Daily Herald
Kids Ink: How do butterflies get color in their wings?
By Hope Babowice | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 8/25/2010 12:02 AM
 

You wanted to know

First-graders in Maria Barba's dual language class at MacArthur School in Hoffman Estates asked: "How do butterflies get color in their wings?"

 

Check these out

The Schaumburg Public Library suggests these titles on butterflies:

• "Butterfly Birthday," by Harriet Ziefert

• "Caterpillars to Butterflies," by Bobbie Kalman

• "Monarch Butterflies Up Close," by Carmen Bredeson

• "Bella: A Butterfly's Story," by Joanne Randolph

• "Butterflies and Moths," by Nic Bishop

Butterflies use color in ways we are only beginning to understand. The bright orange and black that identifies the migratory Monarch butterfly aren't just solid blocks of pigment, but a combination of colors on each single scale on a butterfly wing - and there are thousands of scales.

Like an impressionist painting, each single scale could be a different hue, but in combination the wing coloration looks like a single blast of color.

The word "Lepidoptera," the name for order of insects that includes butterflies and moths, comes from the Greek word for scaled wing. Scale shape can even add to the wing color. The iridescent color you see on Morpho and other butterfly species comes from the unique shape of each tiny scale, which causes light waves to reflect and results in a shimmery look.

"If you look under a low-power microscope, each scale is only one color like a mosaic," said Doug Taron, curator of biology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. The museum's Judy Istock Butterfly Haven offers museum-goers a close look at butterflies and their wings with magnifiers.

Color helps butterflies to communicate. In some butterfly species, color sends the message that male butterflies should keep away, or can invite males and females to seek out each other. Color also creates camouflage to protect butterflies from predators. Color can help to determine gender.

Learn more about butterflies, birds and being green at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. For more information, see the museum website at naturemuseum.org.