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How Do Butterflies Communicate With Each Other?

Butterflies are fascinating, complex creatures. In order to survive in their environment, butterflies must communicate with each other in certain ways. They do so to establish dominance in a territory, find a mate, or simply identify each other. In this article we learn a bit more about this topic and explain how butterflies communicate with each other.

Regal fritillary
Regal fritillary butterflies | image by Heather Paul via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Key Takeaways

  • Butterflies, like most insects, use chemicals called pheromones to communicate. Pheromones help butterflies identify each other and attract a mate.
  • Body movements like fluttering and moving their wings a certain way are other ways that butterflies communicate with each other.
  • Color displays and the way that butterflies flash their patterns is a complex way that butterflies communicate. They have colors that humans can’t see.
  • The least common way that butterflies communicate with each other is through sound. Butterflies can’t vocalize, but they produce sounds with their wings.

How Do Butterflies Communicate With Each Other?

Butterflies use pheromones, movements, color displays, and sounds to communicate with other butterflies of the same species.

Pheromones

Social butterflies
Social butterflies | image by mario via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Like so many other insects, butterflies’ main form of communication is through chemicals known as pheromones. These chemical signals help butterflies recognize each other. Both male and female butterflies communicate using pheromones.

Male butterflies attract females for mating by releasing the chemicals. Female butterflies signal to males their availability to mate by producing pheromones. Male butterflies travel to find females by following “scent” trails.

Butterflies use a variety of scent glands to produce these chemicals. The pheromone scents tell others the age, reproductive stage, and sex of the butterfly who left them. Butterflies use their antennae to detect the pheromones in the air.

They have special receptors on their antennae designed for this purpose. Female butterflies also have special receptors on their body and legs. Not only does this help them detect pheromones, but it also helps them find food and the right plants to lay eggs.

Movements

Cabbage white butterfly
Cabbage white butterfly | source: Dominic Paulo via Flickr

Communication between butterflies can also occur through body movements like flapping wings in a special way or fluttering in patterns. They may appear to dance in the air. Body language and movements are forms of communication that butterflies can use at a distance.

They don’t have to come into contact to detect pheromones. Butterfly aerial dances are meant to attract a mate. They communicate availability to mates. They are also courtship dances. You can think of it as butterfly dating.

Butterflies dance together and court each other before mating. It’s a display of aerial acrobatics, darting and bouncing in the air. They will sometimes fly in sync with one another.

Movements in flight are also used to signal danger. Butterflies communicate to others to flee the area by changing the flapping rhythm of their wings. Butterflies are territorial.

In-flight movements can communicate to an intruder to leave the area. Male butterflies will engage in combat in the air. The slightest change in how a butterfly flaps their wings or flutters communicates a message to other butterflies.

These complex forms of communication are still being studied by scientists.

Color Displays

Peacock butterflies on pink flowers
Peacock butterflies on pink flowers | image by Linda Hartley via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Color plays a significant role in butterfly communication, as mentioned previously. Females flash parts of their wings to display certain colors to attract a mate. Butterflies can see ultraviolet light and colors differently from humans.

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Their color patterns and wing spots help them camouflage, distract predators, and attract mates. Fluttering in a certain way can flash colors to potential mates that the human eye can’t possibly see. Scales on the butterfly wings reflect some colors and are used to communicate availability.

Female butterflies flash their ultraviolet colors to attract males. She may also perform a courtship dance to initiate mating. During a female butterfly’s courtship dance, she shows different parts of her wings and color patterns.

The way that she displays the colors communicates to the male that she’s available. Females also choose males based on the vibrancy of their colors. Brighter colors communicate a healthy mate to the female butterfly.

We often think of wing colors as protection and for blending into their environment. Colors are also seductive in the butterfly world. Butterfly colors and patterns aren’t just for camouflage and deterring predators.

They also can be used to communicate with potential mates and other butterflies.

Sound

Queen butterfly
Queen butterfly | source: Joshua Tree National Park

You can probably guess that butterflies aren’t exactly the most vocal creatures. In fact, they really can’t produce any sound at all. At least, not with vocal cords.

There are some species of butterflies. However, they communicate by making sounds with their wings. They can flick their wings a certain way to create noise.

For example, some longwing butterflies make clicking sounds with their wings. It’s believed that they use this sound to drive away intruders from a roosting spot and establish territory. Since butterflies don’t have ears, it’s unlikely that they “hear” the click.

Instead, they pick up the vibrations made by the sound. Butterflies are sensitive to vibrations and sound. They pick up sound vibrations through the veins on their wings and with hairs on their body and legs.

They also have a Vogel’s organ that picks up sounds. This organ is located at the base of the forewing. Cracker butterflies produce a cracking sound to attract potential mates and communicate with other cracker butterflies.

They can vary the frequency to change their sound. Different sounds produced by cracker butterflies convey different messages. Males can use one wing or both to produce the clicking sounds.

Even without vocalization, butterflies still use sound to communicate. It’s just not in the way you might imagine. Butterfly wings are not just for flying but also communication.

Conclusion

Butterfly communication occurs for mating purposes and to establish dominance in a territory. Their communication methods are incredibly complex and virtually imperceivably to humans. Butterflies communicate with each other through chemical pheromones, body movements, color displays, and sounds.