The group of insects called Lepidoptera, which means "scale wing," includes two types of insects: butterflies and moths. Butterflies are some of the largest and most colorful insects, meaning humans take notice! They tend to be the insect people are most familiar with and summer is a great time to bring the family outdoors for butterfly observation! The Lepidoptera family is made up of about 180,000 different species, most of which are moths. There are over 17,500 known types of butterflies in the world and about 750 in the United States. Butterflies vary in size, coloration, and even shape, but are still one of the most recognizable insects, although some can be mistaken for moths. In general, butterflies differ from moths in a few ways. They typically are diurnal (fly during the day), have clubbed antennae, and hold their wings over their back during rest, while moths typically are nocturnal (fly during the night), have feathered antennae, and lay their wings flat when they rest.
If you head outside to look for butterflies, don't forget that you might find a butterfly in any stage of it's lifecycle - egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), or butterfly (adult). Butterfly eggs are laid on specific types of "host" plant, depending on the species. When caterpillars hatch out of the eggs, they are very hungry! The first thing they eat is their own egg shell. Then, they keep eating and eating. If humans grew as fast as caterpillars did, by a time a baby was two weeks old, he/she would be longer than a school bus! As the caterpillar grows, it has to shed its skin, or exoskeleton, which doesn't grow with it. Each growth phase of the caterpillar is known as an instar. Caterpillars may look relatively the same during different instar phases (just changing in size), or their colors, patterns, and textures may change as well!
While caterpillars are busy eating and growing, they also have to be on the look out because they're a good food source for other predators, like birds, other larger insects, reptiles, or small mammals. Caterpillars may have camouflage to help them blend in with their surroundings or bright colors that say "I'm poisonous, stay away!" or to mimic others that are poisonous. They may have bristles associated with venom glands (which is why you should never touch a caterpillar with bristles!), spikes or large eye spots to scare away predators, or may even use silk to wrap a leaf up around their bodies to hide!
Top left: citrus swallowtail caterpillar mimics bird poop as a camouflage technique. Top right: spiny great spangled fritillary caterpillar. Bottom left: monarch caterpillar. Bottom right: spicebush swallowtail.
When a caterpillar is large enough, it turns into a chrysalis, where metamorphosis to an adult butterfly takes place. While in the chrysalis, a butterfly is defenseless, unable to move or escape predation, so often a chrysalis is very well camouflaged! When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it has very small, crumpled wings and a very plump body. Soon, it starts to change shape as it pumps hemolymph from its body into hollow tubes in the wings. It takes about 20 minutes for a butterfly to pump up its wings and be ready for flight.
The time of year a butterfly is an adult is called the flight period and it may be longer if butterflies have more than one generation (brood) per summer. Butterflies overwinter in different stages of their lifecycle, impacting which butterflies we see first in the spring (the ones that wintered as adults)! You will be able to find butterflies on-wing in Minnesota/Wisconsin from late April to early October!
Learn More About Your Local Butterflies!
So now is the time to get outside and learn more about your regional butterflies. Happy Dancing Turtle is currently hosting the Winged Wonders Walk to help you learn more about your common local butterflies. It is available on trails in Winona, MN and Trempealeau, WI from July 3-18, 2021 and in Brainerd, MN at the Northland Arboretum from July 17 - Aug 1, 2021.
Helping Winged Wonders in Your Yard!
Many butterfly populations are declining due to habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. Make your yard a butterfly habitat by planting native species and adding a shallow water dish to serve as a pollinator bath! Even potted plants on a balcony can serve as an important resting spot for adults on their way between habitats. Want a specific type of butterfly? Look up the host plant for that species and get it in your yard! People often use pesticides/herbicides to get rid of a particular pest or weed, without realizing that they also kill beneficial insects and plants, too! This disrupts the entire ecosystem of your property - including butterflies! Think about a yard care routine that doesn't involve harmful chemicals. Lastly, butterflies are beautiful to watch, but remember - they're delicate and easily damaged by touch and oils on our hands. It's better to just observe them with our eyes! We hope you can get out this summer to enjoy some Winged Wonders!