An Introduction to Butterflies
Butterflies have been around since before the dawn of mankind dating back almost a 100 million years.
Butterflies are insects. Unlike most insects however which are often referred to as creepy crawlies, bugs or pests, butterflies because of their colourful radiant wings and dainty flitting through flower beds have captured the imagination of humans for centuries. Songs, stories and poetry have been written about these beautiful winged jewels while the butterfly itself completely oblivious to the fascination it invokes in the human mind goes about its daily tasks of feeding mating and protecting itself from predators.
Butterflies are broadly classified as follows:
The order Lepidoptera includes both butterflies and moths. Butterflies are further classified according to their physical characteristics and are divided into the following Families:
Papilionidae: Which include Swallowtails and Birdwings
E.g.: Common Yellow Swallowtail, Short-horned Baronia, Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing (largest in the world) (Image i)
Pieridae: Which include Whites and Yellows
E.g.: Small White, Green-veined White, South-Western Oragetip, Small Grass Yellow (Image ii- orangetip)
Lycaenidae: Which include Coppers and Blues
E.g.: Xerces Blue (extinct), Karner Blue, Red Pierrot, Dorcas Copper, Western Pygmy Blue (World’s smallest butterfly) (Image iii)
Riodinidae: Which includes Metalmark butterflies
E.g.: Duke of Burgundy (endangered), Plum Judy, Lange’s Metalmark (endangered), Tailed Metalmark (Image iv)
Nymphalidae: Which includes Brush-footed butterflies
E.g.: Painted Lady, Monarch, Speckled Wood, Buckeye (Image v)
Hesperiidae: Which includes Skippers
E.g.: Mallow Skipper, Zabulon Skipper, Small Skipper, Chequered Skipper (Image vi)
Like most insects butterflies undergo a four stage life cycle:
Egg: The first stage is the egg stage. The female butterfly lays her eggs on the underside of a leaf of a host plant where they are protected from predators. The eggs are very small like the head of a pin and are stuck to the leaf with a glue like substance secreted by the female butterfly. (Image vii)
Larva: The larval stage of the butterfly in better known as the caterpillar stage. When the young caterpillars hatch from the eggs their first meal is its own eggshell. Next the caterpillars voraciously eat the leaves of the host plant and grow rapidly in size. An interesting fact about caterpillars is that while their bodies get bigger their skin does not grow along with them. A caterpillar soon outgrows its skin and has to shed it in a process called moulting. The old skin comes off and a brand new skin is formed underneath. Most caterpillars moult about four times. (Image viii)
Pupa: This is the stage when the caterpillar forms a cocoon around itself. The pupa is the stage of butterfly inside the cocoon. During this time the pupa does not feed at all. Its body is undergoing several changes which could take from one to six weeks. Hanging on trees and usually a dark brown colour the cocoon often looks like a dried leaf and goes unnoticed by predators. (Image ix)
Adult: When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon it has reached the adult or imago stage. At first its wings are wet and soft and it requires time to let them dry and allow the blood to flow through them. Butterflies usually emerge from their cocoons early in the morning to give themselves enough time to get strong enough to fly before any predators have a chance to attack them. (Image x)
Like all insects the adult butterfly’s body is divided into head, thorax and abdomen.
Head: The globular knob at the top of the body is the head. It hosts a pair of antennae which detect smells and gives a sense of balance, a pair of compound eyes which detect light and movement and a proboscis which is a straw-like tube used for feeding. The proboscis is kept coiled when not in use.
Thorax: the part of the body directly under the head is the thorax. Three pairs of segmented legs are attached to the thorax. At the tips of these legs a sense organs of taste. The forewings and hind wings are also attached to the thorax at the back.
Abdomen: The long segmented part of the body below the thorax is the abdomen. Within the abdomen is contained the butterfly’s heart, digestive and reproductive organs. The abdomen also contains small hole like structure called spiracles through which the butterfly breathes.
It is common knowledge that butterflies feed on nectar of flowers but it is interesting to note that butterflies also feed on many other things. Some other favourite foods of butterflies include; pollen, rotting fruit, dung, rotting flesh, urine and dissolved minerals in wet sand.
Butterflies have a range of interesting behaviours which can be observed by watching them:
Flight: Butterflies fly to find food, to find a host plant to lay eggs, to find a mate and to escape predators. It places where there is extreme climate some butterfly species like the Monarch butterfly fly long distances to warmer climates to avoid harsh winters. This is called migration.
Chasing: During courtship the male and female butterfly appear to be chasing each other.
Flexing wings: When at rest a butterfly will holds its wings upright and occasionally flex its wings.
Roosting Behaviour: Butterflies do not fly much during cold or rainy weather. During this time the rest on the underside of a leaf or some other sheltered place where they are not easily spotted by predators. This process is called roosting. Most butterflies are very good a camouflaging themselves to blend in completely with their surroundings while roosting.
Basking: Butterflies are cold-blooded animals which means that they cannot regulate their own body temperature like humans can. For this reason butterflies need to bask in sunlight to help their bodies warm up.
Puddling: Butterflies; most often males have been observed to gather around the edge of mud puddles. This behaviour is termed puddling and is when the male butterflies absorb salts and other minerals from the wet mud. These additional nutrients are passed on to the females during mating.
Patrolling and Perching: Once again like puddling both these behaviours are observed in male butterflies and are related to courtship. When a male butterfly flies around looking for a mate it is called patrolling. When he sees a female he swoops down on the female and if she is of the same species they mate.
Other males exhibit perching where they perch themselves on a tall plant and waits for a female to pass. When the male spots a female he approaches her to mate.
Importance of Butterflies
Butterflies play an important role in the food chain. Not only are butterflies a food source for many other animals like lizards, frogs, birds, etc but they are also responsible for the pollination of several plants.
When feeding on nectar of a flower pollen grains from that flower stick to the body of butterflies and when the butterfly moves to another flower it passes on the pollen to that flower thus helping in the life cycle of the plant.
A good population of butterflies represents a healthy eco-system. When the number of butterflies decreases there is less food for the animals that feed on butterflies as well as less chance of cross pollination taking place in plants.
Natural predators of butterflies have never been known to endanger butterfly populations however the action of human beings have pushed these beautiful creatures almost to extinction in certain areas. The indiscriminate use of pesticides in agricultural belts and the destruction of habitat in urban areas are two of the main factors that have affected butterfly populations around the world. Butterflies are particularly sensitive to climatic change and this is another global factor that has endangered butterfly populations.
Butterflies if India and Mumbai
Butterflies are almost globally distributed, existing on all continents except for Antarctica. There are about 15,000 to 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide.
India is a country of vast geographical and climatic diversity. The temperature varies from extreme heat to freezing cold and the topography is an assortment of hills and plains, deserts and forests, coastlines, islands and mainland. All these factors result in a rich variety of flora and fauna.
The Indian subcontinent boasts of around 1500 species of butterflies. The tropical climate and large amount of rainfall in India ensures plenty of larval host and adult feeding plants.
Some of the more common butterflies spotted in India are:
This includes the family Papilionidae – swallowtail butterflies: Swallowtail butterflies are large and colourful. There are over 550 species of butterflies in this family. This family includes the largest butterflies in the world the Birdwings.
Some distinguishing characteristics include:
- The caterpillars have an osmeterium which is a fleshy, forked structure which emits a smelly substance when the larva feels threatened
- The adults have prominent prolongations of the hind wing region
Examples of this family include: Crimson Rose Butterfly, Asian Swallowtail, Lime Butterfly, Common Banded Peacock (Image xi)
Family Pieridae – yellow and white butterflies: This family contains approximately 1,100 species of butterflies mostly found in tropical Asia and Africa.
Distinguishing characteristics include:
- Most pierid butterflies are white, yellow or orange in colour and often have black spots. The pigments that give this colouring are derived from waste products in the body
- It is believed that the name butterfly came from a member of this family. The Brimstone butterfly was referred to as the ‘butter-coloured fly’ by early British naturalist
- Males and females are often different in colour or black markings
Examples of this family found in India are include; Common Jezebel, Common Wanderer, Pioneer, Crimson Tip. (Image xii)
Family Nymphalidae – brush-footed butterflies. This is the largest family of butterflies comprising about 6,000 species. Butterflies in this family are medium sized to large and have colourful wings.
Distinguishing characteristics include:
- The caterpillars are hairy or spiky with projections on their heads
- The first pair of wings is generally reduced in size giving these butterflies the names brush footed or four footed butterflies
- While the wings are often brightly coloured and held flat when resting the underwing is dull in contrast looking like dead leaves which allow the insect to blend in with its surroundings
Examples include; Common Crow Butterfly, Plain Tiger, Glassy Tiger, Striped Tiger, Common Wall, Common Four Ring, Common Sailor, Baronet (Image xiii)
Family Lycaenidae – blues, hairstreaks and gossamer-winged butterflies. With over 5,000 species of butterflies worldwide Lycaenidae is the second largest family of butterflies. Members of this family are generally small, under 5cms with brightly coloured wings and sometimes a metallic gloss.
Distinguishing characteristics include:
- Males’ forelegs are reduced in size and lacking claws
- The caterpillar are flattened and have glands that secrete a substance that attracts ants
- The caterpillars are able to communicate with ants through vibrations produced by the body
- Adults have spots on the hind wing and antennae like tails which confuse predators which often approach from the head end and are spotted early by the butterfly
Some examples found in India are; Peablue, Common Imperial, Indian Sunbeam, Purple Saphire, Small Grass Jewel, Indian Cupid (Image xiv)
Family Riodinidae – punches & judies (Metalmarks): the name Metalmarks comes from the small metallic looking spots commonly found on the wings. Worldwide there are approximately 1,000 species of butterflies.
Distinguishing characteristics include:
- The males have reduced forelegs while the females have full sized and fully functional forelegs
- Caterpillars are hairy and plump
- Pupa attaches itself directly to the host plant or to leaf debris. There is no cocoon
Examples include; Lesser Punch, Tailed Judy, Punchinello, Harlequin, Columbine (Image xv)
This includes Family Hesperiidae – skipper butterflies: This family includes seven sub-families out of which four are found in India comprising of a total of 223 species.
Hesperids are often difficult to identify to species level in the field and accurate identification may require dissection and examination of the genitalia. The larval food plants are mainly grasses, palms and bamboos. Some feed on dicotyledon species. Eggs are smooth, or sometimes ridged and white or red in color. Larvae are cylindrical with a large head. They are usually green or transparent green and sometimes conspicuously marked. The larvae feed within cells made out of rolled leaves and pupation occurs inside the cell. The pupa is generally covered with fine white powder. (Source: Wikipedia, the free Encyclopaedia)
Example include; Common Banded Awl, Indian Skipper, Chestnut Angle, Tawny Angle, Marbled Skipper, Zigzag Flat (Image xvi)
Butterflies in Maharashtra
Maharashtra is the third largest state in India. It is bordered by the Arabian Sea on the West and land on the other three sides. The coastline stretches from North to South and flanked on the East by the Shayadri Mountain which plateaus off into the mainland further east.
While the coast and western part of the mountains receive high rainfall the eastern side of the mountain range receives less and less rainfall further east until some on the places furthest away from the coast are dry and arid.
The greenery caused due to large amount of rainfall in some parts together with lots of sunshine throughout the year has allowed to state of Maharashtra a vibrant butterfly population. About 200 species of butterflies can be found in Maharashtra.
Butterflies of Mumbai
For a city Mumbai hosts a relatively large butterfly population of about 150 species more than double that in Great Britain.
Due to agricultural activities in the surrounding regions resulting in the indiscriminate use of pesticides Butterflies have been forced to find refuge elsewhere. Up until three decades ago suburban Mumbai with its quaint cottages sporting beautiful gardens laden with flowers was an idyllic setting for butterflies. However as more and more development takes place in the city and cottages give way to apartment buildings while their gardens are turned into concrete car parks the natural fauna which originally inhabited these spaces have been evicted from their homes.
Butterflies would have been driven to the brink of extinction in Mumbai City if not for a few small pockets of green where they can still find refuge. These places include:
- The Sanjay Gandhi National Park
- The Maharashtra Nature Park
- Mumbai Port Trust
- Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden
These along with a few other gardens around the city have become the safe havens where butterflies continue to survive till date.
Some interesting facts about butterflies in Mumbai:
- The Blue Mormon is the largest butterfly in Mumbai with a wingspan of 12.0-14.0cms (Image xvii)
- The Tiny Grass Jewel with a wingspan of just1.5cms is the smallest butterfly to be found in Mumbai (Image xviii)
- The Blue Oakleaf Butterfly has been nicknamed the Mumbai Trickster because of its impressive camouflaging skills; the underwing of this butterfly resembles a dried leaf right down to details of the veins. When it perches on the ground or on a tree it keeps its wings closed and blends completely with the surroundings thus going unnoticed by predators (Image xix and xx)
Building a Butterfly Paradise
In the last two decades the city of Mumbai has developed in leaps and bounds. The skyline has changed dramatically with the introduction of more and more high-rise buildings while gardens and open grounds slowly disappear. If we keep up at this rate we will very soon lose a lot of our butterfly populations and spotting these Winged Beauties will become harder and harder.
Butterflies however are easy to please and this gives us hope for the future. With some sunshine and flowers and few other things and lots of TLC building your own little butterfly paradise is not so hard to do.
Here is what you need to build a butterfly garden:
- Find a good spot which has plenty of sunlight and shady areas as well
- When selecting flowering plants have a number of plants of the same type to be kept together and also chose three to four varieties of plants which will ensure flowers throughout the year
- Hedges and rocks provide places for butterflies to shelter
- Mud puddles are a big attraction for butterflies
- Putting out plates of overripe fruit like bananas will also help to attract butterflies
- When planting larval host plants find out which are the best plants to attract the butterflies in your area. Also be prepared for the host plants to be completely destroyed by the caterpillars which are ravenous. Host plants need not be planted if you only wish for the adults to come visit
Keeping these points in mind and caring daily for the garden will ensure that butterflies visit you all year round.
The Flight of the Flower Fact File
Here are some fun facts about butterflies:
- The largest butterfly in the world in the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing with a wingspan of up to 30cms wide
- The smallest butterfly in the world is the Western Pygmy Blue Butterfly with a wingspan of only 1.2 – 2.0 cms
- The fastest butterfly in the world is the Agrias Butterfly which can fly up to 48km per hour
- Monarch butterflies have been known to fly over 2,000 miles when migrating from Central Canada to Mexico
- The Brimstone butterfly has the longest adult lifespan of 9-10 months
- Butterflies taste with their feet so that they can tell if the leaf they are standing on is good for laying eggs
- Butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature goes below 86 F or 30 C
- The larvae of the Apefly and Moth butterfly feed on insects and not leaves like most other larvae
- The larvae of about 75% species of the Lycaenidae family have a very interesting relationship with ants. These larvae communicate with ants through vibrations produced by their bodies. The ants protect the larvae from predators and in return the larvae secret a sweet substance which is collected by the ants for food
- Many caterpillars ingest poisonous or unpalatable substances from the leaves they eat and store these substances in their bodies. They display this by having bright markings. Predators have over the centuries learned to avoid these caterpillars and their adults because of these substances contained in the body
- Several other butterfly species have evolved to mimic the physical characters of their toxic cousins thus warding off predators themselves. For example the Common Mormon closely resembles the Crimson Rose which is an unpalatable Butterfly