Insects / life science / Nature Education

Flying Insects I: Butterflies and Moths

I saved many of my children’s drawings and artwork from when they were little. Among these, the family, our house and pets are well represented. There are also numerous drawings or paintings of butterflies. My girls were not alone in their interest in depicting butterflies, as this a common subject in the art of young children, both boys and girls. Perhaps this focus can be attributed to Eric Carle and the popularity of his book The Hungry Caterpillar; a book that is frequently found in homes and classrooms. Butterflies, moths and the caterpillars they grow from are inherently interesting to children for many reasons, interests that can be easily tapped and expanded on.

If you are not a regular visitor to this blog, please first read the information in the “What is Guiding Curiosity” for clues as to how to use the following information. Thanks and enjoy!



Detect some interest in butterflies or moths?  Ask a question to be sure.

The website Kidsbutterfly.org lists a series of questions about butterflies that should provide a great guide for beginning conversations about these creatures, including one that will surely capture a young child’s attention, or “How do butterflies go to the bathroom?” Other questions posed include, how butterflies and moths grow and change, what do they eat, and do they have teeth?


The answers to these questions are also available on the website, but remember you are not going to provide those answers, but rather coach your child to consider alternatives, and where possible, find the answer himself either through discussions or hands-on exploration.





Observations are the best way to get to know these critters.


My hope is that your child observes butterflies and moths out of doors. Chase and then watch as butterflies cling to flowers covered in dew or flit over a lawn. Moths can be observed at night hovering near the light at the back door during summer months. Invite your child to observe color patterns, wing shapes, and the size of these insects. Do they look the same on both sides, or top and bottom? A hand lens or magnifying glass will help with close inspections.




If you have access to mounted specimens or those that did not survive, then closer observations of wing structure, body parts and color patterns will be easier. Touching may be possible, but given the delicacy of the wings, you may need to advise proceeding slowly if this is your child’s intention. Handling live butterflies or moths can harm them unintentionally. Consider using tweezers.


Encourage descriptions of flight patterns, both how they are flying (fast/slow, up/down or straight) and the direction, altitude, or where they land.


As always, your goal is to help your child find words that help to describe what she is observing. Other words you can introduce would be the names of the butterflies you are observing. Stick to one or two names to start and consider the names of butterflies or moths that are common to your area (and perhaps memorable for their color). Monarch butterflies are the most common and easily recognized. As the names of flowers, common butterfly names can be poetic and also represent regions of the country. So find a name that connects to your home area or is pleasing to say, such as: Sonora Skippers, California Crescent, Western Brown Elfin, Painted Lady, or the Red Admiral.


Make observations about which plants butterflies are most likely to land on. Which plants do the butterflies prefer for eating or where they lay their eggs? The leaves on which they lay their eggs are the same leaves that the emerging caterpillars will eat.




If you and your child are lucky, you may observe a butterfly on a flower drinking its nectar. As part of its mouth, a long tube called a proboscis is inserted into the flower to suck nectar. Think of a straw as an example of how this works. Put older bananas or slices of a watermelon out for butterflies and perhaps you can see the proboscis in action.





Deepen understanding through comparisons.


Unless you possess a collection of butterfly and moth specimens, pictures on cards are our usual go to for recognizing and categorizing different species. Pictures can be found on-line or cut from a well-used field guide.


A good place to start would be classifying pictures as either a butterfly or moth. See if your child can recognize physical distinctions between the two. Try it yourself. A major difference is that moths fly at night and butterflies do not. Most butterflies come out only when it is daylight. Butterflies and moths also rest with their wings in different positions. Moths rest with their wings flat or spread out. Look for them perched on tree bark or on the side of your house, and their wings will be spread. The pattern on their wings is on top and acts either as camouflage or may look like eyes of something that would be a threat to any predator. Butterflies, in contrast, rest with their wings standing up. The bright colors on the tops of their wings are not visible this way. The patterns on the bottoms of their wings can conceal their whereabouts from prey.




Compare the shapes and lengths of antennae across different species of butterflies. You may need good close-up photographs to accomplish this.




All insects have three body parts, (head, thorax, and abdomen) including butterflies and moths. See if you can see these distinct features and compare across species.


Butterflies and moths have four wings, two upper (forewing) and two lower (hindwing). Most also have six legs attached to their thoraxes. Yet a common species of butterfly tends to only have four workable legs, with the front two remaining legs “reduced” or smaller and inert. Invite classifications of pictures based on this distinction.


Other classification schemes can be developed based on predominate colors or patterns on wings, size, or the geographical region where these insects can be found (this information taken from a field guide can be included on the back of those cards).




Compare with other insects, such as dragonflies or lightning bugs.




An integral step in any scientific investigation.


If you have captured and are handling live butterflies or moths, making measurements may be difficult because of the delicacy of the wings. Close observations of these animals without touching may suffice, to be supplemented by measurements of animals no longer living.




Consider measuring wingspan, the length of the abdomen or antennae. Remember measures can be made with standard instruments (rulers) or alternatives (pasta noodles).


Count the number of butterflies seen in a designated time frame (with attention spans in mind, think a couple of minutes), or count the number in a specified area (the backyard or over a patch of garden in the park). Measure the length of time a butterfly stays on a flower or the distances travelled between flowers before landing. Count spots or stripes on the wings.


My preference is that young children actively measure or count, but with that said, it may still be interesting to consider measurements generated by professionals. For example, on the website identified above, the numbers of different species of butterflies and moths is identified (12 – 15,000 butterflies, and 150,000 to 250,000 moths). These numbers are staggering, but for a child with a sense of what all of those zeros mean, these could be great fun to contemplate. Think about ways to represent how many species that is. For example, perhaps you live in a town with 250,000 people. Alternatively, find ways to depict those numbers graphically.


Look up the sizes of the smallest and largest butterflies or moths and draw on paper these size differences for comparisons.


Other interesting “measurements” to discuss are life span or time as an egg – caterpillar – as a chrysalis (pupa) – as a butterfly. The life cycle of these insects is fascinating to adults and children alike. Measurements of the length of time in each stage or the size of the egg versus the caterpillar versus the final stage when transformed into the butterfly or moth are alternative numbers to compare. This information can be found on-line or in a field guide.




Compare life spans as adults of various species.


Examine the distances that these animals travel in a day, or for some, how far they migrate. Like birds, some butterflies migrate to warmer climates to avoid cold weather during winter. Monarch butterflies can migrate 2,000 miles in two months! Get the map and check out their flight paths (http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/epic-migrations/).





Experiments with living butterflies or moths will be difficult with this age group because of the length of time needed to observe a behavior. So this section is limited in suggestions, but hopefully with good observations much will be learned about these animals.




After making observations of butterflies in a yard or park, determine which plants are most popular or visited most often. If you can, in either a garden or a pot, plant plants that are supposed to attract butterflies. Your child can make a determination about which plants are host plants based on observations (or with a little research on-line).


Once a plant is growing, or identified in a garden or park, keep track of when butterflies visit and what their behavior is. Keep records of visits on a daily basis at different times of the day. Are the animals most active in the morning, the middle of the day or at dusk? How long will they stay on the flower or leaf? Does this vary depending on the time of day?


You can purchase eggs, larvae (caterpillars) and pupa on-line! Follow directions on how or where to keep these as the animal grows. This is easier than you may think, requiring a wide mouth container and netting or nylon to cover. Add leaves periodically for food. Your child can make measurements and predictions on when the egg will hatch, the caterpillar will create a cocoon, or the butterfly or moth will emerge. Take photos or make drawings throughout the process. It is best if you pay attention to the region you live in and the animals that live there. This way if your child successfully raises a butterfly or moth, it can be released. There are detailed instructions for raising butterflies at a website aptly named Raising Butterflies.



Alternatively, to save money you can learn how to collect eggs or caterpillars while in the field.



If butterflies and moths capture your child’s imagination, start a collection. If you do not want to capture and kill the insects, think about a photo safari and collect snapshots of butterflies in their natural habitats. Otherwise, your child can capture butterflies, but take the time to learn how to take and kill them as there are special techniques. Nets for capturing butterflies are readily available, inexpensive and make great gifts. Catch and release may be all your child is interested in.




Make your own butterfly/moth costume.


Look for damage that moths do and explore why they like to take nibbles out of our wool clothing












Photographs courtesy of Shutterstock

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