Tag Archives: severe weather

Perchance to Hold a Butterfly

I raise butterflies so children can experience the sheer joy of holding them and observing them up-close.

Monarch on Girl's Hand

A Monarch (Danaus plexippus) butterfly perches on the hand of this delighted young lady who also sports a colorful butterfly T-shirt on her field trip to the butterfly farm.

Painted Lady butterflies in children's hands

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies in the hands of budding lepidopterists. This is the species you can raise with Butterfly Lady’s famous Painted Lady Butterfly Caterpillar Rearing Kit. Click Here or on the photo for complete details.

Many people believe the old wives’ tale that if you touch a butterfly’s wings and it loses some scales, it will die. Not so.

The truth is that butterfly wings are covered with hundreds of thousands, even millions in larger species, of tiny scales that overlap one another like shingles on a roof.

These scales protect and strengthen the translucent wing membranes and help provide lift.

Morpho Wings

Close-up wing view (left) of this stunning Morpho (Morpho spp.) butterfly (right).

Magnified Morpho Wing

Same photo (from above left) of a Morpho butterfly wing magnified to show details.

Magnified Monarch Wing

Exquisite, cushiony patterns of orange, black and white scales on the wing of a Monarch butterfly. At this magnification, it appears to be a fine handiwork of needlepoint.

Drastic loss of scales will change the aerodynamics of the wing, making flight more strenuous and slow, but a butterfly can fly with most of its scales missing. In fact, butterflies are so resilient that they can still fly after losing parts of their wings.

Worn Wings of a Tiger Swallowtail

Amazingly, this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly can still navigate the skies with substantial parts of its wings missing. It’s nectaring on faded blossoms of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Click Here or on the photo to buy seeds of this versatile nectar- and host-plant.

Worn Wings Julia

This tattered Julia (Dryas iulia) can also still fly. As bits and pieces of its wings fall off or are bitten off by birds, lizards and other predators, it quickly adjusts its motor skills to compensate for weight and balance.

Slipperiness and easy detachment of butterfly scales help butterflies escape predators.

Wear and tear is natural over an adult’s lifetime and a few scales are lost each time a butterfly flies. Severe weather, brushes with plants and spider webs all take their toll.

The longer a butterfly lives, the more likely its wings will be damaged. Scales form the colors and patterns butterflies need for mate selection, camouflage, predator avoidance and thermoregulation.

Zebra Longwing Worn wings

Yes, this Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charithonia) butterfly is still airworthy, but doesn’t have too many more miles in it.

Morph scales

Hundreds of butterfly scales ended up on my finger after handling a Morpho butterfly. Not to worry. There are millions more scales on its wings. They remind me of nature’s “pixie dust,” magically facilitating butterfly flight.

Although a butterfly will not die if you touch its wings, if too many scales are rubbed off, these benefits are diminished. So, handle them with care.

For a demonstration of how to properly pick up and hold a butterfly, I turn to New Zealand’s butterfly expert; trustee and secretary of the Monarch Butterfly New Zealand Trust; and my friend Jacqui Knight (via YouTube).

So if you ever get the chance to hold a butterfly, it’s all good. Just be gentle, do it the right way, and treasure the joy.