Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Will touching a butterfly's (or moth's) wings kill it?

I hear this question frequently, and it came up again recently, but I don't think I've discussed it yet on my blog.  People are often taught that if they touch a butterfly or moth and rub any scales off its wings that it will die.  However, that is not the case.  
Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, a word derived from the Greek words lepis (scale) and ptera (wing).  Their wings are covered in tiny scales, overlapping like shingles on a roof.  These scales give the butterflies and moths their wing patterns, and make them more aerodynamic, a little like feathers on a bird's wing.  However, unlike birds, when butterflies and moths lose scales on their wings, they can still fly.  Depending on the amount of scales lost, it may make them less aerodynamic and affect their flight pattern slightly, but it will not kill them.  Some species of butterflies and moths actually have very few scales, resulting in partially or entirely clear wings. It's really not much different than most other insects with wings, such as dragonflies and wasps.
Butterflies and moths naturally lose scales throughout their lives.  They often rub some off in the course of emerging from their pupa, in addition to losing scales while flying, and from escaping from birds or other animals (nothing like a mouthful of powdery scales to make you change your mind about a meal!).
Although butterflies and moths are certainly delicate, they are much hardier than many people give them credit for.  So the next time you encounter a butterfly or moth, don't be afraid to coax it onto your hand if it wishes to cooperate! Handle it gently, don't try to pet it, and enjoy its beauty!
One of many species of clear-winged butterflies from South America
Close-up of the clear patch and surrounding scales on the wing of Rothschildia lebeau forbesi (see previous blog post)


  1. Caitlin,
    Do you deal in saturniid ova? If so, I would be especially interested in Hemileuca or Saturnia. I have purchased ova mostly from WLSS and but I haven't seen any of these offered.
    Nick R.

    1. Hi Nick, no, I rarely have egg stock, and I get most of my Saturniidae as cocoons from Bill (WLSS), which is where these recent ones are from. I've reared Hemileuca eglanterina from eggs once or twice, but mostly I only find the larvae and it's not very consistent as I'm usually focused more on butterflies and tend to miss the moths. Sorry I can't be of more help.

  2. Great article. Very informative and believable. Being able to easily leave a comment is nice! More people need to read this!!

    Nick k