Butterflies and pollination / by Maira Guerra


this article By Robert Korpella

Butterflies make the world a little more colorful. Their vivid wing coloration and fluttering flight path lend a special touch of beauty to nature. However, butterflies do more than just paint a pretty picture. They help flowers pollinate, eat plenty of weedy plants and provide a food source for other animals. In addition, their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the local environment.

Butterflies are a diverse group of insects containing around 20,000 different species. Each type has various behavioral and structural adaptations that allow them to survive in their environment.

Butterflies are not only beautiful creatures, but do a great deal for the environment. Like bees, they are plant pollinators, and they provide population control for a number of plant and even insect species by eating them. They also serve as sustenance for other species. Because they are so sensitive to changes in their ecosystems, scientists use butterfly population and behavior shifts as metrics for changes and problems in local environments.Butterflies are aesthetically pleasing and few species cause any damage to commercial plants. Butterflies contribute to thriving ecosystems and can indicate the state of an ecosystem’s health.Butterflies play an important role in pollinating flowers, particularly flowers that have a strong scent, are red or yellow in color and produce a large amount of nectar. Nectar is an important component of a butterfly’s diet.

The importance of butterfly pollination to plant reproduction may not be equal to that of honeybees but several plant species, like milkweed and other wildflowers, depend on butterflies to transfer their pollen.

Like bees, pollen collects on the butterfly’s body as it is feeding on a flower’s nectar. As the butterfly moves on to a new flower, it carries the pollen with it.

Important Components of a Thriving Ecosystem

An abundance of butterflies is often an indication that an ecosystem is thriving. This is due to the fact that butterflies are an important component of a food chain, as predators and prey. Adult butterflies and caterpillars are an important source of food for other animals such as bats and birds.

Along with nectar, butterflies eat a variety of plants. Some species also provide a natural form of pest control. For example, the harvester butterfly eats aphids while it is in its caterpillar form.

Climate Change

Butterflies are particularly sensitive to climate change. Scientists monitor butterflies as a method of watching for warning signs of the more widespread effects of climate change.

One example of these studies involves monitoring Edith’s checkerspot butterflies in North America. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the distribution of these butterflies has shifted further north and to higher elevations as the result of an increase in temperature.

Declining populations of butterflies as a result of climate change have consequences for many other species. Animals such as birds, small mammals and other insects that depend on butterflies and caterpillars, can lose an important food source and have to shift their diet to less desirable or less available species.

Butterfly Enthusiasts

The study of butterflies has been a common hobby, particularly in Victorian times. Butterflies provide butterfly enthusiasts with a great deal of pleasure.

Like bird watchers, they enjoy spotting rare species. Butterflies also benefit economies by attracting tourists. Areas such as Mexico’s monarch roost benefit from tourism as butterfly enthusiasts travel around the world to photograph the little beauties.

Importance to Science

As well as being an indicator of climate change, butterflies are also sensitive to other threats such as habitat destruction. Changes in the behavior of butterflies can warn people of the future effects of habitat loss on other animals.

As many species of butterflies are highly specialized, individual species can be of particular benefit to science. For example, Europe’s meadow brown butterfly produces a natural antibiotic that may be useful for humans.

Importance of Gardening

As natural habitats are being destroyed to accommodate new developments, the importance of gardening in ensuring robust butterfly populations is becoming more evident. Creating a butterfly ecosystem within your garden as well as in parks and other naturalized areas helps combat this loss of natural habitats.

Planting butterfly friendly plants, having sunny areas for butterflies to bask and warm up, along with providing a shallow water source such as a bird bath will all help to attract butterflies to your garden.

Plant Pollination

Adult butterflies drink nectar from blossoms on flowering plants. Butterflies use a long proboscis to reach deep into the bloom to get at the nectar. The proboscis, which is a part of their mouths, works like a long straw that butterflies curl into a spiral when not using. Like bees and other pollinators, butterflies pick up pollen while they sip a flower’s nectar. Once they’re off to another plant, the pollen goes with them, helping to pollinate the plant species. About one third of the food people eat depends on the work of pollinators such as butterflies.

Keeping Organisms in Check

Butterflies in the larval, or caterpillar, stage consume the leaves of host plants. Caterpillars have chewing mouthpieces that allow them to eat through leaves quickly, using them as an energy source while the larvae grow. Some caterpillars eat flowers or seed pods as well. As a result, they may help plants lose leaves prior to autumn, or help keep certain plant species from propagating out of control. Butterflies are typically very specific as to the type of plant on which they feed. For example, during its caterpillar stage, the monarch butterfly only eats milkweed plants. Although adult butterflies typically do not prey on animals, at least one butterfly species - the harvester - helps keep aphid populations in check by eating them. Other adult butterfly species eat rotting fruit, carrion or animal excrement, thus ridding the environment of waste.

Part of the Food Cycle

During any stage of their life cycle, butterflies provide a food source for other animals. Birds, spiders, lizards, small mammals and even other insects are all butterfly predators. Birds are fond of butterfly caterpillars because they move slowly and are easy to catch. A butterfly chrysalis - the final larval stage before the adult butterfly emerges - is vulnerable because it is anchored to rocks, plants or other structures. Adult butterflies typically only live from a few weeks to about a month, as a result of both a naturally short life span and predation.

Ecosystem Barometer

Scientists use the presence or absence of butterflies as a predictor of whether an ecosystem is healthy. Adult and larval forms are sensitive to pesticides. Changes in climate will impact butterflies because temperature changes and rainfall amounts may alter migration patterns and timing. Loss or fragmentation of habitat - for example, losing chunks of cover as a result of construction or defoliation - increases predation and also affects migration. Ecologists study butterfly behavior, population numbers and migration patterns to help determine the impact of these environmental issues.


By Jean Godawa

The survival of any creature depends on its ability to satisfy its requirements for things like food and shelter while avoiding predators and other harms. Adaptations, either in the animal's behavior or in its structure, give the animal the features it needs to thrive in its environment.

While butterflies do display behavioral adaptations, such as the monarch butterfly's instinct to migrate long distances, their body forms, or structural adaptations, are equally helpful.

Butterfly Adaptations: Camouflage

Butterflies survive long enough to reproduce by avoiding the many predators that feed on them, such as birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. One of the butterfly's adaptations for predator avoidance is to have the same color or pattern as its surroundings, making it difficult to see.

When the wings of the question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis) are open, its bright orange color makes it highly visible. But when its wings are closed and folded up over its body, the jagged edges and brown and gray coloring make it look like a dried leaf. This camouflage protects the butterfly by allowing it to blend in with the forest floor.

Since they don't have wings for a quick escape, many butterfly larvae (caterpillars) depend on camouflage for survival. Often, caterpillars are green, allowing them to blend in with the leaves on which they feed.

The resting stage of a butterfly before it becomes a winged adult is called the pupa (chrysalis). Since it cannot move, it needs protection from predators while it is transforming. The pupa of the giant swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes Cramer) is colored and patterned to look like the stick or branch where it hangs.


If the butterfly isn't blending in with its environment, there are other structural butterfly adaptations that help it avoid harm. Resembling something else, like bird droppings or the face of an owl, can either deter or scare away potential predators. In both caterpillars and adult butterflies, depending on the species, there are many examples of disguises.

The caterpillar of the giant swallowtail butterfly looks like bird droppings with its white and dark coloring. Because it resembles something unpleasant, animals will likely avoid eating it. Other caterpillars such as the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus), can look like the head of a snake and scare off harmful animals.

Adult butterflies have also developed structural adaptations that disguise themselves. The blue morpho is a butterfly with "eyes" on its wings. When open, the wings are an iridescent blue color. If the blue morpho folds up its wings, however, it can startle potential predators with the large eyespot pattern (called ocelli) on the underside of the wings.


Butterfly adaptations that deter predators don't always involve hiding or pretending to be something else. Sometimes butterflies are the complete opposite of camouflaged. They advertise themselves, a phenomenon known as aposematism. Just like the bright yellow and black stripes of wasps and bees warn of a dangerous sting, the bright colors of butterflies can warn as well.

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) diet consists mainly of poisonous milkweed. This diet makes the butterfly itself poisonous. Its bright orange color and contrasting black pattern warn birds and others to avoid it.


Some butterflies take advantage of others with warning coloration. This is known as Batesian mimicryViceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) are not poisonous but have evolved similar wing colors and patterns to mimic those of the monarch.

Birds learn to avoid monarchs after tasting one and getting sick. By resembling the monarch, viceroy butterflies also avoid being eaten by those birds.