Butterflies are arguably the most beautiful of all the insects. Like all the insects they are arthropods. The word Arthropod literally means jointed limbs. All arthropods have an ‘external skeleton’ i.e. a kind of shell which encrusts their whole body, so they have no internal skeleton like we do, this shell is made from a substance we call ‘chitin’. This shell contains all of their vital organs and although I refer to it as a shell which we normally think of as hard, in some animals it’s sometimes quite soft, as in the case of butterflies. However, the arthropods are a large family and some of them do have hard shells because the family includes:- bees, flies, butterflies, ants, spiders, aphids, beetles, grasshoppers, damsel and dragonflies and even crustaceans like crabs, shrimps, lobsters and crayfish: who would have thought that crabs would be in the same classification as butterflies!
Nature is amazing, and not just large animals but right down to insects, and butterflies are no exception. Whether it’s down to DNA programming (which is obviously the case in some aspects of their life) or some kind of intelligence which we haven’t discovered yet they seem to have a very organised life, are excellent flyers, have a memory, are territorial and can navigate vast distances to places they have never been before. The story of their life is quite remarkable. It starts off as an egg which hatches into a caterpillar which is nothing more than an eating machine. After shedding its skin several times (this is called an instar) to allow it to grow, the caterpillar will find a place where it thinks it will be safe from predators for a few weeks whilst it changes from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Then it starts to produce a silk thread and sticks the silk to something to hold it secure. It then spins a cocoon made from silk around itself to form a soft casing. When it is finished and sealed, this cocoon will dry and harden to protect its occupant.
During the next few weeks the most amazing transformation will take place inside the cocoon, this is called ‘metamorphosis’. All of the contents of the caterpillar including its skin and internal organs will break down into a soup of chemicals, then, very slowly the atoms and molecules of that soup will reform into the organs, body shell, eyes and wings, and all the other parts of the beautiful butterfly that will eventually emerge from that cocoon. That metamorphosis is truly a wonder of nature. When the butterfly first emerges, its wings will be tightly packed around a fat body, but over a short period of time (several minutes) the butterfly’s heart will pump fluid from its body into its wings to inflate them into those masterpieces of art ready for flight. When ready, this beautiful insect will take to the air to look for a partner and start the whole cycle again.