Tag Archives: butterfly science for kids

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Instead of our usual Bug of the Week, today let's learn a bit about how to identify butterflies.

western-pygmy-blue-butterfly

Quick, do you know what kind of butterfly this is? Does it really matter?

If you want to have an active and successful butterfly garden, then it pays to know your local butterflies. That way you can tailor the plants in your garden to their particular needs.

Butterfly identification may seem intimidating, but there are some tricks to make it manageable. First, arm all your family members with cameras. A photograph can be very handy to help you study the identification details at your leisure. Second, learn the characteristics of the groups of butterflies called families. Once you have mastered those, a trip to the identification guide or website is much more successful. By the way, that butterfly in the photograph is a western pygmy blue, a member of the blue family.

Before we get started, if you are not familiar with what insect parts are called, check out our post with information about caterpillar and butterfly anatomy.

Next, if you are not sure the insect you have is a butterfly or moth, brush up on the differences between butterflies and moths at our website.

Butterfly Identification - Butterfly Families

Entomologists group butterflies with similar characteristics into families. You don't need to memorize the scientific names (unless you want to do so). I added them so you can add them to your search terms when looking for species.

1. Family Hesperiidae - commonly called skippers

Characteristics:  Skippers are butterflies that most resemble moths. Two differences are that they tend to hold their wings at a 45° angle (rather that flat out or folded back) and their slender antennae often end in a hook.

skipper-on-lantanaYou can see the angled wings very well in this photograph.

 2. Family Papilionidae - commonly called swallowtails

Characteristics:  Swallowtails are known for their bold, contrasting color patterns and the presence of extensions or "tails" on their hind wings.

giant-swallowtailThe giant swallowtail has the characteristic look of the family Papilionidae.

3. Family Pieridae - called whites, sulphurs, and orange-tips

Characteristics:  Most are white, light yellow, or orange, and have simple, rounded wings. They are medium-sized and have normal front legs.

sulphur-butterflyA sulphur butterfly's wings are simply elegant.

4. Family Lycaenidae - Coppers, blues and hairstreaks

Characteristics:  The members of this family are delicate, very small butterflies. The blues often have blue upper wings, whereas the coppers are brown. Hairstreaks have tiny tails on their hind wings.

hairstreak-on-dogwoodCan you see the tiny tails on the hind wings?

hairstreak-butterfly257How about on this one?

Some people think the tails resemble antennae, thus confusing predators about which end is the head.

5. Family Libytheidae- snout butterflies

Characteristics:  Snout butterflies are named for their long, hairy mouthparts that project forward from their head like a snout.

snout-butterflySee how the mouthparts extend way out past the eyes in this snout butterfly? Compare to where the eyes are in the other butterflies in this post.

6. Family Heliconiidae - called the heliconians

Characteristics:  Often brightly colored, with wings that are longer than they are wide.

zebra-butterlyThe wings of this zebra butterfly show the distinctive shape characteristic of the family.

7. Family Nymphalidae- the brush-footed butterflies

Characteristics:  This family is large and its members vary a lot in color, size and shape. The brush-footed butterflies have reduced (short) forelegs, but it isn't an easy trait to see.

buckeye-butterfly-sunningThe buckeye butterfly in the Butterfly Gardening Week button is a brush-footed butterfly.

 8. Family Danaidae - milkweed butterflies

Characteristics:  These large brown or orange butterflies are sometimes grouped with the brush-footed butterflies. Their larvae feed on milkweeds.

queen-butterflies-3-plusQueen and monarch butterflies belong to this family.

 1. Butterfly Identification Activity

Now let's put your new skills to the test.

What families do these butterflies belong to?

1. What family does this black, white and blue butterfly belong to?

Mystery-butterfly-1-identification

2. This brown, orange and white butterfly has one unique characteristic found in no other families. What is it?

mystery-butterfly-2-identication

3. What family does this butterfly belong?

mystery-burrefly-3-identification

(Answers are posted).

2. Butterfly Nature Journals and Art Projects

As I've mentioned previously, keeping a nature journal or photographic record of your findings is a great idea. Tied with that, drawing or coloring butterfly illustrations helps with recognition and observation skills. Look for free, printable butterfly pages that show realistic butterflies and make some creative art projects. Be sure to take note of the important features of each kind of butterfly.

Butterfly World has downloadable (.pdf or Word) coloring books that feature the exotic butterflies found in their exhibit.

Dover Publishers has a good selection of nature-related coloring books, as well. For example:  Butterflies Coloring Book (Dover Nature Coloring Book) by Jan Sovak

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Feeling Crafty?

Running with Scissors has an absolutely adorable butterfly metamorphosis smock to make for little ones.

 

butterfly-gardening-with-children

Be sure to keep up with all the posts relating to butterfly gardening with children at our links page.

If you are looking for great children's books about butterflies and moths, try our list at Science Books for Kids.

moth-and-butterfly-books-for-children-list

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This weekend we were inspired by an absolutely gorgeous new picture book, A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long. (See review at Wrapped In Foil.)

Aston and Long have collaborated on two other wonderful books, A Egg is Quiet and A Seed is Sleepy. If you are familiar with those books, you will know to expect extraordinary illustrations and accurate, age-appropriate information written in lyrical text. In this book all about butterflies, they have outdone even themselves. A Butterfly Is Patient is definitely inspiring!

Activities to learn more about butterflies:

1. Study Caterpillar and Butterfly Anatomy

Have you ever spent time actually studying the parts of a caterpillar or butterfly? I know, it may be hard to look past the bright colors and beauty, but studying how these animals go together helps you appreciate them in a different way.

Try to find a smooth caterpillar like this tobacco hornworm (some of the fuzzy or spiky ones have stinging hairs, so don't pick up those.) Gently coax it onto a leaf or stem where you can observe it with a hand lens. See if you can find the following organs and structures.

In this side view of a moth caterpillar, we can see the thorax (the three segments right behind the head), and the abdomen quite clearly. The thorax is where we find the six true legs, which are the identifying characteristics of insects. What are those fleshy appendages on the abdomen, aren't those legs? From a scientific perspective, those are not true legs, but are called prolegs. They are used for walking and clinging to leaves just like legs, but they lack the joints of a true leg.  As you will see, the adult will have only the true legs.

The small circles on the sides of the caterpillar are spiracles, the openings through the insect's exoskeleton that allow it to take in air.

In this view, we can see the caterpillar's head. At the bottom of the head are the mandibles, the pruning scissor-like jaws that it uses to cut food. Slightly above and to the side of the jaws are the ocelli, which are simple eye spots. The caterpillar probably doesn't see much with those tiny spots, maybe only whether it is light or dark out. This photograph shows a better view of the jointed legs.

After the caterpillar transforms into a pupa and then a butterfly, we see different structures.

What a transformation!

Instead of tiny ocelli on its head, the butterfly has large compound eyes. The mouth has become a long tube for sucking nectar from flowers (some butterflies actually lack a mouth altogether). There were antennal buds on the head of the caterpillar, but now the butterfly has full blown antennae.

The true legs are long and delicate and the prolegs are gone. Attached to the thorax are the wings. If you read a book about how to identify butterflies, it will probably describe markings on the upper or forewings, or the lower hind wings. The raised structures in the wings, called wing veins, are also important for identification.

Can you find the mouthparts and the spiracles on this giant swallowtail butterfly?

Activity 2. Butterfly Life Cycle

Butterflies go through a complex series of changes during the life cycle, a process called complete metamorphosis.

Let's explore the life cycle of the queen butterfly, and then make a poster.

The queen butterfly starts out life as an egg laid by the female butterfly on a milkweed plant.

A caterpillar emerges from the egg, and begins to feed on the plant.

When it has reached its full size, the caterpillar transforms into a chrysalis.

After a week or so, out comes the adult butterfly.

Use this information to prepare a butterfly life cycle poster, perhaps like this one from Enchanted Learning.

For more photographs, try these related posts:

Activity 3. Raise a butterfly or moth

At some point in their childhood, most budding scientists raise a caterpillar to find out what it turns out to be.

  • You might want to start with silkworms, which can be raised on an artificial diet or mulberry leaves.
  • Learn the ins and outs of raising caterpillars.

Activity 4. Make a colorful coffee filter butterfly craft here at Growing With Science

Activity 5. Butterfly gardening

It is amazing that you can bring butterflies into your yard by planting a few special plants. You can then watch the life cycles in a more natural setting.

Some butterfly favorite plants are:

  • milkweeds (monarchs, queens)
  • lantana
  • butterfly bush
  • ageratum (attracts male queen butterflies)
  • dill, fennel or parsley (swallowtails)
  • hollyhocks (painted lady)
  • passion flower (fritillaries)

For more ideas, see our  butterfly gardening post.

Monarch Watch has lesson plans, a ton of information about monarchs, and ideas for more activities.

And don't forget to read some books about butterflies, including the gorgeous A Butterfly Is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston :

(Affiliate links go to Amazon, this book was provided for review purposes)

Plus, our growing list of books about butterflies and moths at Science Books for Kids.

moth-and-butterfly-books-for-children-list

As well as Aston and Long's other lovely books, A Seed Is Sleepy and


An Egg Is Quiet