Male vs. Female Butterflies: 8 Key Differences

Written by Meredith Linley
Updated: September 12, 2023
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Butterflies are some of the most unique and beautiful creatures on our planet. Each species is different but all are integral to the balance of our eco-system. Butterflies are pollinators, which means they are necessary for gardens and flowerbeds to thrive.

While no two species of butterflies are the same, there are several general differences between male and female butterflies. Read below to learn about eight key differences in these magnificent winged creatures.

Size Matters

Female Eastern tiger swallowtail , black form feeding from an orange wildflower. The butterfly is very dark with blue and white accents on its hindwing.

The female eastern black swallowtail butterfly is larger than its male counterpart.

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One of the most noticeable differences between male and female butterflies is their size. In many butterfly species, males are smaller than females. This size difference is most noticeable in species where males exhibit a behavior called “lekking.” Lekking is where the male butterflies will gather in a particular area to display themselves in hopes of attracting a female to mate. Being smaller can make them more agile during these displays, which allows them to compete effectively for female attention.

Color Variations in Male vs. Female Butterflies

Some species, such as the monarch butterfly, have distinctions that make it easy to determine gender. Such distinctions are examples of sexual dimorphism, when the male and female of a particular species have differing morphological traits.

The male monarch butterfly has two distinctive dots on its lower wings.

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One of the easiest ways to tell if a butterfly is a male or female is by their color pattern. As pictured, the male monarch has two dots on the lower wings, whereas the female has straight lines on its lower wings. These differences can often be seen in the final stages of chrysalis.

Female Monarch on Butterfly Weed

The female monarch butterfly has no dots and straighter lines on its lower wings.

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Male and female butterflies can have completely different patterns in other species, such as the eastern black swallowtail or the blue morpho. In fact, female blue morphos are not even blue at all; they are brown. This allows them to disguise themselves to avoid predators. The males are the ones that present the bright blue iridescent wings that give them their name. This vibrant appearance often serves a dual purpose, helping males attract potential mates while also warning predators that they might be toxic.

blue morpho butterfly on giant leaves

The male blue morpho is notable for its color, from which it gets its name.

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Male vs. Female Behaviors: The Act of Courtship

Male and female butterflies exhibit unique courtship behaviors. Males are usually the ones engaged in elaborate aerial displays, engaging in a series of acrobatic maneuvers to attract females. These displays can include fluttering, spiraling, and soaring, all designed to impress potential partners. In contrast, females are usually more reserved and selective, observing these displays and choosing the most suitable mate.

Male Antennae vs. Female Antennae

Not as easy to identify with the naked eye are the differences in antennae. Male butterflies have longer, narrower antennae, which helps them pick up the pheromones that the females release. These antennae are more sensitive than those of the females, whose antennae are often shorter and thicker.

Reproductive Organs in Male and Female Butterflies

The male butterfly sexual organ is a clasper and it is located at the end of the abdomen. Claspers are used to grip the female during mating. Female butterflies have an ovipositor, a tube-like structure used to deposit eggs on compatible host plants. Their unique sexual organs ensure proper mating and reproduction.

mating butterflies

After enticing the female, the male clasper connects to the female ovipositor and they mate.

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Males vs. Females – Which Has the Longer Lifespan?

Butterflies in general have short lifespans. In some species, a lifespan of four to six weeks is common. Other species can live four to six months. Certain butterflies that follow migration patterns have super generations that live three to four times as long. These unique generations can live up to six months to ensure successful migration. Monarchs are among those species.

In some butterfly species, there is a notable difference in the lifespan between males and females. Generally, males tend to have shorter lifespans than females. This attribute helps the males in energy-intensive courtship and mating behaviors. Once they have fulfilled their reproductive role, many male butterflies live only for a few days. The females continue to live longer, laying eggs and contributing to the next generation.

Parental Roles Among Males and Females

The small mountain ringlet butterfly or mountain ringlet Erebia epiphron or Der Knochs Mohrenfalter Schmetterling, Leptir Mali planinski okaš

After mating, the male butterfly often only lives a few days more. Females live longer to lay eggs.

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It takes a male and a female to mate, but after that act, the male butterfly’s parental roles are complete. Meanwhile, the female is responsible for finding the proper host plants to lay their eggs. Each butterfly species will only have a few compatible host plants that their newly hatched caterpillars can eat. Fertilized females will often fly miles to find the correct host plant for their species.

Once she has deposited her eggs on the proper host plant, the maternal roles of a female butterfly are complete. Her eggs will hatch into caterpillars and she cannot protect them from predators. Many butterfly experts will admit that female butterflies are often seen returning to the host plants where they laid their eggs. Still, they are ill-prepared to protect their caterpillar babies from ants, wasps, and other common caterpillar predators.

Butterfly Appetites – Male vs. Female Feeding Preferences

A black-veined white butterfly on the purple flower of clover in the sun light.

Male and female butterflies both feed on nectar, but their feeding provides energy for different things.

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Although both male and female butterflies primarily feed on nectar from flowers, there can be differences in their feeding preferences. Males tend to focus more on obtaining energy for courtship and mating, while females prioritize energy for egg production. This can lead to variations in the types of flowers they visit and the duration of their visits.

DifferencesMalesFemales
SizeSmallerLarger
Color VariationsVibrant to attract femalesMuted for protection
Courtship BehaviorsInitiatesReserved and Selective
AntennaeLong and NarrowShort and Thick
Reproductive OrgansClasperOvipositor
LifespanShorterLonger
Parental RolesFertilizes eggsLays eggs
AppetitesHigh-Energy DietEgg Production Diet

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Steve Byland/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Meredith Linley is a native Floridian and freelance writer. A graduate of Florida State University she is an extreme football fan. She currently is on a family gap year around the world with her two children. She can be found across all platforms as Small Town Tall Girl.

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