white butterfly with orange on the wing tipIn a kaleidoscope of color, the butterfly lilts from plant to plant with a quiet grace. Butterflies belong to a group of insects called Lepidoptera. With approximately 500 scales per every inch of wing, Lepidoptera, which means “scaly wings,” is appropriate. Like all insects, butterflies have a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton, three distinct body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen, and three pairs of segmented legs.

There are over 550 different species of butterfly in North America, and they come in a breath-taking array of colors. Butterfly wings are clear, but pigment in and structure of wing scales create colors. Pigment produces familiar colors like brown, black, tan, orange, yellow and red. The way light reflects off or moves through the structure of a scale creates metallic and iridescent sheens, blues and greens. Both pigment and scale structure work together to create white, purple and ultraviolet color.

An adult butterfly can see a wider spectrum of color than humans. Males and females of some species, like whites and sulphurs, look identical to the human eye. A butterfly is able to see the ultraviolet color on the males. Many flowers that butterflies get nectar from have ultraviolet color, as well. To most animals, the daisy appears as two colors - white petals with a yellow center. Butterflies see a third color, ultraviolet, outside the yellow center. Green vegetation absorbs ultraviolet light, so ultraviolet-colored flowers boldly appear to a butterfly.

A butterfly’s body temperature must be between 85 degrees and 100 degrees Fahrenheit to fly well. When the sky is cloudy or the air temperature cool, butterflies can be seen basking. They use their wings like solar panels to warm their bodies.

A few hundred years ago, the developmental stages of the butterfly were not understood. Early naturalists thought caterpillars and butterflies were completely different animals. For centuries it was believed that caterpillars came from the morning dew that formed on tree leaves.

Today biologists know that a butterfly progresses through four life stages. It begins as a tiny egg attached to the leaf of a host plant. The larva, or caterpillar, emerges and begins to eat the leaves of the host plant. Because the skin of a caterpillar does not stretch, it forms a second layer of skin and molts the older, outer layer in order to grow. After molting four to six times, the caterpillar has grown to its full size and is ready to become a pupa, or chrysalis.

The final stages of development are called a metamorphosis, which means, “change of form.” To prepare for the pupal stage, the caterpillar spins a patch of silk from itself to a plant or other object. The pupal skin begins to form beneath the caterpillar skin. When complete, the caterpillar skin splits and exposes the soft pupal skin, which gradually hardens into a pupal case.

Growth cells that were not allowed to develop during the caterpillar phase now form into structures and organs that are found on the adult butterfly such as antennae, wings and tongue-like mouthparts. After two weeks to four months, depending on the time of year and species, the pupal skin splits. The adult butterfly crawls out, its wings folded up and moist. The butterfly hangs upside-down until its wings harden. The transformation is complete, and it will spend the remainder of its life in winged-form, proving the adage that beauty truly does arrive with age.