while almost as many spend the winter as pupas. A few species, mainly tortoiseshells (Nymphalis) and anglewings (Polygonia), spend the winter as adults, hibernating in holes in trees, in crevices in man-made structures, or in other shelters. A very few species spend the winter as eggs.
Do butterfly boxes work?
Unfortunately, no. While so-called butterfly boxes can be attractive, and do little harm, studies have shown that butterflies do not use them in any way.
What do butterflies eat?
Most adult butterflies drink nectar from flowers through their tongues, which function much like straws. A minority of butterflies almost never visits flowers, instead gaining sustenance from tree sap, rotting animal matter, and other organic material.
Butterfly caterpillars almost all eat plant matter. Mainly the caterpillars eat leaves, but some species eat seeds and seed pods while others specialize on flowers. Most species will eat only a small group of related plant species -- for example Pearl Crescent caterpillars will eat species of asters. Some species, such as Gray Hairstreaks, will eat a wide variety of plants and some will eat only a single plant species. Although they eat plants, very few butterfly caterpillars are agricultural pests and if caterpillars are destroying some of your garden plants, it is unlikely that they are butterflies (unless you planted those plants specifically to attract butterflies). The caterpillar of one North American butterfly,the Harvester, eats aphids.
Do butterflies migrate?
Yes. Many butterflies that spend the summer in temperate North America cannot survive northern winters. Each year, as the weather becomes warmer, butterflies from Mexico and the southern United States fly north to repopulate these regions. Species that move northward each year include Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, Gulf Fritillary, Painted Lady, American Lady, Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, Long-tailed Skipper, Clouded Skipper, Fiery Skipper, Sachem, and Ocola Skipper. For most species these northward dispersals are gradual, but, in especially good years, one can see Painted Ladies, Cloudless Sulphurs or Clouded Skippers streaming northward along migratory routes.
For some species the reverse migration, south in the fall, is more obvious. Cloudless Sulphurs, Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks, and especially Queens and Monarchs can sometimes be found moving southward in groups of thousands. Exactly where all of these butterflies go is not known. Monarchs are the most well-known of migratory butterflies. But even here our knowledge is limited. We know that most of the Monarchs from west of the Rocky Mountains spend the winter along the California coast while those from central North America spend the winter in roosts in the mountains of central Mexico. But what about the Monarchs from the Atlantic seaboard? Although it seems that many of them also migrate to the same Mexican mountain overwintering sites, others may travel to, and through, Florida, perhaps flying on to undiscovered sites in the Caribbean and/or the Yucatan Peninsula. On the other hand, perhaps northern Monarchs that enter the peninsula don't survive the winter and, for them, Florida is a dead end. Some Monarchs do seem to overwinter in Florida, but these may be largely members of resident, non-migratory, populations. At this point, we just don't know.
Where do butterflies lay their eggs?
Most butterflies lay their eggs on plants that will be eaten by the caterpillar, when it hatches. Some species lay their eggs on the tops of leafs, some on the bottom, some at the leaf axils, some on flowers, and some on stalks. Which species do which is not known in all cases. Watch butterflies carefully and you could make a real contribution to our knowledge.
What is wrong with releasing butterflies at weddings and other events?
This well-meaning but misguided practice spreads diseases to natural populations, inappropriately mixes genetically distinct populations of the same species, may disrupt migratory behavior of native butterflies, confuses scientific studies of butterfly migrations, and usually results in the untimely death of the butterflies released. Please see Butterflies at Weddings for more about this subject.
I bought my child a Painted Lady kit, now the butterfly has emerged but it is still freezing outside. What should I do?
The best thing to do at this point is to keep the butterfly inside in a small enclosure. Try feeding it from a sponge impregnated with sugar-water. But, the important thing to remember for the future is not to buy butterflies. Releasing commercially-raised butterflies into the environment is well-meaning, but misguided (see above), while keeping the wild butterfly in your home is not a satisfying experience for most people (not to mention the butterfly). Far better to take your child out to any natural area and search for wild butterflies and caterpillars, which are easily found in most areas.
Do butterflies have a sense of smell?
Yes, they have chemoreceptors at the ends of their antennas and on the bottoms of their "feet!"