Flowers that Fly: Science of the Butterfly Wing

Flowers that Fly: Science of the Butterfly Wing

Butterflies are beautiful: Their eggs rival Faberge’s for sheer art. The migration of the Monarch butterfly holds navigational secrets still beyond our ken. But the wings are truly remarkable for their mimicry, polymorphism (variation) and aposematism (warning coloration). Like tiny shingles on a roof, microscopic overlapping scales cover the wings with brilliant, iridescent colors.

Structural Coloration: Black and brown colors are from melanin, but the blues, greens and reds are created by the microstructure of the scales and not by pigments. Originally observed by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, the principle of wave interference was described by Thomas Young a century later. Surfaces scored with fine parallel lines or thin layers on the same scale as the wavelength of light reflect multiple sets of waves. These can interfere with one another by adding or subtracting, to give rise to iridescence.

For more, see:

A Quick Getaway: The scales of a butterfly wing readily detach, allowing for quick escape from a spider’s web or predator’s grasp. Thomas Eisner experimented by dropping various insects on a spider web. Of the butterflies and moths, he noted, “They all left impact marks on the webs where scales became detached to the viscid strands. Moth scars we came to call such telltale sites, and soon learned that they were common.” Most birds largely ignore butterflies. It turns out they are rather difficult to catch, without a large net, due to their erratic flying trajectories. Read Thomas Eisner’s essay on Butterfly Wings:

• Beauty of the Butterfly Egg:

• Migration of the Monarch Butterfly:

• If you like Opera: Maria Callas (Μαρία Κάλλας): Madama Butterfly – Puccini

Blue-Butterfly Day by Robert Frost:

It is blue-butterfly day here in spring,

And with these sky-flakes down in flurry on flurry

There is more unmixed color on the wing

Than flowers will show for days unless they hurry.

But these are flowers that fly and all but sing:

And now from having ridden out desire

They lie closed over in the wind and cling

Where wheels have freshly sliced the April mire.


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63 Responses to Flowers that Fly: Science of the Butterfly Wing

  1. Wonderful article and pictures!  Thanks Rajini Rao !

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks 🙂 It gives me so much pleasure to discover these little secrets of nature! 

  3. Wesley Yeoh says:

    nice, the micro world is truly quite a marvel

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Wesley Yeoh , peacock feathers and butterfly scales use optical grating!  🙂

  5. Wesley Yeoh says:

    ah, thats why they have that subtle prismatic sheen to them

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Exactly! Even the blue-green coloring is only due to the microstructure.

  7. This is an amazing post. Thank you for making my day a little more colorful!

  8. Arnav Kalra says:

    Awesome. Didn’t know about it before. Thanks for sharing. Rajini Rao you rock. 😀

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    My pleasure, Daniel and Adithya 🙂

  10. Holy cow that looks gorgeous.

  11. Norman M. says:

    New technology for the fashion industry.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    I wonder if there are fabrics that utilize this principle? Silk dupioni, for example. I believe Biomimicry is the term for applications of structure and design principles found in nature in our technology.

  13. Flutterbys! – very nice!

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Jimmy Shepard , I love that word! I was thinking of naming the post Butterflies Flutter By 🙂

    When I looked up butterfly, I found so many quotes and poems that referred to them as “flowers that fly”, interesting isn’t it?

  15. I had never heard it used until a friend in London used it… It really made me smile. Great post 🙂

  16. Oh “flowers that fly”… that’s great!

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    That was Madame Butterfly Maria Callas, Rashid Moore 🙂

    Hope you have a great holiday week ahead!

  18. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks for the musical contributions, Dan and Rashid! Listening now..

    Peter Lindelauf , “Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly, “one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”  ~Hans Christian Andersen

  19. Bill Collins says:

    Interesting point that most birds avoid eating butterflies. I did not know that. And I love these macros. There is beauty in structure and structure in beauty in nature.

  20. Rajini Rao says:

    I always thought that butterflies were ridiculously easy to catch! Perhaps, because I’m not a bird.

    Monarch butterflies are poisonous. Their larvae feed on milkweed and concentrate the poisons so they are found in the adult as well. There’s a powerful cardiac toxin in them (that the butterfly itself is resistant to, because of a mutation in the target). I’m rather fond of that story, because the target is the sodium pump, related to the ion pumps that I work on 🙂

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    You’d have to eat a lot of butterflies! But you can die by ingesting milkweed or foxgloves, which have these cardiac glycosides (“ouabain”). Did you know that they are still used in tiny amounts to treat heart disease? By inhibiting the sodium pump, calcium accumulates in the heart. This makes it easier for the heart to beat (each beat is driven by calcium waves), so the toxin rescues the failing heart. But too much is lethal.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    Gnotic Pasta , Agatha Christie used foxgloves in one of her Miss Marple stories:

  23. Rajini Rao says:

    You are incorrigible, Peter Lindelauf 😀

  24. Bill Collins says:

    Digitalis. The plant contains essentially raw ingredients.

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    Foxglove is very English, and not that common in American gardens. I found it a bit difficult to it a biennial, like hollyhock, Peter Lindelauf ? I seem to have a problem with those.

  26. NEY MELLO says:

    Thanks for posting this one Rajini Rao …Some are born to party in the face of all danger, and live a cool life…  🙂

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    NEY MELLO , a butterfly party must be a sight to behold 🙂

  28. Mary T says:

    Beautiful, Rajini Rao ~

  29. wings sending ripples through the space-time continuum. Now, even I know the difference between “menarche” and Monarch. Inspired, Rajini, thanks

  30. Rajini Rao says:

    Lovely Lepidopterans 🙂

  31. That’s beautiful! I need to show this to my nephew 🙂

  32. Rajini Rao says:

    Christiane Cantin , good luck! I managed to show this to my 14 yr old and give him a mini lecture on optical grating before he ran away 😉

  33. Hahaha… I’ll do my best 🙂

  34. Now that was a very gud read thanks

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    J Elliott-Smith , which word necessitated a dictionary, I’m curious? 🙂

    Aida Hazlan , it’s also the principle behind peacocks feathers and some bird colors!

  36. Rajini Rao says:

    J Elliott-Smith , okay 🙂

  37. Rajini Rao says:

    John Christopher , thanks and the best of the season’s joys to you. 

  38. Awesome! Thanks for sharing these unknown secrets of Nature Rajini Rao  I didn’t know there were poisonous butterflies. Will the poison affect an animal like a cat, if it ate it, because it must be the butterfly’s defence mechanism? I also didn’t know that the lovely colours of the wings were not pigments, that peacock feathers too use optical grating.

  39. Rajini Rao says:

    Feisal Kamil , Monarchs and Swallowtails are poisonous, not all butterflies..besides, the dose makes the poison, as the saying goes. Birds and small mammals learn to avoid the poisonous ones, but the larger mammals may not be as smart 😉

  40. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh, that’s a beautiful butterfly! Black and electric green…shame on anyone for eating a Rajah Brooke 🙂

    Was the Rajah of Brunei the one who was fabulously wealthy? 

  41. Quite simply SPECTACULAR! 

  42. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks, Terry Hallett , and all the best of the season to you my friend!

  43. All the best to you dear friend Rajini Rao 

  44. Did not want say it as it may spoil the fun-but the posts are great AND all the comments after that are so classy. Makes me come back and read the comment too Rajini Rao.

    There are some brilliant folks around here. Would have named but afraid that I would forget a few.

  45. Rajini Rao says:

    Hi Shah Auckburaully , that’s the work of my Hopkins colleagues. I can summarize it in a post, perhaps. Let me take a look at the original journal article first. Thanks! 

  46. Rajini Rao Would love to know more about this. Thanks.

  47. Your photos are ALWAYS beautiful.

  48. Rajini Rao says:

    Hello, michael delaney . It’s been a while, hope you are well? Your photos are beautiful and original, btw 🙂

  49. Rajini Rao says:

    There seems to be a quite a lot of practical research on nanoscale wing like structures and photonic crystals, although not so much with an eye for beauty 🙂

  50. thanks for your beautifull postings

  51. Lo Sauer says:

    Superb summary Rajini Rao 

  52. Rajini Rao says:

    It’s a great topic, isn’t it? Good to know that pigeon’s wings show iridescence from structural coloration too. Here’s Lo Sauer ‘s post on pigeon (dove?) wings if anyone is interested:

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