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What Do Butterflies Eat? 7 Common Foods

Purplish Copper butterfly

Butterflies are a prized part of nature. They fly around during the year’s warmest months and are often seen frequenting flowers and aromatic plants. Unlike other bugs, you rarely see butterflies eating anything at all. But like everything else in nature, butterflies need to eat to survive. They actually eat a variety of different things, and some of them are surprising and even disgusting.

Here are the most common things that butterflies eat and how they eat them.

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The 7 Common Foods Butterflies Eat

1. Nectar

Peck's Skipper butterfly on a yellow flower
Image By: JamesDeMers, Pixabay

Butterflies primarily eat nectar. Nectar is a sweet, sugary liquid that is created by plants, especially flowers, to attract pollinators. Plants need pollinators to help them reproduce, and nectar encourages insects like butterflies and bees to come and land on the flowers. When the butterflies land on one flower, eat the nectar and move to another flower, they bring pollen with them that then pollinates multiple plants.

Nectar is sweet and provides butterflies with almost everything they need to survive. But nectar is not the only thing that butterflies eat.

2. Rotting Fruit

different sorts of rotten fruits and vegetables on gray paper
Image Credit: maerzkind, Shutterstock

Butterflies will also eat aging or rotting fruit. In some parts of the world, it is common to see butterflies congregating on fruit that has fallen off trees and onto the ground. As the fruit rots and starts to ferment, it secretes a sweet sticky liquid similar to nectar. Butterflies will use rotting fruit in the same way they use flowers to get the sweet nutrients that they need to survive.

3. Animal Dung or Scat

animal dung or manure
Image By: kram-9, Shutterstock

If you spend enough time out in nature, you might come across an odd sight. In some places, you can find butterflies congregating on piles of animal dung or scat. It might seem strange to see butterflies hanging around poop, but this is a completely normal behavior for some species. Butterflies use poop to obtain nutrients that are not commonly found in nectar. Some species of insects also use animal dung to lay their eggs. Old dung retains moisture, is relatively safe, and contains nutrients that can be used to hatch young insects.

4. Muddy Puddles

Puddle in nature with wetland grass
Image By: eg6da6, Pixabay

Some butterfly populations will take part in a behavior called puddling. Puddling, or puddle clubbing, is when butterflies congregate around a mud puddle to drink as a group. Some groups can get extremely large, with dozens, or even hundreds, of butterflies coming together around large puddles after a good rain. These mud puddles have water, minerals, nutrients, and other important things that butterflies crave. Mud usually contains rich soil, water, and rotting plant material that breaks down into nutrients that butterflies can ingest. This behavior can often be seen after a good rain, and butterflies will come together and get filled up with nutrients all at once.

5. Carrion

carrion of a red fox beside a raven
Image By: Piotr Grzempowski, Shutterstock

Some butterflies will actually eat carrion. Carrion is the decaying flesh of a dead animal. Carrion is a source of food for all sorts of creatures, including flies, vultures, and ants. Carrion is such a strong lure for butterflies that some butterfly researchers have started baiting their traps with rotting shrimp and even pieces of dead snake to attract tropical butterflies for study. Butterflies eat carrion to get powerful nutrients that cannot regularly be obtained with nectar alone.

6. Blood, Sweat, and Tears

sweat in forehead
Image By: Hans Reniers, Unsplash

Oddly enough, butterflies will eat bodily fluids if they get the chance. You can see this phenomenon most easily if you go to a butterfly house. If you go into a butterfly house or butterfly garden where people are common, you will see them landing on people. Many people find this endearing, but the butterflies are actually looking for blood, sweat, or tears to try and feed on. Butterflies can lick up these types of liquids to try to get nutrients like salt and iron that they do not normally get from pure nectar alone.

If you find that butterflies are landing on you and it is hot out, they could simply be looking for some nice sweat to drink. That sounds gross to humans, but it is a completely natural behavior for butterflies.

7. Urine

Image By: cunaplus, Shutterstock

Butterflies are also attracted to urine. Some butterfly collectors will actually use urine to attract certain species of butterflies. When urine dries, it leaves behind microscopic deposits of minerals that butterflies need to survive. Butterflies will land in drying puddles of urine and lap up what they can in order to replenish their supplies of minerals and nutrients.

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How Do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies suck up liquids via an appendage called a proboscis. Butterflies have no jaws and no teeth, meaning they have no ability to eat anything solid. The proboscis works like a straw by which the butterfly is able to suck up liquids and ingest them. A butterfly’s proboscis unfurls and allows it to insert the proboscis into a flower and intake the sweet nectar that butterflies enjoy so much.

What Do Caterpillars Eat?

Unlike butterflies, caterpillars eat leaves and sticks. Caterpillars have jaws and mouths to chomp down and chew up leaves. Butterflies have no jaws to eat anything solid. That is why caterpillars can be a threat to a garden, while butterflies are completely harmless to the health of your plants. When caterpillars turn into butterflies, they lose their ability to eat leaves and sticks. In this way, caterpillars are the opposite of people. People start by only being able to ingest liquids before graduating to solids, caterpillars start by only eating solids before graduating to liquids.

What Is the Most Common Butterfly Food?

The most common type of butterfly food is nectar. Most butterflies aim to eat nectar as much as possible. Some butterflies will eat other things, like water from puddles, to help them get the nutrients they need that nectar might not provide. However, most butterflies primarily eat nectar.

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Most people don’t realize all the strange things that butterflies eat. Most people know that butterflies enjoy nectar, but few people realize that butterflies will drink from mud puddles, eat carrion, and frequent piles of dung. Butterflies use all these different sources of food to gain the nutrients that they need to survive and thrive. Nectar is great for getting quick energy, but butterflies also need minerals and complex nutrients that can only be found in other places in nature. Next time you see a butterfly fluttering around a muddy puddle, they are not lost. They are likely trying to get something to eat.

Featured Image Credit: Kimberley Vilcapoma, Shutterstock


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