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Photo:  Butterfly
At least 50 species of butterflies make their home in the Columbia Basin.

Graphic:  What About Butterflies?

Graphic: Background Information...

We all have experienced the joy of watching a beautiful butterfly feed on flower nectar. But did you know that butterflies do much more than help make our world a prettier place in which to live? Butterflies carry pollen from blossom to blossom, pollinating plants. They also are an important part of the food chain. Scientists have identified more than 20,000 species of butterflies that live all over the world in forests, jungles, deserts, and even in the Arctic. The Columbia Basin is home to at least 50 species of butterflies. Monarch butterflies are the largest butterfly species in the Basin. Also, in our area, eleven butterflies are considered species of concern: Nevada skipper, coral hairstreak, ruddy copper, canyon green hairstreak, Bonneville skipper, juniper hairstreak, silver-bordered bog fritillary, northern checkerspot, Pasco pearl crescent, and viceroy.

What is a butterfly?
Butterflies are insects. They belong to the order known as Lepidoptera, which means "scaled wing" in Greek. The scales of butterflies are pigmented. This allows them to scatter light into colors humans can see and some humans cannot see. Butterflies, like all other insects, have three parts to their bodies: a head, thorax, and abdomen. The head of a butterfly has two eyes, a pair of antennae, and a tongue called a proboscis. Butterflies uncoil the proboscis to drink nectar from flowers. The middle part of a butterfly's body is called the thorax. Six legs and wings are attached to the thorax. The abdomen contains organs for digestion and reproduction. Butterflies fly only during the day, although some fly at dusk. Because butterflies are cold blooded, they are affected by climate. Their ranges are linked closely with temperature, precipitation, and host food plants.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series Logo

What is the life cycle of a butterfly?
There are four stages in the life cycle of a butterfly:

  1. Egg Female butterflies usually lay large numbers of eggs on leaves or stems of plants. Eggs vary in color and texture from one species to another. After 4 or 5 days, the egg is ready to hatch.
  2. Caterpillar The caterpillar, or larvae, eats its way out of the egg. It spends most of its time eating. When caterpillars grow too big for their skin, they shed it. This process is called molting. Caterpillars molt several times. Then they attach themselves to a leaf or stem by spinning a silk button.
  3. Chrysalis The skin quickly hardens into a shell called a chrysalis. Inside the chrysalis, caterpillars slowly change into butterflies. This process is called metamorphosis.
  4. Butterfly When butterflies emerge from the chrysalis, they extend their wings by pumping blood into them. It usually takes a couple of hours for the wings to dry and harden, then the butterflies can fly.

Graphic: Notes...

"Science is constructed of facts as a house is of stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house." Henri Poincare

Keep in mind this fact sheet is intended to be used only as background information to support your effort to encourage inquiry-based science, which parallels the way scientists uncover knowledge and solve problems.

Drawing: Butterfly

Graphic: Suggested Activities...

Raise butterflies from caterpillars.
Here's how: You can watch and record the transformation of furry caterpillars into beautiful butterflies. The butterflies then can be released into the natural world. Larvae and food can be purchased from Carolina Biological Supply Company, 2700 York Road, Burlington, NC. 27215. Call toll free 800-334-5551.

Monitor the yearly migration of monarch butterflies.

Here's how: If you or your school has access to e-mail, contact Julie Ellis, Monarch Watch at or Elizabeth Donnelly, Journey North, at For more information, write to Monarch Watch c/o O.R. Taylor, Department of Entomology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, or Journey North, 125 North First Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401.

Language Arts.

Research and report on the differences between butterflies and moths.

Graphic: Using Community Resources...

  1. Take a field trip to look for monarchs.
    Here's how: Look for monarchs in places where milkweed grows. You can find them along the Columbia River, in the Yakima Delta, or at McNary Wildlife Refuge. Look for the larvae of the monarch butterfly on milkweed leaves. Black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars may be found on parsley plants or Queen Anne's lace.

Graphic: Other Resources...

  1. Hide A Butterfly (GEMS) Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, California.
  2. Shrub-Steppe Seasons: A Natural History of the Mid-Columbia Basin, Lee E. Rogers, l995. Pacific Northwest Laboratory, Richland, Washington.
  3. The Life Cycle of Butterflies (science kit), Science and Technology for Children, Carolina Biological Supply Company, 2700 York Road, Burlington, North Carolina 27215. Call toll free 800-334-5551.
  4. Outdoor Biology Instructional Strategies (OBIS), Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley, California.
  5. Butterfly & Moth, Eyewitness Books, 1988. Paul Whalley, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Graphic: Web Sites...

  1. The Butterfly Website -
  2. Journey North -
  3. Monarch Watch -
  4. MundoButterfly (Spanish version) -
  5. Yukon Butterflies -
  6. What is a Butterfly? -

Graphic: Acknowledgments...

Initial development and printing of this fact sheet was funded by an Eisenhower Grant to the Partnership for Arid Lands Stewardship. Written by Marilyn Fike; Series Editor: Georganne O'Connor; Design: WinSome Design; Printing: Eagle Printing and Graphic Design; First Printing: December 1997; Web Development: WinSome Design.

Graphic: Shrub-Steppe Ecology Series


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