Common Questions and their Answers

The following questions are grouped into four categories to better organize a search for a specific topic. All italicized words are found in the glossary of terms.


Q- What is a host plant?
R- A host plant is a specific plant or group of plants to which certain types of butterflies have very close relationships with. A species of butterfly will typically have a certain plant which it prefers to lay its eggs on. Therefore, the survival of the butterfly beyond the egg stage is dependent upon the decision of the female as she is choosing where to lay her eggs.

Q- Why does it seem that there are fewer butterflies around my house now as compared to 10 or 20 years ago?
R- The answer to this question lies in the destruction of habitat. As more and more natural habitats are transformed into altered habitats for human beings, the destruction of host plants reduces the number of butterflies that can survive. As with all other types of wildlife conservation, the conservation of butterflies starts with the conservation of the habitat.

Q- How could I attract butterflies to my backyard or garden if I wanted to?
R- The best way to attract butterflies in order to observe them throughout their entire life-cycle is to plant the native host plants which they depend on. This information can be found in a field guide to the butterflies of your area. In addition, providing butterflies with sources of food rich in sugar will also attract them to feed. Plants called nectar plants which flower abundantly and are colored yellow, purple or red will attract adults. As well, rotting fruits placed outside will also attract butterflies as the surface of the fruit is rich in sugar.


Q- How long does a butterfly live?
R- In the adult stage a butterfly will live approximately 3 to 4 weeks. However, the entire life cycle of a butterfly can range between 2 and 8 months, depending on species. Some migratory butterflies, such as the monarch in North America, can live as long as 7 to 8 months in one generation. Others, such as the Heliconius butterflies, do not migrate but can still live sometimes as long as 8 months.

Q- How many times do the adults mate?
R- The females will only mate once throughout their lives whereas the males can mate more than once. This leads to competition between the males to mate with the females.

Q- How many eggs do the females lay?
R- Usually a female adult butterfly will lay around 100 eggs. Different groups of species have different ways of going about the laying of their eggs. Some prefer to lay eggs abundantly in groups, while others prefer to lay their eggs singly and scattered on many plants. Yet others may even drop their eggs in flight as their relationship with the host plant is less specific and they don't need to be quite as accurate in choosing.

Q- How do butterflies mate? R- Butterflies mate "back-to-back", with the wings of the males typically found in between those of the female. The males attach themselves to the abdomen of the female with their claspers, and inject the sperm into the abdomen. There the female stores the sperm in a sac called a spermathecae until she decides to lay the eggs, upon which they will be fertilized by the sperm.

Q- How long does a butterfly stay in the different stages of it's life cycle?
R- On average, the time table of the life cycle is like so:

Egg- 7 to 10 days Pupa- 7 to 10 days
Larva- 3 to 4 weeks Adult- 3 to 4 weeks

Q- Does a butterfly produce a cocoon?
R- No, it is incorrect to say that a butterfly produces a cocoon. A butterfly produces a chrysalis while a moth produces a cocoon. These are both types of pupa produced by Lepidoptera.


Q- How many species of butterflies are known to science?
R- About 20,000 species are known to science.

Q- What are the main differences between a moth and a butterfly?
R- The following differences are generalities and there are many exceptions to them:

Colors- Butterflies are typically more colorful than moths. Butterflies will usually have some sort of color on their wings while moths are typically rather non-descript with brown and grey colors.

Activity during the day- Butterflies are typically more active during the morning hours of the day, while moths tend to be nocturnal.

Hair- Moths tend to have greater amounts of hair on their bodies, while butterflies will typically have less hair (particularly on the antennae).

Pupa- This is the best trait to differenciate between moths and butterflies. In the case of butterflies, they create a pupa without silk, and we call this a chrysalis. In the case of moths, they create a pupa with silk, and we call this a cocoon.

Q- What is the survival rate of butterflies in the wild?
R- Butterflies only have a 2% survival rate in the wild! Hence, we say that they have a 98% mortality rate in the wild. This means that if one hundred eggs were laid by a female, only 2 would survive to reproduce and lay eggs themselves!

Q- Why is the survival rate so low in the wild?
R- Butterflies are primary consumers, and because of this they provide food to the many predators which feed on them. In addition, a survival rate of 2% ensures a constant equilibrium in the population of butterflies in their habitats. Two individuals survive to replace the male and female which mated in the first place to produce the offspring.

Q- What kind of animals prey on butterflies?
R- There are two groups or organisms which feed on butterflies: parasites and predators.

Parasites- are in fact predators, however their tendency is to kill prey slowly over time. Usually an egg is laid (by the parasite) into some part of the butterfly (in any stage of the life cycle) and develops over time with a constant supply of food as it feeds on the butterfly. Below is an example of a parasitic wasp known as the Trichograma wasp.

Trichograma- this type of parasitic wasp has a very interesting way of going about its life cycle. The wasp is miniscule, and attaches itself to the abdomen of the butterfly, whereupon it lays its own eggs inside those eggs of the female as she lays them on the host plant. As the now "parasitized" eggs sit on the leaves, the eggs of the wasp develop inside. A few days later, instead of emerging a hungry larvae, emerges a number of tiny trichograma wasps which then fly away in search of more butterfly eggs to parasitize.

Predators- are organisms which kill butterflies quickly, consuming the nutrients found within in one sitting. These include an incredibly wide variety of animals and insects. All the way from the insects (spiders, wasps, mantis) through the reptiles (lizards, snakes, frogs, and fish), and all the way up through the larger mammals as well (birds and monkeys).

Q- What is a defense mechanism?
R- A defense mechanism is a special characteristic which a butterfly has evolved in order to protect itself against this long list of predators. One general example of a defense mechanism which is used by many butterflies is camoflouge. Throughout the many stages of its life cycle, a butterly may have certain colors or features which help it blend in to its surroundings and avoid being preyed upon. Other examples include butterflies which are actually poisoness to be eaten, such as the monarch. See toxic butterflies in the Student Guide under Defense Mechanisms.

Q- Why does the "owl butterfly" (Caligo spp.) have "eyes" on its hind wings? (please see photo in gallery)
R- This is an excellent example of a defense mechanism. One well explained theory for the existence of these eyes is that they act as fake eyes which attract predators to a "less-vulnerable" spot on the butterfly. A predator (let's use the example of a bird) might swoop down ready to attack what it is thinking is the most vulnerable spot on the butterfly, the head with the eyes. However in reality it will only get a chunk of untasty and unnutritional hind wing. The owl butterfly, having the ability to balance itself with its antennae, can now escape relatively unscathed.

Q- Would a poisoness butterfly eaten by a predator actually kill the predator?
R- No, as this would serve no lesson to the predator, and would provide no benefit to the species of butterfly as a whole. Poisoness butterflies contain just enough toxins to make the predator ill, thus teaching it a lesson, and preventing predation on the same species of butterfly in the future.

Q- What is mimicry?
R- There are many butterflies which exist that are poisoness to the predators which eat them. In these cases, the butterfly is often colorful or flashy in some way, as to be easily recognized by the predator who has become sick by eating another of the same species. Therefore, it is believed that certain butterflies have evolved over time to "mimic" those which are in fact poisoness. The butterfly "mimmicing" the poisoness butterfly is not toxic itself, but it appears so to the predator because of its color.

Q- Why are butterflies typically more active during the morning hours?
R- Since butterflies are cold-blooded, they require the warmth from the sun to heat their bodies to a temperature that is favorable for them to fly. Many butterflies prefer to be active during the morning hours because of the abundance of sunshine (before an afternoon shower).


Q- Why is butterfly farming a type of agriculture that promotes conservation as a whole?
R- Unlike most other types of agriculture in tropical countries which are dependent upon cleared forest for planting crops or grazing cattle, butterfly farming is very different because it requires intact forest. Because host plants are collected by the farmer for his/her use in rearing the larvae, the butterfly farm is dependent upon a parcel of land which is forested. In addition, butterfly farmers rear butterflies in captivity within the confines of an enclosure, thus putting no strain on the wild populations of butterflies.

Q- What is the survival rate of butterflies in a typical butterfly farm?
R- Since a butterfly farm works towards minimizing the risks to a butterfly throughout the different stages of its life cycle, the survival rate can be brought up to as high as 90% in the farm.

Q- How does a butterfly farmer farm butterflies?
R- Please see the description of this in the section of the website entitled "All About Butterfly Farming"

Q- Can a butterfly farmer earn enough money on his/her farm to support a family?
R- Yes. In the case of the 75 families who are involved in the rearing of pupa for CRES, nearly all earn superior wages to those of the average Costa Rican.

Q- Why don't the butterfly exhibitors who import live butterflies simply rear their own at the exhibit?
R- The answer to this question has a few different parts. First, we must understand that most of the very colorful and flashy butterflies which exist in the world are found in the tropics. It makes much more sense to rear butterflies in the place of their native habitat, as the host plants which they are dependent upon are found there. Remember that the larvae have incredible appetites and need large amounts of food (in the form of the host plant) as they grow for 3 to 4 weeks. If exhibitors were to rear their own tropical butterflies, they would have to heat large areas of greenhouses in order to have sufficient amounts of plants necessary for the larvae. This would not make economic nor environmental sense.


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