Butterflies Background Information for Teachers and Families

Grade Levels: K-3

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about butterflies and moths.  The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Butterflies. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

The butterfly is an eye-catching insect that most children have noticed in their own communities. In this movie children can follow the caterpillar’s transformation into pupa or chrysalis, before it becomes an adult butterfly or moth. Butterflies vary widely in size, shape, and color, and can be found practically everywhere on the planet, from woodland forests to the Arctic. Migration is also part of a butterfly’s life cycle; the monarch butterfly has been known to make cross-Atlantic journeys! Studying butterfly life cycles is a great way for children to understand how living things grow, and change, and to learn about different animal adaptations.

Review with your children that a butterfly is an insect. Brainstorm different insects together. How are they like butterflies? How are they different? Like all insects, butterflies have three body segments (head, thorax, and abdomen), three pairs of legs, and a pair of antennae. Many insects use their antennae to “feel” their surroundings, but butterflies use them to smell. Butterflies have two wings, which often have bright colors and/or patterns. The delicate wings are covered in tiny, dry scales. They also have a special part called a proboscis (pronounced pro-BOSS-iss). Butterflies use the proboscis to suck up nectar from flowers. Your children can imagine it like a long straw that can curl up. In some species, the proboscis can be longer than the entire body of the butterfly. We recommend looking at different pictures of butterflies from resources in the library or researching on the Internet for a variety of images. What butterflies have your children seen in your area?

Butterflies have numerous adaptations to stay safe. Some butterflies use camouflage. Some species look exactly like dead leaves, and others have clear or translucent wings to help them hide in their environments. Many butterflies have noticeably bright colors and patterns. Many butterfly species are toxic and their brilliant markings serve as clear warnings to predators. Some butterflies even mimic the markings of toxic butterflies in order to stay safe. For example, the red-spotted purple butterfly looks just like the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. They have very similar markings and colorings, but the pipevine swallowtail is poisonous for predators, while the red-spotted purple butterfly is not—but the predator can’t be sure which is which. Some butterflies are dark on one side of the wings and bright on the other side. When they flutter their wings, the sudden color can startle predators away.

Many children have seen a caterpillar. Explain that caterpillars can grow and change to become butterflies or moths. An adult butterfly lays several eggs, and soon a larva hatches from the egg. A larva is the young form of an animal that changes through metamorphosis. The larva of a butterfly is a caterpillar. The caterpillar eats and grows bigger and bigger, shedding its skin as it grows. The caterpillar soon slows its eating and enters the pupa, or chrysalis, stage of its life cycle. It begins to undergo metamorphosis, or big changes, to become an adult. It grows wings and develops into an adult butterfly. A fully developed, adult butterfly emerges from the pupa case and is able to mate and have young. Then the life cycle begins again.

It’s a common misconception that the butterfly larva spins a cocoon. Moth larvae spin cocoons, but butterfly larvae turn into a pupa or chrysalis. This is the main difference between moths and butterflies. There are other subtle differences as well: Many species of moths are nocturnal, while butterflies are active during the day. Moths have thicker bodies and furrier wings than butterflies, protecting them against the colder temperature at nights. Moths also tend to be brownish in color, while butterflies are often brighter, or multi-hued. However, there are many species of butterflies that are nocturnal or are considered less colorful. Both butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera and share many characteristics.

Encourage your children to observe butterflies in their communities and look for caterpillars or even eggs. Help them explore the world around them and understand the startling diversity of life that can be found right in their own backyards.

Butterflies vary widely in size, shape, and color, and are a great subject for study as many children have observed them in their own communities. Butterflies can be found practically everywhere on the planet, from woodland forests to the Arctic. Studying butterfly life cycles is a great way for children to understand how living things grow and change and to learn about different animal adaptations.