Butterfly Wings

So Efficient that Survival Depends Upon Them

Butterfly Wings
Photo: John Raffaghello

Butterfly wings vary in shape, color and function. Everything about their wings is genetically based allowing each species to be adaptive to their environments.

During the butterfly pupa stage is when wings are formed.  They start as a double layer of unpigmented epidermal cells.

In the later pupal stage the structural scales develop. These form butterfly colors and wing patterns.

Wings are made of membranes. The veins throughout these membranes provide nourishment and oxygen. 

Once the adult butterfly emerges from it's pupa it takes up to three hours for the soft, limp wings to fill with hemolymph, or blood, through these veins. After butterfly wings have filled with blood then they can fly.

Setae, or Scales

On these membranes are overlapping rows of many little hairs called setae. Setae are more commonly called scales.

Photo: Craig Taylor

Tactile Setae are the longer sensory hairs

Tactile setae
are are longer hairs attached to nerve cells on appendages such as antennae and mouth parts helping the butterfly to sense touch. All information through these nerve cells is relayed to the butterfly brain.

(Tactile setae lower left) Photo: Photowitch

are the only insects to have scales on their wings,
which is why the literal translation of this term means 'scale-wings'.

The pedicel is the base of each individual scale that attaches to the membrane. Circling around the pedicel is a donut-like cell called a tormogen. Inside the tormogen at the pedicel base is a single cell called the trichogen. The trichogen produces a sex phermone secretion that also helps to flatten scales, allowing them to overlap like shingles on a roof.

The pedicel loosely attaches the scales to butterfly wings and they fall off easily. If we touch butterflies dozens of these scales fall off. It looks like powder. Although it doesn't hurt, scientists debate if these scales falling off harms the butterfly. Some believe no harm comes to the butterfly, while others believe in time, the more scales that fall off will impair the butterflies ability to fly well.

Scientists don't agree if there is a purpose for these scales to fall off so easily. One theory is if a butterfly flew into something sticky, like a cob-web, they can get out more easily and leave the scales behind.

As butterflies age it is not uncommon for their wings to become tattered, torn and the colors also can begin to fade. Once damage occurs, the wings do not repair themselves. This is because hemolymph doesn't flow throughout the entire wing, only the vein.

Below the picture on the left shows where scales have fallen off.
The picture on the right shows veins throughout the wings.

Wing with missing scales
Photo: Jens Stolt
Hemolymph fills veins
Photo: Anatoli Styf

Scales serve many purposes:

1) Temperature Regulation

  • Butterfly scales help retain heat because of the mass amounts
    of them on wings. For example the Monarch butterfly has
    500,000 scales on their wings providing insulation.
  • Butterfly scales are also filled with air making them effective insulators.
  • Because of the complex internal grid that they rest upon, scales are able to absorb solar radiation better than if grid were not present.

2) Scales also help with the upward thrust in butterfly flight.

There is still a lot of debate about this. Theories conclude that larger butterflies benefit most. Having larger wings, there will be more scales allowing them to fly more effectively. Should many scales fall off the larger wing can still fly with little affect.

3) Each scale has its own color.

Blended together these colors create the design of butterfly wings. Wing color and designs vary by regions and seasons. Ultimately these scales and wings serve multiple functions for protection of the butterfly.

  • The front and back wing patterns usually are different
    for camouflage purposes. Depending upon surroundings, native butterflies blend into the environment.
    camouflage moth wings
    Photo: Inavanhateren
    camouflage butterfly wings
    Photo: Karen Roe

    (Some butterfly species will fold their wings up because this is the camouflage method that helps them to blend better into their environment.)
  • The iridescence on wings is makes the butterfly appear bigger than they really are. This deception leads predators to believe the butterfly is larger, possibly a threat.
  • The eye spots on wings mimic the face of a larger animal helping scare away predators. Often these are iridescent. Some common predators to the butterfly are birds and bats. Ironically many predators attack animals in their eyes. Butterflies eye spots are mistaken for these predators, but more often they escape.
  • Another theory for the eye spots on the wings of butterflies is to use as a decoy where prey is lured for ambush.
  • In some species of butterfly the eye spots are used for mate attraction.
  • Aposematic coloration - Wing colors and markings are also a warning to their enemies. Many brightly colored butterflies taste bad, a few can be poisonous teaching predators to avoid them.
  • Tasting badly or being poisonous is not the case for all butterflies. Many others will have similar bright colors and bold patterns to mimic those that are.
  • Because butterflies are cold blooded they require the sun for heat. Both coloring and scales on their wings helps them to retain heat. Butterflies must be warm so they can fly.

Butterfly wings are attached to muscle in the thorax region.
For more about this click 
butterfly anatomy.

Monarch Butterfly Flying

Thorax muscles are strong. The wings are both bilaterally symmetrical in shape and color.

This picture shows the location of the wings in the thorax.

Consider the proportion of the wings to the size of the muscles that are making those wings move.

Photo: Howard Cheek

Butterflies don't fly the same. Each species has wings that are built differently and so are their bodies to fly them.  
For example, butterfly wings can be thicker, longer, shorter, angled or rounded.  All of these differences, along with the force of gravity, each butterfly will fly differently.

Anterior margin (costal margin) is the long edge of wing closest to the head, or forewings are usually thicker giving wings a slight curve in flight. The same for their bodies.

Species with larger butterfly wings are able to use their wings on upward thrust getting them air bound more quickly. Larger wings also create thermal uplifts where they can glide for minutes. They don't require faster or multiple strokes to remain air-bound. They use their large wing to create a larger upward lift against gravity.

Smaller butterflies need lots of metabolic energy to create faster strokes to become air-bound. Their small wings require an upward force exceeding the downward pull of gravity.

The different sizes of butterfly wings will also dictate the number of flaps each species must make per minute to remain air-bound. Swallowtail Butterflies beat their wings relatively slowly, about 4-5 times a second. Monarch Butterflies, along with many others in the Danaidae Butterfly Family beat their wings anywhere between 5-12 times a second.

Other bits of information about the wings of butterflies:

  • Male butterflies that perch have thicker, more pointed wings. This enables them to take off quickly to be the first to seek a mate against any competition.

  • Migrating butterflies fly long distances to preserve their species...  Many female butterflies fly long distances to find host plants to deposit their eggs close by...  Many male butterflies that patrol fly long distances seeking out females for butterfly mating.  

    Butterflies that do fly long distances require wing designs for cruising. These wings will be more rounded and broader. These cruising butterflies aren't the fastest. Their bodies are designed not to be. For example, while the Monarch butterfly is in flight for it's butterfly migration, they glide a lot, relying on thermal uplifts.

    The Viceroy butterfly flaps their wings more because they don't fly distances like the migrating Monarch. Some butterflies come close to flying 20 MPH, rarely will they exceed this.

Video has Great cinematography and confirms these are flying machines.

Butterflies are designed
to be precision flying insects

When the butterfly is in flight they make a slanted circle-eight pattern. This is what we commonly call fluttering and is technically termed dodging. The angling of wings is done during circle-eight because the butterfly propels itself forward. Another butterfly pattern when in flight is hovering and flying in a backward motion.

This form of hovering requires a great deal of metabolic energy. Dodging is done to confuse hungry birds and other prey that may be watching.

Butterflies are equipped with aerodynamic mechanisms to generate force. Aerodynamics is the science that studies the dynamics of air motion, other gases and interaction with moving objects. With knowing butterflies have aerodynamic capabilities it should come as no surprise to learn that some species make long distance migratory flights.

As with so many other characteristics of different Lepidoptera species, there are exceptions when it comes to butterfly wings.

Glasswing, or Greta-Oto Butterfly

Not all wings are made completely of scales. This picture above left is of a Greta-Oto Butterfly, also known as a Glasswing butterfly.

Photo: Photooasis

The Glasswing butterfly wings are the transparent membrane only. These membranes underly all butterfly and moth wings. 

Danais Tytia Butterfly

The Danais Tytia Butterfly upper forewing shows the membrane only. 

Both the Greta-Ota
and Danais Tytia are
from the Nymphalidae,
or Brushfooted Family.

Photo: Valeriy Kirsanov

Related Articles:

Butterfly Colors - How butterfly wings have beautiful colors.

Sunlight - Why butterflies need to soak it in.

Lepidoptera - 'Scale Wings' and more..

Butterfly Pupa - The stage where cell division creates wings.

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