Is there a more beautiful insect than the butterfly? With their vibrant colors and elegant form they have fascinated humans since the beginning of civilization. But they are a very delicate and complex insects and require a systematic study to fully appreciate their beauty and the role they play in Mother Nature.
Here we will explore the methods for identification, learn about several different species, and investigate the life cycles and body parts. And, as is customary in this blog, I designed this lesson guide in accordance with Montessori philosophy and methodology.
By the end of this article you will have received a comprehensive list of book recommendations, scientific fun facts and engaging activities to satisfy the little butterfly-lover in your home. If you’re interested in learning about these amazing creatures in order to pass this knowledge on to your children then this post is for you!
[Disclosure: This post contains, at no cost to you, affiliate links to Amazon and Etsy]
These books are chock full of fun illustrations and factoids about nature’s most beautiful bug. They are great warm-ups for the activities in this post or just as a nice bedtime story.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar: This classic tale takes small children through the life of a caterpillar while teaching fruit and numbers. It’s a great introduction to how butterflies begin their life.
10 Magical Butterflies: This is a fun math learning book using flowers and butterflies as protagonists. It’s a lot of magic and adventure for kids who like learning with bright and colorful images and a heart-warming story.
My, Oh My–A Butterfly!: For fans of the Cat in the Hat and all his little friends this is a wonderful book on butterflies. It contains all the lessons little kids can understand, including the life cycle of a butterfly, how they eat, and avoid predators.
The Smithsonian Handbook – Butterflies and Moths: This is perhaps the most comprehensive book I have found for older kids who want to take the next step in learning about butterflies. It has more than 600 images of some 500 butterflies and moths and is an essential part of any book collection on these beautiful creatures.
What is a butterfly?
You may have wondered how scientists identify the massive number of butterflies in the wild, especially since it seems like there are literally thousands of them. A full education is beyond the scope of this article but I can offer you a quick guide to what a butterfly is so you can practice identifying them yourself in your own backyard.
So what is a butterfly? Butterflies and moths belong to the same group of insects called Lepidoptera. In a nutshell, a butterfly is a winged insect that undergoes complete metamorphosis. They have three body segments, the head, the abdomen and the thorax.
There are more than 700 different butterfly species in North America
Many other species live in areas all over the world, mainly in the rainforests of the tropics. But butterflies have proven to be very flexible and have adapted to man-made environments like parks and gardens which is where most of us will be able to spot them.
Butterflies are quite harmless and can’t bite or sting. Moreover, they are instrumental, like bees and birds, to the pollination of flowers and are a valuable part of life on our planet.
Beautiful butterflies and fun facts
This set of butterflies is not a scientific classification in any way. They are simply some amazing examples of the insect when learning to identify the most common species. With such beautiful photos I think kids will get more excited to learn about these fascinating creatures.
This colorful specimen is perhaps the most well-known and easily recognized of all the butterflies. Its large wings and bright colors are so iconic that we made it the subject of our felt boards. It’s quite famous for its migration and Mexican rainforest infestation. But it’s also an ecologically influential butterfly as its diet of poisonous sap has encouraged other species to mimic its orange colors, thus making them less likely to become lunch for leary birds.
The Peacock butterfly is appropriately named as the variety of colors on its wings closely resemble those of a peacock. It is my favorite example on this list and is absolutely fascinating at first glance. It also has an interesting defense system. By rubbing its wings together it makes an annoying hissing sound designed to frighten predators like birds or snakes.
Giant Owl Butterfly
Resembling a moth more than a butterfly, this one stands out because of its unusual wing pattern. With wings open, the two large dots are similar to the eyes of an owl. This is thought to be a defense mechanism as owls are predators and would scare off the small birds who normally feed on them.
Anyone who loves emerald green will love this magnificent butterfly. It’s actually a quite large specimen with a wing span of around 10 cm (4 inches). They also have a distinctive flight when patrolling for females as they glide close to the ground, nearly floating, in an effort to impress prospective mates.
Red Admiral Butterfly
A common migratory butterfly found in marshy north temperate regions of Asia, Europe and North America, the Red Admiral is quite a speedy flier. I simply love it for the unique patterns and bright orange wings. It’s absolutely stunning.
Blue Morpho Butterfly
The Blue Morpho butterfly amazes with its iridescent blue wings, though this beauty is reserved only for the males. Adults drink the juices of rotting fruit and typically live in rainforests from Brazil to Venezuela.
This butterfly has an amazing variety of contrasting colors with it’s cream and blue wings with very distinctive vein patterns. They get their name from the tails that resemble those of the bird with the same name. There are actually many species of swallowtail butterflies but this one is the Papilio machaon and is the most common.
The Glasswing Butterfly
The glasswing butterfly has amazing crystal clear wings like a window and can be found in Central America and Mexico. It has this unique wing structure in order to blend into nature, rendering it nearly invisible to predators.
Residing in the limestone grasslands of England, the male Adonis Blue have bright blue wings, while most females are dark brown. They are quite small with a wingspan of only 3 to 4 cms (1.5 inches). In the past their numbers were in decline but they have made a substantial recovery recently and are no longer threatened by extinction.
This curious creature gets its name from the unusual markings on its wings. The 88 butterfly can be found in the Pantanal, Brazil and I believe it is the only animal in the world with a number for a name!
Life cycle of a butterfly
The life cycle of a butterfly is one of complete metamorphosis. Starting off as an egg, feeding as a larva or caterpillar, cocooning in the pupa stage and finishing as an adult butterfly. These cycles can vary from one month to one year depending on the butterfly but all must pass through these stages. But let’s go into more detail.
The egg stage
Most adult butterflies lay their numerous eggs by attaching them to a leaf in the woods with a sticky secretion. Preferably on the backside to protect them from predators. The eggs are very small, like a grain of couscous, and quite transparent. If you have a good magnifying glass you can even observe the caterpillars developing inside.
The larva stage
This the hungry caterpillar stage of the butterfly. The larva is very small when it’s hatched and isn’t very mobile, which is why the mom has attached their eggs to a plant with leaves the caterpillar likes to eat. There are some very beautiful species of caterpillars and some people choose to study these rather than the butterflies.
The pupa stage
The pupa stage is when the magic happens. Once the caterpillar has eaten all that it can and reached full maturity it forms a chrysalis or cocoon through a special secretion. Within its new abode it undergoes a transformation or metamorphosis. The larva forms new wings, organs and body parts and emerges into the beautiful butterfly we all know and love.
The adult butterfly stage
When a new butterfly emerges from its cocoon their wings are very soft and fragile. It takes a few hours of rest, wing flapping and blood flow before they take flight for the first time. But once they do, they immediately search for a mate and the whole amazing cycle begins again.
Parts of a Butterfly
The body of a butterfly is comprised of many interesting and curious parts. Just how they all work and fit together can be challenging yet rewarding for your little one and the following list should aid you in your lesson. Be sure to use the cards and felt board in our shop or any others you may find as the kids learn best with visually stimulating materials.
The butterfly has a quite round almost spherical head and is connected to the thorax. It contains the most important components of a butterfly, such as its brain, its feeding and sensory structures, i.e. two compound eyes, the proboscis, the pharynx, and two antennae.
The proboscis is like a straw as it’s used for drinking and can be curled up when not in use. It also has a large third eye, also called a compound eye, which senses light and images.
The antennae are a pair of sensory appendages, used primarily for sensing taste and smell. They can do this with a process common in nature called chemoreception which allows organisms to respond to chemicals in the environment. But they also assist with balance, wind direction and orientation.
The forewings are the front wings that help guide them in flight. On males they contain scent scales which release pheromones or chemicals that attract females of the same species.
The hindwings wings are the rear wings which, though unnecessary for flight, assist in direction and predator avoidance. They could still fly even if their hindwings were cut off!
Each wing of butterflies has a distinct pattern. These patterns are made up of cells which make up the framework of the wing, like the veins of a leaf. Through these veins is where the blood flows and color patterns are formed.
The thorax is the second section of the butterfly and consists of three segments. Each segment has a pair of legs, fore and hindlegs, which are not shown on the felt board as they are beneath the winds and body.
Both pairs of wings are also attached to the thorax. In between the segments are flexible areas that allow the butterfly to move. They are covered in very small scales, which determine the butterfly’s color.
The abdomen is the third section of the body and consists of 10 segments. The genitalia, or reproductive organs, are located on the bottom of the segments. In the male, there is a pair of claspers, which hold on to the female during mating and, in the female, the abdomen contains a tube for laying eggs.
Working with felt boards and 3-part cards
Whether it’s the parts of the butterfly, the life cycle of the butterfly, or the 3-part cards, using our felt boards for the study of butterflies will get your kids excited about learning just how fascinating and important these beautiful critters are.
These felt games and cards were designed to work in conjunction with this lesson guide while taking advantage of all the wonderful learning possibilities in just about any educational environment. Whether it’s a homeschool entomology lesson or a Montessori school freeplay material, kids will be itching to learn more about these amazing creatures.
More fun activities
Felt puzzle: This butterfly shaped puzzle is made of felt and packed with foam to make it sturdy. It is six large pieces and are easy for small hands to assemble. The puzzle has a base to guide younger children.
Butterfly painting: Create your own forest friends painting! This canvas has a hand-painted an outline of a butterfly fluttering in the sky, surrounded by clouds. Use the attached paint set to paint your masterpiece – just use a wet brush to grab color from the watercolor paint cakes.
Butterfly learning kit: Dive into the world of our beautiful pollinator friends! This specially curated Butterfly Adventure Box provides you with all of the resources you need to begin the journey of learning about and identifying the butterflies near your home.
Butterfly puzzle printables: This pack features hand-illustrated watercolour butterfly and moth products and includes:
- A beautifully hand-illustrated watercolour print featuring a selection of butterflies and Moths.
- Two extra activities, you can print the poster with text only and with images only to allow children to match each butterfly/moth to its name. You can print a poster with half of each butterfly and with matching parts to enable children to match the wings on each species.
- A beautiful set of twelve cards featuring hand-painted watercolour illustrations of butterflies and moths.
- A set of 4 hand-illustrated watercolour postcards.
- A fun and exciting card game that children of all ages will enjoy playing.