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Facts about Butterfly Wings : Anatomy, Functions, Colors

Butterflies are one of the most familiar and appealing insects to humans. This is not only because they are one of the most colorful insects, but also because they are super friendly. One of the most striking features of a butterfly are its wings. Apart from being very colorful, butterfly wings are very complex and intriguing. This post goes deep into Facts about Butterfly Wings to help you understand these lovely creatures.

A Little Bit About Butterflies


Butterflies are insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera, along with moths. According to epidopterists, there are about 15,000 to 20,000 species of butterflies in the world.


Facts about Butterfly WingsFun Facts about Butterfly Wings


  • Butterflies and moths are the only insects with wings covered in scales.
  • There are about 160,000 species of moth in the world.
  • Butterflies are one of the most studied insects.
  • While they are very beautiful, butterflies aren’t among the most beautiful animals or insects.
  • Colombia is the country with the most butterfly species.
  • The average lifespan of a butterfly is 2 weeks to 1 month.

About Butterfly wings


First things first, butterflies have four wings, contrary to what most people think. That’s a pair of forewings and two hindwings.


These four wings are attached to the thoracic segments on both sides of the butterfly. The thorax has strong muscles to move the wings as the butterfly flies.


For the butterfly to fly it must warm its body (ectotherm) by busking outside in the sun. They do this by resting with the wings spread out. The sunlight warms the thorax muscles that move the wings during flight.


Beautiful Butterfly WingsButterflies require about 5-6 hours of sunlight to absorb enough energy in their thorax muscles. Apart from being a source of energy, butterflies also use sunlight to raise their metabolism.


Interestingly, butterflies tilt their wings as they busk to absorb as much sunlight as possible. The tilting is very similar to how solar panels are installed.


Butterflies absorb sunlight from the upper side of their wings (dorsal basking). However, some species absorb from the bottom side too (lateral basking)


The structure of a Butterfly’s Wings


As earlier mentioned butterflies have four wings. These wings are covered with thousands of scales. Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, which is a Greek word for “scaly winged”

Also, unlike what most people think, butterfly wings have living tissue. They are not like a fingernail, hair, or bird feather.

Butterfly Wings Glossary


Forewings– The two front wings on both sides of the butterfly.

Hindwings- The two behind wings on both sides of the butterfly.

Apex – The furthest edge point of each forewing.

Tornus (outer angle) – The second furthest point on the edge of each of the four wings.

Coastal margin – The front edge of each of the four wings.

Outer margin – The outer edge of each of the four wings.

Inner margin – The behind edge of each of the four wings.

The inner margin, outer margin and costal margin form an imperfect triangle.

Apical– A small circular area at the end of each of the two forewings.

What are butterfly wings made of


The wings are divided into seven discs, named as follows.

  • Basal
  • Postbasal
  • Submedial
  • Medial
  • Postmedial
  • Submarginal
  • Marginal

Discs – A circular area in the middle of the four wings

What are butterfly wings made of?


Butterfly wings are made of two thin layers of chitin. Chitin is a naturally occurring amino polysaccharide polymer. It’s a building material primarily found on insects and crustaceans.


The wings are supported and nourished by a system of tubular veins. The veins run longitudinally, and the arrangement differs from one genus to another. In fact, one way to differentiate and identify butterflies is through the wings’ venation.


The veins carry hemolymph, which is a blood-like fluid. One of the key roles of this fluid is to expand and inflate the wings of a chrysalis.

The four wings are covered with hundreds of thousands of microscopic scales.


That’s why if you touch the wings of a butterfly, you are left with a powder-looking substance on your fingers.


The scales come off easily as a protective feature so that when the butterfly is trapped, it’s easier to escape. However, shedding the scales shortens its lifespan.


These microscopic scales are arranged in patterns, and when they reflect light, they produce different colors.


They also provide a whole lot of other benefits, including


  • Absorbing sunlight and heat retention.
  • Helps in flying by increasing the wing’s mass.
  • Help in insulating the butterfly thanks to the veins.
  • Gives the butterfly the beautiful colors.


Some studies suggest that a butterfly’s hindwings are not really necessary for flying. That’s why butterflies can easily fly without the hindwings.


On male butterflies, there are modified scales that produce pheromone chemicals to attract females of their species.

person holding delicate butterflyWhere do butterflies get their color?


Here is where it gets complex. Luckily, it’s simple to understand.

The wings of butterfly get color in three ways

  • Pigmentation
  • Structural color
  • A combination of pigmentation and structural color

Pigmentation Color


Pigmentation color is the color derived from a pigment. It’s how many plants and animals, including humans, get their skin color.

This happens when a plant or animal absorbs or reflects a certain wavelength.


For instance, plants get their green color from a pigment called chlorophyll. To produce the green color, the plant absorbs all other types of wavelengths except green. The plant then reflects the green wavelength back to us.


A black object reflects all the light back, while a white object absorbs all color wavelengths.


For humans, there is the pigment melanin, which is also found in butterflies. The melanin pigment gives butterflies dark colors like brown, black and brown.


Melanin Grey, black and brown
Pterins Orange
 Ommachrome Orange, red and tan


So, when you see gray, black, or brown colors on a butterfly, it’s because of the melanin pigment.


Structural colors


A close up of a butterfly wingThe second source of butterfly colors is structural colors. These are colors that are created when light is manipulated by the scales covering the wings.


When light strikes these scales, they produce a completely different color. When you see iridescent blue, green, and violet wing colors, those are structural colors. The specific color depends on the angle of the scales and the light intensity.


Sometimes the color you see on a butterfly may be a combination of structural and pigmentation, producing a completely different color.


How do Butterflies use Their Wing Colors?


Now, that we know how butterflies get their colors, let’s move on to the next thing.

Why are butterflies so colorful?

Is it to be beautiful to us? Unfortunately, it’s not.

Here is how butterflies use colors


1. To Camouflage


Some butterflies use color to camouflage and become invisible to their predators. They do this by closing their wings and exposing the underside of the wings, which is typically dull. This helps them blend in with their surroundings without attracting attention.


Some colored butterflies will rest on objects or plants with a similar color, making them hard to spot.  For instance, a green butterfly resting on green leaves.


There is also the dead leaf butterfly, which looks like a dead leaf when it’s resting. This butterfly mostly rests on the ground where there are dead leaves, a form of disguise.


Chrysalids take the color of where they are hanging to protect themselves.


2. Warning coloration


Some butterflies use color to threaten and keep off predators. This tactic is known as aposematism.

The butterfly uses color as a tactic to warn predators that it is venomous or poisonous. This is common with butterfly species where caterpillars eat toxins that are transferred to the adult butterfly.


Butterflies that use this tactic are mostly from the Papilionidae and Pieridae families. For instance, the monarch has bright orange coloration as a sign of its toxic qualities.


It has also been suggested that some butterflies have attractive colors as a means of drawing attention to themselves.


3. Mimicry


Viceroy butterflies, mimic monarch butterfliesSome butterflies, such as Viceroy butterflies, mimic monarch butterflies as a way to protect themselves.


This is because monarch butterflies eat milkweed, which has toxic chemicals. Luckily, these chemicals don’t affect the monarch.


Many predators avoid monarchs for this reason. The viceroy mimics monarchs to avoid being eaten.


Some butterfly species have evolved bright colors to deceive predators, despite the fact that they are not toxic.


4. Concentric Eyespots


Some butterfly species have eyespots on their wings. Eyespots, or false eyespots, are color patterns that resemble an eye.


Studies shows these eyespots are more than what meets the eye. These false eyespots act as a threat by mimicking the eyes of a bigger predator. For instance, the Caligo butterflies have eyespots that resemble owls’ eyes.


While most species have the eyespots on the upper side, some species have hidden eyespots and will only flash them when there is a potential predator.


There are some studies that suggest that the eyespots are a strategy for another form of protection.


The studies show that the eyespots are there to trick predators as to where to attack. The predator will most often attack the false eyespots, giving the butterfly a chance to escape.


butterfly species have eyespots on their wingsSome butterflies with eyespots include

  • Common Buckeye
  • Gray Hairstreak
  • Northern Pearly-Eye
  • Blinded Sphinx
  • Parnassius apollo
  • Dark Blue Pansy
  • Smooth-Eyed Bushbrown

5. Finding mates


Interestingly, male butterflies also use colors to attract females. One strategy for attracting and winning a mating partner is to be very colorful. This is because female butterflies are usually very picky when choosing a partner.


Also, most of the time, it is a competition.


When a male is looking for a mate, it will chase after any moving object, including bees, butterflies, and even leaves.


When they are close to the target, the butterfly then determines if it has found the right match by releasing pheromones.


Other uses of wings include

Wings help in regulating the body temperatures


Wings also house the heart that pumps hemolymph throughout the wings through the veins.


Butterfly-Inspired Technology


Butterfly wings have been noted to be some of the most sophisticated insect body structures.

There are now dozens of studies focusing on butterfly wings. And because some of the best technologies are inspired by nature, there are a lot of technologies that are coming up that are inspired by butterfly wings.


These technologies include invisible solar technologies, efficient cooling materials, photonic security tags, protective clothing, self cleaning surfaces, nanotechs, and industrial sensors.


Frequently Asked Questions About Butterfly Wings


Can you hurt a butterfly by touching it?


Dark Colored Butterfly wingsThe wings of a butterfly are coated with thousands of scales. When you touch the wings, your fingers will collect a powdery substance that resembles dust. That’s actually the scales.


You cannot hurt a butterfly by just touching it. It all depends on how much scales have been removed. If it’s a significant amount, then the butterfly will be hurt. The damage is not immediate, but the wings will get weaker in the next couple of days.


Naturally, a butterfly sheds some of its scales during its normal activities.

It’s recommended to never capture the butterflies on their wings. If you have to do it, use an appropriate net.


Do butterfly wings grow back?


The wings of a butterfly don’t grow back. While the wings are fragile, they are actually quite strong. For instance, monarchs migrate from the US and Canada and fly 2500–3000 miles to central Mexico using a set of four wings.

Luckily, most butterfly species live between 15 and 30 days.


Can a butterfly fly with a missing wing?


Yes, a butterfly can fly with a missing or damaged wing. However, it will be slow and will struggle to fly a long distance. Studies also show that the hindwings are actually not very useful in flying.


Do butterfly wings have blood?


The wings of a butterfly have veins that transport a fluid called hemolymph. However, this fluid is not like human blood since it does not have hemoglobin. Apart from transporting nutrients, hormones, and metabolites, this fluid supports and strengthens the wings.

When newly hatched butterflies emerge, their wings are filled with this fluid to gain strength to fly.


Can butterfly wings get wet?


Yes, butterfly wings get wet when they are rained on. That’s why butterflies rest until all the water evaporates. Some butterfly species have super-hydrophobic wings thanks to their overlapping scales.


Do butterflies feel pain in their wings?


No, butterflies’ bodies lack pain receptors and thus are unable to feel pain. However, they know when you touch them. The body of a butterfly is covered with hairs (tactile setae) and that’s how they experience touch.


How to help a butterfly with a missing wing


Spread out Butterfly WingsAs mentioned above, butterfly wings don’t grow back or heal. Luckily, most butterflies can survive with missing or damaged wings. If you come across a butterfly with a missing wing, it is best to leave it alone.


If the wing is damaged and hanging, you can pluck the damaged wing and leave it alone. Some people use adhesive to repair the damaged part of the wing. The problem is that most of the time, you may end up causing more damage if you are doing it for the first time.


Why are my butterflies’ wings vibrating?


Now, butterflies are cold blooded. This means their body temperatures depend on their surroundings. That’s why they bask to increase their metabolism rate and also heat their muscles.

Another way to warm their bodies is by shaking their wings to increase their metabolism.


Why do butterflies idly flap their wings when they are not flying?


To warm their bodies readying for a flight


Why do butterfly wings glow or shimmer?


Butterflies glow when light strikes their scales at a specific angle, producing a glowing look.


Can butterflies see their wings


There is a common quote from books that “butterflies cannot see their beauty.” However, it has been demonstrated that butterflies can see their wings. Butterflies have two compound eyes with almost a 360-degree view.

However, since butterflies cannot understand patterns, they can’t perceive their wings as we do.


Conclusion: Facts about Butterfly Wings


One of the reasons butterflies are well known is because of their four wings. While they look weak, they are actually quite strong for their functions. They are transparent and covered in thousands of scales. Surprisingly, damaged wings don’t heal or grow back, but a butterfly can survive with a damaged wing.

Butterflies use their colors and patterns for different purposes, such as attracting mates, camouflaging, and as a defense mechanism.

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