Articles
Admirals Blues Brushfoots Coppers Emperors Fritillaries Hairstreaks Harvesters Leafwings Metalmarks Monarchs Satyrs Skippers Snouts Sulphurs Swallowtails Whites

How Do Butterflies Date?

Love Is In The Air!

Butterfly Mating

For most butterflies, finding a mate to share their short lives with is their most important mission. To meet 'the one' among a swathe of unsuitable or unwilling partners, butterflies must adopt clever tactics.

Dress For Success

One of the easiest ways for butterflies to find a mate is by being as colorful as possible — a technique these insects don't need to think about. Butterflies that fly in the day can afford to rely heavily on colors, and their displays range from delicate pastels to iridescent blues. Colored wings are a signal to other butterflies. They allow butterflies to recognize their own species in a complicated habitat. Colours also distinguish between males and females — vital when you are looking for a partner.

Pastel colors in butterfly wings are caused by chemicals called pigments. They absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others, causing the eye to see a particular color.

Bright, iridescent colors are produced by the structure of the wing itself. Some species, such as the Blue Morpho, have wings that are made up of millions of tiny scales. The scales reflect light waves repeatedly, creating a very intense color which can appear to move with the butterfly.

Smell Great

Butterfly Mating

Colors are useless in the dark, so butterflies that fly at night use acoustic and chemical signaling to reach out to others. Both males and females give off scent to communicate with each other, releasing specific pheromones to attract the right type of mate.

During the first stages of finding a partner, males optimistically chase after almost any small, moving object. This includes leaves, bees, and butterflies of any species — of either sex. When they get closer, they can start working out if they’ve found the right match, by judging colours, pheromones and behavior.

Some female hormones are so powerful that a male butterfly can sense them up to 10 miles away.

Fight Off The Competition

Male butterflies can create acoustic signals or pulses to let females know they are searching for a perfect match. These pulses have the added benefit of sounding threatening to other males, as they mimic the noises bats make when they hunt.

Evolution always tries to save energy, so lots of these signals work in two ways — both attracting a mate and sending away the competition.

Shut Up And Dance

Butterfly Courtship Flight

One of the most intriguing behavior to witness can be that of courtship. Each species of butterfly has their own display or 'dance', which may be performed by both sexes or just the male. These courtship displays help to ensure that butterflies mate with their own species, and communicate receptivity. Think of it as the first date for butterflies to begin to get to know each other.

Once a pair of potential lovers has found each other, the courtship can start. Initially butterflies find each other using color and sound. But at this stage a decision is made about whether to mate based on the pheromones that both sexes give out.

In many species, the female requires the male to perform a dance before she will allow him near. He delicately flies around her, whirring his wings in the hope that more pheromones waft in her direction.'

If she is impressed enough to accept, she will change her posture, letting the abdomen protrude from between her wings.

In many butterfly species, females mate only when they first emerge. This is why males tend to emerge a few days ahead of females. After mating, females then try to avoid the unwarranted attentions of amorous males while they get on with the important task of egg-laying.

Monarch Butterflies

In monarchs, breeding season individuals are sexually mature 4-5 days after they emerge as adults, and the generation that migrates is not sexually mature until after the overwintering period. When monarchs mate, the male uses the claspers on the end of his abdomen to attach to the vaginal groove (ostium bursa) of the female. Once attached, the female cannot get away and the male transfers spermatophore components to the female in a process that can take up to 16 hours.

The spermatophore, a package of sperm and nutrients the female needs to produce and lay eggs. Some males collect specific nutrients to produce a better spermatophore in an attempt to attract a mate.

The female stores the sperm in a sac called a bursa until she's ready to lay her eggs. She fertilizes her eggs as she lays them, using the last sperm she received first.

Further Information:

 Butterflies and Moths of North America
 WisconsinButterflies.org
 Southern Wisconsin Butterfly Assn (NABA)
 The Butterfly Site

Butterfly Logo

All About Butterfly Eggs

Butterfly eggs usually have to be laid on tender young leaves or buds, as the older leaves often contain toxins that can kill them. They also have to be laid on plants that are growing in very precise conditions. Learn how it works!

Bee Quiz Logo

Take The Butterfly Quiz

Take this quick quiz and see how much you know about butterfly pollination. This quiz is intended for fun, in a random-facts-can-be-cool kind of way.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Caterpillar ID Guide

Identify who is nibbling on your native plants. You will find over 30 Wisconsin native butterfly caterpillars.

Bees flying footer graphic