Watch a Butterfly Feeding

If you've never looked closely at a butterfly feeding, this video gives you the chance.

Butterflies can be skittish creatures. When you try to get close, they take off in another direction. Working in a free-flight butterfly exhibit gives me the chance to observe their behavior up close, and this week I shot this video of a Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe) butterfly feeding on the flowers of Mona Lavender (Plectranthus ‘Mona Lavender’). Take a look, and watch the butterfly use its proboscis to get at the nectar deep inside the flower. (Learn about the proboscis and other basic butterfly anatomy here.)

One thing that was interesting to us as keepers of the exhibit was the fact that this butterfly was feeding on a plant that not very many other butterflies use for nectar. The reason is most likely because Mona Lavender has a very deep, narrow flower. The nectar is at the very base of the inside of the flower, at the end of the tube, and a butterfly must extend its proboscis all the way down to the bottom to feed. Butterflies have different proboscis lengths, and it’s not necessarily based on the size of the butterfly itself. For instance, this little Sleepy Orange is only about the size of a quarter, but it has a very long proboscis compared to other butterflies. This allows it to feed on flowers that other butterflies can’t – an evolutionary advantage.

Sleepy Orange Butterfly FeedingJill Staake
Jill Staake A Sleepy Orange butterfly feeding on Mona Lavender.

Butterflies and moths are thought to to have co-evolved with flowers in many cases, with the flowers developing tubular shapes that only certain butterflies or moths can reach. Flowers benefit from visits by these butterflies and moths, since they serve as pollinators. In the 1800s, Charles Darwin noted an orchid found in Brazil with a flower tube so long that the insect which pollinated it would need a proboscis of at least 10 inches. Sure enough, another scientist eventually discovered he was right. The so-called Predicted Moth (Xanthopan morgani) has a proboscis that measures over 11 inches! Learn more about this amazing story here.

Have you ever watched a butterfly feeding? Share your stories in the Bugs & Butterflies forum in our Community!

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.