Flying facts

Papilio rumanzovia butterfly at the Butterfly Paradise exhibit at ZSL London Zoo.

Few of us actually know anything about butterflies, despite the fact there are more than 160,000 species in the world. Learn a little more about these insects.

  • Butterflies have six jointed legs, a pair of antennae and three body parts called a head, thorax (chest), and abdomen (tail end). The four wings and the six legs of a butterfly are attached to its thorax.
  • They have four brightly coloured and patterned wings, covered in tiny scales and are the only insects with scaly wings.
  • Each scale on a butterfly’s wing is a single colour, either red, yellow, black or white. Other colours, including green and blue, are created by light refracting (bending) on the butterfly’s wings.
  • The patterns and colours on a butterfly wings are symmetrical and as the butterfly grows older, its wings fade and become ragged.
  • Most butterflies feed on nectar from flowers and many plants rely on butterflies to transfer pollen from one flower to another.
  • Butterflies transform themselves four times in their life. This process is called metamorphosis. A butterfly begins its life as an egg, usually laid on a leaf. A larva (caterpillar) hatches from the egg and feeds on leaves or flowers. The larva will grow bigger and bigger until it is several thousand times its original size before turning into a pupae or chrysalis. Eventually a beautiful, butterfly emerges from the pupae.
  • Many pupae avoid being eaten by looking either like a dead leaf, fruit or twig. Pupae are vulnerable to predators such as birds, lizards and snakes, as they can not move or defend themselves. By resembling things found in nature they reduce their chance of being discovered and predated on. Some can even look like bird droppings!
  • The Atlas Moth emerges from its pupae without mouthparts, leaving its soul purpose in life to find a mate and reproduce. It has 6 weeks in which to do this, living on the energy it stored as a caterpillar.
  • The North American black and orange Monarch Butterfly is the only insect known to be able to fly over 2500 miles. Millions of butterflies migrate south to overwinter and avoid the freezing conditions of the north, but as the plant that the caterpillars feed on, milkweed, does not exist in the overwintering sites, the spring generation fly back north for summer before laying their eggs and dying.
  • Special sensors on a butterfly or moths' feet allow the insect to taste their food. They can not taste through their mouthparts. They also do not have mouthparts that can bite and chew, instead they have a long thin tubular structure that acts like a straw.
  • The Monarch Butterfly is poisonous to eat!