Butterfly Wings
What Can You Learn by Looking Closely?

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Looking at Wings
Monarch wings are strong. They can carry a monarch over a thousand of miles. They can last over a hundred years if they're kept in a museum. But life is tough for a butterfly. Wings that begin as fresh as a flower, become faded, tattered, and torn over time. You can learn a lot about a butterfly by looking closely at its wings. Take a look!

All butterflies have four wings. Take the wings below and slide them into place on this monarch butterfly.

Each butterfly wing has a name. Can you guess which name goes with which wing? Try it! You can label each wing by sliding one of these four names in place:

  • Left Forewing
  • Right Forewing
  • Left Hindwing
  • Right Hindwing

Where Does a Monarch Get its Color?
The surface of a monarch's wing is covered with tiny orange, black, and white scales.

Monarchs eventually lose their color because the scales get scraped off over time. An old monarch looks like a ghost of its former self. You can get an idea of a monarch's age based on the condition of its wings. Here is a fresh, new monarch and one that is about 7 months old.

What happened to this wing? A predator tried to take a bite! Guess what kind of predator made this "V"-shaped scratch. (Then see the answer below.)

"I'm amazed at how worn some monarchs look, with nicks, tears, scratches and worn spots," says Dr. Karen Oberhauser. "We saw some butterflies in Mexico that were missing over half of their wing area, but they could still fly!" What might cause scratches and scrapes to the butterflies pictured here?

How can monarchs hide their bright orange wings? This picture holds a clue.

Monarch wings are brightly colored on the upper side only. The undersides are a pale orange. When monarchs close their wings they are harder to see or camouflaged.

How are monarch wings like solar collectors? What clues can you find in this photo?

These monarchs are using their wings to bask in the sun! Dark colors absorb solar energy well. Basking is a way butterflies can warm their flight muscles. Monarch butterflies can't fly until their muscles are at least 60°F. "Notice how many are holding their wings at the same angle. You can tell by the shadows that the sun is shining on the wings directly," says Dr. Lincoln Brower.

Butterflies use their wings to fly, to hide, and to bask in the sun. The scales on the wings let the butterflies shed moisture, so the wings aren't too heavy for flight. The orange color of monarch wings warns predators that monarchs are poisonous. These are just a few of the many ways to look at butterfly wings. You can make observations like these yourself.