Do you ever find yourself watching a butterfly and wondering to yourself, what in the world are they doing? Well, this blog is meant to demystify some of your butterfly curiosities and help you to better understand the butterflies in your garden. Below are 5 key terms to understanding butterfly behavior.
Before moving ahead, I feel compelled to pay homage to the late, world-renowned Monarch conservationist and ecologist, Lincoln Brower who spent most of his life studying Monarch butterfly behavior. Without his research the Monarch world would not be the same.
Butterflies don't have teeth but they do have a proboscis. A proboscis is basically an elongated snout that can straighten by hydrostatic pressure, allowing them to drink the nectar from tube-like flowers. When they aren't feeding, their proboscis is rolled up on the underside of their head. Some butterflies also like to feed on rotting fruit when flowers aren't available.
Did you know that butterflies are ectotherms, also known as cold-blooded? This means they rely on the sun to warm their muscles and raise their internal temperature enough for flight. According to Journey North, a monarch's threshold for flight is 55°F (13°C). Their wings work as solar panels to capture that heat and reflect it onto their black thorax. Generally they "bask" with their wings outstretched in order to capture the maximum amount of UV radiation.
Another way for butterflies to raise their internal temperature is by shivering, or moving their wings rapidly.
Butterflies do not have it easy. They are constantly avoiding freezing, desiccation, heat stress, and predation. That is why they have developed so many behavioral strategies in order to survive.
According to a scientific paper by researchers Masters, Malcom and Brower: "The monarch thus is the first butterfly in which shivering has been shown to be of major ecological importance."
Butterflies don’t exactly sleep but they do rest or "roost". In fact, a cluster of butterflies is called a roost. When they roost, their wings are generally closed and you can see why. The Monarch butterfly has an excellent camouflage on the underside of it's wings that makes them look just like dried leaves.
So, roosting allows them to hide from predators, rest and regulate their temperatures. Studies have found that clustering will also raise the butterfly's temperature, protecting them from freezing at night.
Butterflies can be found sipping moisture from puddles or wet soil after a nice rain. Not only are they being hydrated but they also pick up salts in the process. The salts are also thought to increase a male butterfly's fertility.
Interestingly enough, Monarchs differ from their close relatives, the Danaids, in their mating behavior. For instance, Monarchs do not use pheromones or complex courtship rituals to engage with their mates. Instead, they pursue the females in flight or perch on them while they are on the ground, then attempt to mate with them through coercion.
Research done by K. Oberhauser, M. Solensky, and D. Frey, suggests that mating by coercion evolved in both overwintering and summer generations of Monarchs, and the dependence on chemical cues was lost.