Butterflies' Diet

Sippin' Sugar! A Look at the Diet of Butterflies

Butterflies - the word itself evokes images of something colorful and full of life - imparting happiness by their presence. This Buzzle post tells you all there is to know about the diet of butterflies.
Even as kids those delicate, colorful creatures―butterflies―have fascinated us. Butterflies belong to the Lepidoptera (meaning scaly (lepido) winged (ptera)) class of insects, who as adults have four broad wings covered by brightly colored, tiny scales. Co-members of this second-largest class of insects are moths and skippers. Butterflies go through a four-stage life cycle to reach the adult stage of their life.
The average life span of an adult butterfly is 2 to 4 weeks. But some species like Monarchs, Mourning Cloaks and tropical heliconians, can live up to nine months. Butterflies enjoy sunny days above 60 degrees F (they are cold-blooded and need to bask in the sun's warmth to elevate their body temperature).
Their regular day begins with looking for flowers to source nectar from. They flit over the landscape looking for pink, red, yellow, orange, or blue colored flowers with lots of nectar. At night or during the wet season, they seek shelter underneath leaves, or among grass blades, or in a cranny of a rock or concrete structure.
Most butterflies are colorful insects with almost all species being active during the day. Gathering life-sustaining nutrients is their chief activity. Some butterflies are active pollinators. Mud-puddling behavior is peculiar to the male butterflies. The adult male butterfly passes nutrients to the adult female, as a nuptial gift, during mating. These nutrients are not only life-sustaining, but also enhance the survival rate of their eggs.
What do butterflies eat?
Adult butterflies drink liquids to maintain their energy reserve. This nutrition contributes to their ability to survive, mate, and lay eggs. Butterflies deploy different strategies to gather fluid nutrients. The male adults use mud-puddling to collect sodium and amino acids. Many of them are fond of sipping fluids from wet sand or along the edge of streams or at boundaries of dirt trails. They may also gather in shallow waters or wet areas in order to digest the dissolved minerals. Occasionally, when adult butterflies overfeed themselves they squirt out liquid spray from their belly.
Mud-puddling: Mud -puddling is restricted mostly to male butterflies. During mud-puddling they congregate for their community supper. The male has a much longer anterior hindgut (the small intestines) than its non-puddling female counterpart. During the process, fluid is pumped through the digestive tract and released from their anus. It is estimated that fluid of up to 600 times their body mass may pass through.
The butterfly's antenna (a long shaft with a "club", like a golf club) is sensitive to touch and taste. Adults have a proboscis (tongue) tailored for sucking fluid nutrients like nectar, a sugar-rich liquid found in flowers of plants.
Most adult butterflies sip flower nectar, but others may feast on fluids from sap flowers on trees, rotting fruits, bird droppings, or animal dung. They also feed on sugars obtained from decaying fruits. In the rain forest of Borneo, the Saturn butterflies (brush-footed butterflies) feast on rotting fruits. The Admiral butterfly is known to relish bird excrement. With their thin, short proboscis the Harvester butterfly actually pierces the body of woolly aphid (bug) and drinks its fluids.
The adult Longwing butterflies such as the Zebra butterflies use their proboscis to get amino acids (proteins) from pollen of flowers. The Blue Lesser Purple Emperor butterflies extract their food from pungent substances like carrion. These butterflies can spot decaying meat from over hundred meters away.
Plants that butterflies like to eat
Adult butterflies do not eat plants but live on fluid nutrients gathered from flowering plants. Different species of butterflies favor different flowers. The flowers they feed on can grow on plants, shrubs, vines, or trees. It is the caterpillar (larval stage of butterfly life cycle) that eats various parts of plants where its larvae will hatch. Nowadays, keeping a butterfly garden is a hobby wherein one can grow nectar-rich flower plants, provide host plants in the garden for the adult to lay its eggs and nurture its consequent life cycle.