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Making Sense of Butterflies

Have you ever wondered how butterflies know which flower to visit for nectar? Did you know that butterflies use their antennae to smell and feet to taste? Like us, butterflies use basic senses of touch, hearing, sight, taste and smell to explore their world.

SIGHT: Adult butterflies have large compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny lenses called ommatidia that help the butterfly see a wide range of color and motion. They can sense polarized light, which tells the direction the sun is pointing, and ultraviolet light (light beyond the range of human eyesight) reflected from flowers. They also recognize floral patterns called nectar guides, which can sometimes be seen as darker-colored patterns leading into the throat of a flower.

SMELL: Butterflies have sense receptors called chemoreceptors in their antennae, feet and other body parts to help find flower nectar, as well as to identify specific plants in which to lay their eggs. They also use chemoreceptors to find potential mates that release pheromones, which are hormones that the butterfly can recognize.

TOUCH: Butterflies sense touch through hairs, called tactile setae, located mostly all over the adult body. They use these hairs to sense wind, gravity and position of their own body parts while flying.

HEARING: Some species sense sound through veins in their wings, reacting to changes in sound vibrations. A few species of butterflies make sound by rubbing together body parts. While the sense of hearing is not well-developed in butterflies, there is still much research to be conducted to understand the role of sound for butterflies.

As you can see, butterflies use many basic senses to feed, mate and avoid predators. When you design and plant your butterfly garden, take notes of different flowering plants and the different species of adult butterflies that visit them. Knowing how butterflies use their senses will help you to make better gardening choices.

— Stephen Brueggerhoff, former Public Programs Manager at the Center

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