As pretty as they may seem, butterflies are still a part of our natural world. The natural world is full of predatorial instincts. One of those instincts – for many many creatures – is to bite.
Insects biting is a common way of obtaining vital nourishment, whether it’s for killing or for simply getting a tasty morsel from an unsuspecting larger creature – including humans I might add! But does that include Butterflies?
Here’s the quick answer, then we’ll discuss the exceptions. So…
Do Butterflies bite? Aside from the fact that Butterflies eat nectar, the vast majority of butterflies do not bite. Butterflies do not possess biting mouthparts that are able to sink into any prey. Their mouthparts are long and tubular in shape, called a proboscis, and is designed for sucking the nectar out of flowers.
However, there are a few exceptions to this rule – more on that later, but let’s explore this a little further…
Have butterflies ever been able to bite?
As far as we’re aware, no is the short answer to this. Since they evolved they have always fed on nectar and had mouthparts either the same or similar to what exists today.
In fact, Butterflies are one of the oldest types of insects in existence. Millions of years ago butterflies, like many insects would have likely have been more sizeable than they were today.
What mouthparts do butterflies have?
A butterfly posses a long flexible ‘snout’ known as a proboscis, this acts almost like a sucking hose and is the length it is so it can reach down into the deepest flowers to reach the nectar.
They draw the nectar up through their proboscis like a drinking straw and take down the nectar. In fact, you could say they don’t have mouthparts at all. They also use this to draw up moisture from water puddles or pools, for hydration, but also to extract trace salt and minerals from the water.
Here’s a front-facing image of a butterfly with the proboscis clearly marked, hopefully, you can now see why butterflies cannot bite!
Do caterpillars bite?
Caterpillars – that will become butterflies. are known for voraciously eating they’re way through leaves. They’re able to do this because, in fact, caterpillars do have chewing mouthparts, also, some caterpillars have been known to bite if and when they feel threatened.
However, don’t think of a caterpillar as having an upper and a lower jaw like we do, they have mandibles that will assist with the biting – acting like a pair of serrated scissors moving on their side to slice through the leaf, potentially aided by palps below the mouth.
The image below shows the mouthparts of the caterpillar, you can see the mandibles on either side of the mouth area. Not to be mistaken with the antennae.
What are the exceptions?
As I mentioned earlier, and as with most things in nature, there are exceptions to the rule. There are a few varieties of moths that do possess mouthparts. Also, there is a small group of very small and simple micromoths (Micropterigidae), that possess chewing mouthparts rather than sucking mouthparts. But I should point out these are used for chewing pollen rather than other creatures and mainly for the purposes of digesting the pollen.
I’m glad, I mean who would want to be bitten by a butterfly, it would almost seem wrong to have these beautiful creatures with such a trait. But I hope you’re able to remember this, so that if a butterfly lands on you, then you’ll know there is nothing at all to be afraid of. Just admire the beauty of it.
I hope this has helped you understand a little more about the beautiful butterflies and lovely they are in all that they do!
If you want to know more, then here are some useful learning resources for home or classroom use…