(You can also read this blog, with different butterfly photos, at the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s website.)
I wonder if butterflies might get annoyed with all the poetic language they attract. They’re “tiny rainbows,” “flying flowers,” and “ephemeral angels.” We use them as metaphors for transformation and symbols of beauty, joy, and immortality.
But what are they really?
My fear is that with all the chatter about beautiful butterflies reflecting the sky or brightening our summer days, we might overlook the astonishing truth of what they’re actually doing out there in the wild and in our backyards.
On your next hike or camping trip in Central or Eastern Oregon, when you see some of the butterflies shown here, consider the remarkable ways in which they, like us, are sensing the world.
Look at the head of a butterfly to see the two tiny compound eyes that give them a wide field of vision (yes, they see you too). They can look up, down, to the side, forward, and backward at the same time, and they can detect colors into the ultraviolet range that confounds us.
Their eyes have tens of thousands of individual light receptors—picture a honeycomb—each with its own microscopic lens. When the amount of light hitting the receptors changes, as when a predator or a net approaches, butterflies can detect the movement and take evasive action.
Butterfly hearing hasn’t been studied for long—there is so much about even the most common of animals that we’re still learning. But we do know that some butterflies can hear using a membrane located on their wings (or other body parts) that vibrates in response to sounds.
Some moths have ears tuned to the high-frequency echolocation calls of bats; when they hear those calls, they either take evasive action or drop to the ground as if dead. Butterfly hearing is thought to be similar, only theirs is tuned to different frequencies—like the low-frequency sound of a bird’s wings flapping as it swoops in for a meal.
Butterflies have chemoreceptors similar to the ones in our noses, but theirs are located on their feet and antennae. The club-like tips of butterfly antennae are especially dense with chemoreceptors, which can sense the honey-like odor of nectar or the smell of pheromones emitted by males of some species.
Butterflies touch and feel leaves, flowers, and other objects with their feet, antennae, proboscis, and tiny hairs all over their bodies.
Butterflies eat leaves and other food when they’re larvae (caterpillars), building up strength to eventually transform into adults. During their usually brief adult lives, they don’t eat anything. Instead, they drink nectar and other substances using the straw-like proboscis at the front of their heads.
They also taste leaves using chemoreceptors on their forelegs, which is especially important for female butterflies when they’re trying to find the right place to lay their eggs. Each butterfly species can only lay eggs successfully on certain host plants that provide the right nutrients—most famously, Monarchs need to lay their eggs on milkweeds.
Watch closely, and sometime you might see a butterfly drumming her legs—sometimes all six legs—on a leaf to draw out juices for the chemoreceptors on her legs to test. Only if the taste is right, indicating that the leaf is indeed that of a host plant, will she deposit one or more of her eggs.
Get out there
The next time your friend remarks on a butterfly’s beauty while walking quickly past, you might stop and say, “You know, they’re more than just beautiful …” Then stay for a while. Pull out your binoculars and your field guide, so you can both identify the species and appreciate how that one individual is experiencing the world.
About the author
LeeAnn Kriegh is the author of The Nature of Bend. Her second book, The Nature of Portland, will be on bookshelves in spring 2020.