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What do the colors of the butterfly mean?

What do the colors of the butterfly mean?

Butterflies come in a stunning array of colors and patterns. The colors and patterns on a butterfly’s wings are more than just beautiful, they often communicate important information. The colors may signal to predators that the insect is toxic or tastes bad. They can also play a role in attracting mates. By understanding what the different colors and patterns signify, we gain fascinating insight into the complex life of butterflies.

How do butterflies get their color?

Butterflies get their color from tiny scales that cover their wings like shingles on a roof. These scales are made up of chitin, which is the same material as insect exoskeletons. The scales contain pigments that reflect specific wavelengths of light, causing us to perceive particular colors.

There are several different types of pigments that butterflies produce:

  • Melanin – Black, brown, and orange patterning
  • Pteridines – Red, orange, and yellow coloring
  • Ommochromes – Brown, red, and yellow pigments
  • Papiliochromes – Yellow, orange, and reddish-brown hues

By layering and combining these pigments within a scale, butterflies can create dazzling visible effects. The shimmering colors are further enhanced when light bounces off the different layers of scales.

What do the most common butterfly colors mean?

Now that we understand where butterfly colors come from, let’s take a look at some of the most widespread color patterns and what they communicate. Here are some of the major meanings behind common butterfly wing hues.


The color black can signal toxicity and warn predators to stay away. This is because many unpalatable butterflies contain melanin, which shows up black or brown. The monarch butterfly advertises its foul taste with its iconic orange wings edged with thick black borders. Another black butterfly is the pipevine swallowtail, which as a caterpillar feeds on poisonous plants and retains the toxins into adulthood.


Red is a hot color that butterflies may use to attract mates. Many red-colored butterflies are active in the bright sunlight when they are most visible to other butterflies. Red can also serve as a danger signal, particularly when combined with black. The red postman butterfly uses its vivid red stripes against black wings to warn birds of its bad taste.


Butterflies with mostly white or light-colored wings often have an advantage when flying at dusk or in dim conditions. Their pale scales reflect more light, making them highly visible even in poor lighting. The white color also helps them blend in against pale flowers they typically feed on at night. Moths especially rely on white scales to amplify their appearance in the darkness.


Yellow or golden scales may be iridescent so they shine and shimmer in the sunlight. The dazzling effect can help attract mates. Alternatively, yellow can be used as part of an aposematic display to repel predators. Many butterflies taste bad and use combinations of yellow, orange, and red to advertise their toxicity.


The color blue is more rare in the butterfly world because it requires specialized scales that reflect blue wavelengths. Blue is thought to play a role in species recognition, helping butterflies identify potential mates. In some species like the blue morpho, the blue may also serve to startle or distract predators.


Green coloring comes from a blend of yellow and blue pigments in the scales. Green helps provide camouflage for butterflies to blend in with foliage from predators. Various shades of green help conceal butterflies against the diverse greens of leaves, grasses, shrubs, and trees.

What do butterfly wing patterns mean?

In addition to color, the specific patterns on a butterfly’s wings can reveal a lot about its lifestyle and biology. Here are some of the most notable wing patterns and their meanings.

Clear or transparent wings

Some butterflies like the clearwing family have transparent or see-through wings. This adaptation allows them to be camouflaged when at rest against vegetation, making it difficult for birds and other predators to spot them.

Eye spots

Conspicuous eye spots on wings are used to frighten or distract predators. When a predator approaches, the eyespots can suddenly flash, startling the predator. On some butterflies like peacocks and emperors, the eye spots may also serve as decoys. If a bird strikes at an eyespot, it leaves the butterfly’s head and body unharmed.

Tailed wings

Long tails or short tailed extensions on the hindwings help confuse predators. The tails create a second target away from the butterfly’s body. Many swallowtail butterflies have distinctive hindwing tails.


Butterflies that blend in with their environment avoid being eaten by masking their form. They may resemble leaves with irregular edges, bark with cracks and lines, or have mottled brown patterns that fade into soil and foliage. Camouflage patterns allow them to go unnoticed by predators when at rest.

Warning coloration

As discussed earlier, combinations of striking reds, oranges, yellows, and blacks advertise toxicity to potential predators. The monarch’s orange and black pattern is the classic example of warning coloration announcing its foul taste.


Some harmless butterflies mimic the wing patterns, shapes, and behaviors of toxic butterflies that predators avoid. By resembling an unpalatable species, they gain protection from predators who mistake them for the real thing. This form of mimicry is common in tropical butterfly communities.

Seasonal polyphenism

Some butterflies exhibit seasonal polyphenism where their wing patterns and colors vary based on the time of year. This phenomenon allows the butterflies to better adapt to changing environmental conditions between summer and winter seasons.

Do colors impact butterfly behavior?

Butterfly wing colors don’t just influence how other animals respond to them, they can also impact the butterfly’s own behaviors. Here are some examples of how:

  • Dark wings allow butterflies to absorb heat from the sun and stay warm in cooler conditions.
  • Pale wings reflect sunshine and help keep butterflies from overheating.
  • Dark scales on males may promote territorial behavior and willingness to fight other males.
  • Bright iridescent colors draw the attention of potential mates.
  • Dull or transparent wings allow resting butterflies to blend into their surroundings.

So colors affect both butterfly communication and thermoregulation. Their appearance is closely linked to behavior in multiple ways.

How do colors vary between butterfly species?

Butterfly colors and patterns differ greatly between the various species and families. Here is an overview of some characteristic colors for major groups of butterflies:

Butterfly Family Typical Colors
Swallowtails Black and yellow; blue or green iridescence
Whites and Sulphurs White, yellow, orange
Gossamer Wings Orange, brown, white
Brushfooted Butterflies Red, orange, black; white, brown, purple
Snout Butterflies Orange, brown, yellow
Heliconians and Fritillaries Orange, black; brown, orange
Milkweed Butterflies Orange, black, white
Metalmarks Orange, brown, black with metallic marks
Riodinids Orange, brown, black with white bands
True Brushfoots Brown, yellow; shades of blue

As you can see, while some colors like orange, brown, and black are common throughout the butterfly world, particular groups are known for their signature hues. Swallowtails are renowned for their yellows and blues, while the vibrant orange of monarchs typifies milkweed butterflies.

Why do butterfly colors matter?

Butterfly wing colors and patterns are far more than basic decoration. They serve vital functions related to:

  • Defense against predators
  • Thermoregulation
  • Camouflage and concealment
  • Species recognition
  • Mate selection and courtship
  • Communication with other butterflies
  • Territorial behavior

The colors and designs of butterfly wings operate as visual signals that are key to their survival. Whether through camouflage, mimicry, or warning displays, color provides butterflies with evolutionary advantages.

Additionally, the striking beauty of butterfly wing patterns makes them important symbols of transformation, hope, and life. Their vibrant colors bring joy and inspiration.


From the vivid orange of monarchs to the shimmering blues of blue morphos, butterfly wing colors are incredibly diverse. These colors are produced by specialized scales that reflect specific wavelengths of light. Different pigments and scale structures create the variety of hues and designs.

Butterfly wing colors serve many crucial functions. They play roles in attracting mates, signaling toxicity, thermoregulation, and camouflage. Specific patterns like eyespots and tailed wings also help some butterflies evade predators.

Understanding the meaning of butterfly colors provides fascinating insight into butterfly ecology and evolution. It deepens our appreciation for the complexity and beauty of these insects. Paying attention to their vibrant colors and patterns reveals the remarkable story of how butterflies have adapted to their environments.