The butterfly lifecycle
1 - Egg
- anatomy, oviposition
2 - Caterpillar
- hatching, feeding and development
- cannibals, carnivores and myrmecophiles
- survival mechanisms,
armature, camouflage / disguise
co-evolution with plants
- pupation, metamorphosis
- emergence, feeding
- mate location and courtship
10 - Adult
- daily routine, roosting, hibernation, lifespan
: daily routine, roosting, hibernation, lifespan
Male and female butterflies of any given species usually behave very
differently. In most species the males are highly active, and their
behaviour follows a predictable cycle of feeding, basking, and
patrolling in search of females. Males of other species are often
highly territorial, and will defend their territories against other
insects including wasps, flies, and flying beetles. If another male of
the same species enters their territory, they engage in an aerial
sortie, spiralling high above the trees until the intruding butterfly
Female butterflies live entirely different lives. Prior to mating they
are often sedentary, remaining very close to the spot where they
emerged from the pupa. After mating they seek places to lay their
eggs, but usually fly only short distances between bouts of egg
These differences in behaviour are reflected in
their appearance - males need to be noticed, so are generally more
colourful than females. The Adonis Blue
Lysandra bellargus is
a good example : the males are a brilliant iridescent blue colour, but
the females are drab dark brown creatures - they spend most of their
time crawling about on the ground amongst short grasses, looking for
places to lay their eggs, but need to bask periodically so they can
maintain their body temperatures. When basking on the ground, their
drab colouration helps to camouflage them so they escape predation.
Lysandra bellargus, male, Ballard Down,
Lysandra bellargus, female, Ballard Down,
cool or rainy weather butterflies are inactive, and thus particularly
vulnerable to attack by birds and small mammals.
In tropical areas many
species hide away beneath leaves, even when sunny, and only come into
the open to undertake specific tasks such as feeding or reproducing.
This behaviour is very widespread amongst the metalmarks ( Riodinidae
) and Spreadwing skippers ( Pyrginae ).
( Riodinidae ) hiding beneath a leaf in the Peruvian rainforest ©
In temperate zones, during periods of inclement
weather, members of the Papilionidae and Pieridae normally roost
beneath the leaves of herbaceous plants.
Pyrgines such as the
Grizzled Skipper Pyrgus malvae
usually roost at the top of dead flower-heads. The Dingy Skipper
Erynnis tages behaves similarly, but
takes things a stage further by wrapping it's wings tightly around
dead knapweed flowers, where it is almost impossible to see ( unless
you are a very determined entomologist ! ).
Erynnis tages, (
Pyrginae ) roosting on a dead knapweed flower, Hampshire ©
Polyommatine Blues and
Satyrines such as Small Heath, Marbled White and Meadow Brown tend to
roost in a head-downwards posture at the top of grass heads.
Pearl-bordered Fritillaries Clossiana euphrosyne
and other Melitaeines adopt a similar tactic, often roosting on
bracken fronds or on the flowers of rushes. Such strategies may at
first seem a little difficult to understand, as the butterflies are
easily spotted. The probable explanation is that they are selecting
sites where they are out of reach of nocturnal predators such as voles
( Nymphalinae : Melitaeini ) seed-head, Wiltshire, Kent ©
Hibernation is a
process that depresses metabolism and energy consumption during the
cold winter months. It ensures that energy is not wasted on fruitless
searches for nectar and foliage in winter, and synchronises the spring
reawakening with the time when flowers and fresh foliage reappear.
temperate regions of the world most butterfly species overwinter as
larvae. Others hibernate as eggs or pupae. A small number, including
Polygonia c-album and Gonepteryx rhamni
overwinter instead as adult butterflies.
overwinter they need to find a place to hide where they are protected
from the worst of the wind, rain and snow. They may be in diapause for
several months, and throughout this period they must remain undetected
by birds. Accordingly they have evolved cryptic colours, patterns and
unusual wing shapes that combine to provide them with effective
camouflage. The Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni
for example hibernates under bramble or ivy leaves and has wings
coloured to match winter foliage. Its wings are also leaf-like in
shape and have raised venation to simulate the veins of real leaves.
( Pieridae ) hibernating beneath a bramble leaf, West Sussex ©
Many overwintering species such as the Peacock
Camberwell Beauty Nymphalis antiopa and
Large Tortoiseshell Nymphalis polychloros
hibernate beneath logs or in hollow tree trunks; or in other dark
places such as caves or animal burrows. These species have evolved
very dark ventral wing patterns which make it difficult for foraging
birds to locate them in their gloomy surroundings.
A few species such as the Comma Polygonia
c-album hibernate openly, hanging from tree branches or
amongst piles of leaf litter on the forest floor. Their dark marbled
patterns and strange angular wing shape provides them with an
extremely effective dead-leaf disguise.
( Nymphalidae ) hibernating beneath a branch, West Sussex ©
The whole lifecycle from egg to adult can take just 3 weeks to
complete in many tropical species. In temperate regions the
lifecycle of the summer generation may be complete within 6 weeks,
but many species only produce a single generation in a year. In
sub-arctic zones some species such as
take 2 years to complete the lifecycle.
The lifespan of
butterflies varies considerably from one species to another. Captive
butterflies, if fed regularly can live for several weeks. Wild
butterflies are subject to predation and the extremes of climate, so
while some may have the potential to live longer, in practice the
average lifespan is just 7 or 8 days.
There are however several notable exceptions to
this general rule. Some butterflies, e.g. Monarchs, Commas and
Tortoiseshells, hibernate as adults, and these species often live for
several months. The longest lived European species are the Brimstone
both emerge in early July, and often survive until the following June.
Certain tropical species are also capable of
surviving for equally long periods.
Central & South America female Heliconius
sequester pollen from Psiguria,
Anguria and Gurania
flowers in the rainforest.
The pollen collected from the flowers is
processed by the females to extract amino acids which increase
longevity and enable them to produce eggs for up to 9 months. Other
tropical species e.g. the Satyrine
mermeria and certain Ithomiines, Heliconiines and
are able to extend their lives by
aestivating during the dry season, and can
live for up to 11 months.