Do Butterflies Bite?

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: November 26, 2021
Image Credit iStock.com/ktreffinger
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If you sat down to make a list of animals that can bite, which ones would you include? It’s likely your list would contain dogs, cats, foxes, rabbits, and other mammals. If you included insects on your list you’d probably have mosquitoes, ticks, and spiders. But, what about butterflies?

Continue reading to learn the answer to the question: Do butterflies bite? Also, find out how butterflies eat a meal and if caterpillars can sting.

Do Butterflies Bite?

Butterflies don’t bite because they don’t have teeth.

Kate Besler/Shutterstock.com

No, butterflies don’t bite. Butterflies don’t have teeth so it would be very difficult for them to bite! But, if they don’t have teeth, how do they chew their food? The answer: They don’t have to. These insects survive on a liquid diet.

Butterflies eat using a proboscis. When a butterfly goes to eat, it extends a long, slender tube that sucks up the flower nectar or other liquid it wants to take in. Think of its proboscis as a straw you may use to enjoy your favorite drink. When a butterfly is finished drinking its meal, it rolls up its proboscis so it doesn’t get into the way when it takes off into the air.

What Does a Butterfly Eat?

Butterflies drink flower nectar and suck up sugary juices from rotting fruit. This is why you see butterflies fluttering near fruit that’s fallen onto the ground beneath a tree. Furthermore, these beautiful fliers drink muddy water in a behavior called puddling. They do this to obtain nitrogen, amino acids, and other nutrients from the muddy liquid.

Sometimes butterflies drink blood to benefit from the nutrients contained in that bodily fluid. Human blood? No. A butterfly may land on an animal killed on the road or perch on a dead one lying in the woods. A butterfly isn’t able to pierce the skin with its proboscis, so it drinks blood from the wounds of an animal. In addition, butterflies drink sweat. It’s this behavior that has contributed to the myth that butterflies bite.

Do Butterflies Ever Look Like They Are About to Bite?

If you’ve ever toured a butterfly exhibit or even stood still for a while in a local park, you may have been lucky enough to have one of these insects land on your hand or arm. If you watched the butterfly’s behavior closely, you may have noticed it lowering its proboscis to your skin. To some people, this looks like the insect is about to bite. But, as you now know, butterflies cannot bite. So, what is it doing?

The butterfly has detected sweat on your hand or arm. It has taste receptors in its feet. So, the moment it lands on a sweaty arm or hand, a butterfly knows it’s time to drink. When a butterfly detects something poisonous or bitter-tasting with its feet, it flies away. This means the butterfly never has to ingest anything that may be harmful.

Butterflies drink sweat because of the salt in it. A tiny butterfly proboscis on your skin may feel a little ticklish, but it certainly isn’t going to hurt. It’s kind of interesting to think that a person’s sweat can serve as nourishment for a butterfly.

How Do Butterflies Defend Themselves Against Predators?

The beautiful, bright colors of the butterfly help it to protect itself.

Sari ONeal/Shutterstock.com

Animals that can bite use that ability to defend themselves against predators. Butterflies don’t have this defense. So, how can they protect themselves against predators?

It’s easy to admire the beauty in the brightly colored wings of a butterfly. But these bright colors are more than just decoration. These colors serve as a signal to predators that the insect may be poisonous. This warning is enough to keep some predators from trying to capture this insect. A Monarch butterfly is a great example to look at.

Milkweed is the main diet of Monarch butterfly caterpillars. This plant contains a type of poison called glycosides. Glycosides can make an animal very sick or kill it. Consequently, most animals stay away from milkweed. But how can Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat it? It turns out these caterpillars are an exception to the rule.

Over time, Monarch butterfly caterpillars developed a resistance to the poison contained in milkweed. They’re the only insects that feed on it. After consuming the milkweed, caterpillars carry the poison inside their bodies. As you may have guessed, this is an excellent defense against predators!

An adult Monarch butterfly with its bright orange and black striped wing pattern has some of this poison inside its body as well. A bird that tries to eat a Monarch butterfly is going to become very sick from ingesting this poison. Eventually, birds that share a habitat with Monarch butterflies become familiar with the butterfly’s colors and wing pattern. They learn to stay away from Monarchs knowing they contain poison. So, a Monarch butterfly doesn’t need the ability to bite. It has a secret weapon!

The Cabbage White caterpillar eventually transforms into the Large White butterfly. But, while still a caterpillar, the Cabbage White survives on a diet of brassica plants. Brassica plants have mustard oils in them. The caterpillar stores these oils inside its body. So, when a bird tries to eat the caterpillar, it gets a bitter taste in its mouth from the mustard oils. This discourages birds from going after cabbage white caterpillars and Large White butterflies.

Other types of butterflies use camouflage as a defense against predators. Some butterflies living in woodland areas have brown wings that allow them to blend in with trees and branches. The mourning cloak butterfly is one example of a butterfly that can easily hide on a tree trunk.

Other butterflies have patterns on their wings that trick predators into thinking the insect is a potential threat. For example, though the blue morpho butterfly displays a brilliant blue on the top side of its wings, the underside of its wings is dark brown. The dark brown scales feature a pattern of circles that look like eyes. So, when a blue morpho sits with its wings folded, a predator may think it’s looking at an animal’s eyes. This can prompt some predators to walk away not knowing they have been fooled.

An owl butterfly has an eye pattern on its wings as well. This butterfly has wings with a mixture of white, brown, and sometimes a bluish tone. The lower part of each wing features a pattern that looks just like an owl’s eye. So, when a predator is looking at this butterfly, it may be fooled into thinking it’s looking at a bird of prey! The owl butterfly is active at dawn as well as at dusk when some owls are out and about.

Do Caterpillars Bite?

An adult butterfly and a caterpillar are two different stages in the life of this insect. Though butterflies don’t bite, caterpillars are a different story.

A caterpillar has mandibles. Mandibles are jaws that work back and forth to chew up leaves and other vegetation. Though a caterpillar can bite into vegetation, it can’t bite a human. But some caterpillars can sting.

Can a Caterpillar Sting a Human?

Caterpillars have spines that allow them to sting.

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Yes. Some caterpillars have spines on their furry bodies that are capable of stinging. The spiny elm caterpillar is one example. It eventually turns into a Mourning Cloak butterfly. This caterpillar is black with tiny white dots and splashes of red. In addition, it has thin black spikes running down its body. These flexible spikes have poison in them that can cause skin irritation.

Does a Caterpillar’s Sting Hurt?

It depends. If you step on a caterpillar with fuzzy spikes on its body, it’s likely to poke into the bottom of your foot. Alternatively, if you use a finger to lightly touch the spikes of a caterpillar, it’s not going to cause any pain. The amount of pressure put on a caterpillar’s spiky body makes a big difference.

What is the Treatment for a Caterpillar Sting?

If a stinger is left in your skin, put a piece of scotch tape over it. Then, pull the tape off quickly to remove the stinger. If you don’t want to do this, you may be able to remove the stinger with a pair of tweezers if you can see its location.

After removing the stinger, thoroughly wash the area with soap and water. Apply first-aid ointment to the stung area. If it’s painful or a rash appears, check with a doctor about further treatment. If there’s a bit of pain in the affected area, a bag of ice can provide relief.

The best course of action is to avoid touching spiky caterpillars. But that doesn’t mean you can’t observe the interesting activities of these insects from a distance.

Next Up: How Often Do Snakes Shed?

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AZ Animals is a growing team of animals experts, researchers, farmers, conservationists, writers, editors, and -- of course -- pet owners who have come together to help you better understand the animal kingdom and how we interact.

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