Wing Structure

Butterfly wings are made of thin sheets of chitin and protein, with veins for stiffening. They are covered in tiny, powdery scales. The scales are arranged like shingles on a roof and give the wing its colours and patterns.

Front wing of a Tiger Swallowtail
with the scales partially rubbed off.

Close-up view of
butterfly wing scales.

How Wings are Used

Wings allow butterflies to fly to find food or a place to lay eggs, or to escape enemies. Wings are also for display when finding a mate. They can provide camouflage, or be brightly coloured to startle an enemy or send a warning that the butterfly tastes bad or is poisonous.

Click these butterflies for more information.


Butterflies are like powered paper airplanes. They fly by flapping their wings up and down. The down stroke gives lift, as a swirl of air passes over the tops of the wings. On the up and down strokes the wings bend to push air backwards and move the butterfly forward.

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A Mourning Cloak basks with its wings
open to let the sun reach its body.

Warming Up

Butterflies must be warm to fly. The wing muscles in the thorax must be near 30 C to work properly. Butterflies bask in the sun to raise their body temperature before flying. On cool, cloudy days, and at night, butterflies rest and remain hidden.

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