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Is a Butterfly an Insect?

two butterflies communicating
Pastoral composition of flowers, insects, and other animals

Is a Butterfly an Insect?

More insects live on this earth than any other kind of animal. By a long shot! Currently, eight of ten animals alive are insects or other Arthropods. We know of more than a million different species of insects, and are discovering new species all the time.

So, what determines insect status? Here’s a checklist of five items:

  1. No backbone is present. The creature is literally spineless. Insects are invertebrates; the only invertebrates that can fly.
  2. The body is supported by a protective exoskeleton made of chitin, while other animals gain structure from an internal skeleton.
  3. The body is divided into three segments–head, thorax, and abdomen.
  4. A pair of antennae perch on top of the head.
  5. Three pairs of jointed legs attach to the thorax section of the body.

It’s pretty easy to see that butterflies possess all the required traits of a true insect–until we get to the fifth checklist item. There is a rather large group of butterflies (with some fairly famous members–think Monarchs, Emperors, Admirals and Fritillaries) that appear to have only four legs. The key word here, though, is “appear.”

Details of the Butterfly:

This group of apparently four-legged flyers are collectively classified as the Nymphalidae. They have a pair of significantly shortened forelegs that are difficult to see. Some keep these almost vestigial appendages held tightly against their thorax or curled up near the head. Why do they no longer use the legs for walking?

two butterflies communicating
What are they saying to each other?

Scientists aren’t sure, but one possibility is that the insects use the reduced-size forelegs for communication and signaling rather than weight-bearing activities. The shrunken legs are frequently covered with fuzz, which seems to support the communication upgrade theory.

Butterflies have a history of remarkable, spectacular adaptation. In the larval stage, the caterpillar is an absolute eating machine with a plump body.  It accumulates and stores the nutrients it will need for the next stage of life as a chrysalis. The chrysalis then transforms into a lovely, ethereal butterfly.

Butterfly Proboscis
This butterfly is extending its proboscis to reach the nectar

If the caterpillar is all about feeding, the butterfly is all about breeding. Its gloriously colorful wings help it attract a mate of the same species.  The newly-acquired proboscis allow it to drink the nectar it needs for flying fuel. The female butterfly visits many plants to find perfect places for her eggs.

What Makes a Great Butterfly Garden?

The most successful butterfly gardens provide sustenance and space for all the stages of the Lepidoptera life cycle. Host plants are where eggs may be laid and the hatched caterpillars may eat (and eat, and eat!).  Undisturbed spots for chrysalis formation are helpful. Of course, you need as many flowers as possible for the adult butterflies’ nectar needs. These are all important parts of your butterfly sanctuary.

And there you have it! The butterfly is indeed a true insect. At Joyful Butterfly, we delight in helping you nurture some of the most beautiful members of the Arthropod classification. We sincerely hope these miraculous creatures bring you the joy they’ve brought to our own lives!

 

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