Butterfly FAQ

Part of the Davis Family Butterfly Vivarium exhibition.

View through a magnifying glass shows a closeup of a butterfly feeding on an orange slice. Alvaro Keding/© AMNH

1. How can you tell butterflies and moths apart?

Adult butterflies are active in the day, while most—but not all—moths are active at night. When resting, a butterfly holds its wings together above its back; a moth holds its wings horizontally. And butterfly antennae are thickened, or clubbed, at the tips, while moth antennae are most commonly straight or feathered.

2. Do butterflies have any of our five senses?

To some extent, adult butterflies have all five senses. By far the most important sense for butterflies is smell—the sensors on their antennae are highly attuned to odors. Butterflies can also taste. They have "taste buds" at the end of the tongue, and females taste plants to identify them by using sensory structures on their feet. Their eyes can detect motion and color, and even see ultraviolet light, which is invisible to humans.

3. How do butterflies communicate?

Adult butterflies communicate with one another mostly through chemical cues—the males produce chemicals called pheromones to seduce the females. Additionally, a few species communicate with sound. The male Cracker butterfly (Hamadryas) can make loud noises with his wings.

4. Do butterflies sleep?

Butterflies don't sleep like people do, but many species do take a rest in groups, a behavior called "roosting." Some may pause for just a night, while others roost for the entire winter season. Roosting together helps protect butterflies from predators and preserves energy for long migrations.

5. How do butterflies reproduce?

If you see two adult butterflies with their abdomens linked tail-to-tail, they are mating. The male grasps the female and deposits a sperm packet, which fertilizes the female's eggs. The butterflies can fly while mating but they usually avoid moving unless they are disturbed.

6. How long do butterflies live?

Although the caterpillar may take months to develop, adult butterflies of most species live only a few weeks. Exceptions include migratory species, which may live up to 10 months. In warm climates there are continuous generations, producing butterflies year-round.

7. Do butterflies migrate?

Most adult butterflies stick close to home, but a few species, including the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), are migratory. Monarchs travel incredible distances from Canada and the northern United States to overwintering sites in Mexico, where they roost together in vast numbers. Having survived the winter, the adults return northward in the spring.

8. What makes butterfly wings colorful?

Butterfly wings are covered with tiny scales, each a single color. Most of the colors are produced by pigments, but the beautiful iridescence of some butterflies results from a reflective microstructure on the scale's surface. Don't touch a butterfly's wing—the "powder" that rubs off is actually the scales.

9. Are butterflies endangered? Are any extinct?

Butterflies are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, and many species have become endangered or extinct because of habitat destruction. Some adult butterflies have also been threatened by commercial collectors, like the spectacular Queen Alexandra's birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae, of Papua New Guinea.

10. How small is the smallest butterfly, and how big is the biggest?

Adult butterflies vary greatly in size. One of the smallest butterflies is the eastern pygmy blue, Brephidium isophthalma, from the coastal southeastern United States, with a wingspan of about 5/8 of an inch. Among the largest are the birdwing butterflies from New Guinea, with wingspans of up to 12 inches.