If You Touch a Butterfly's Wings, Can It Still Fly?

Close-Up of Hand Holding Butterfly

Evgeniya Fomina / EyeEm / Getty Images

If you've ever handled a butterfly, you probably noticed the powdery residue left behind on your fingers. A butterfly's wings are covered with scales, which may rub off on your fingers when you touch them. That's the powder you see on your fingers. But will this prevent the butterfly from flying? Will the butterfly die if you touch its wings?

Butterfly Wings Aren't as Fragile as They Look

The idea that merely touching a butterfly's wings may prevent it from flying is more fiction than fact. Although their wings appear fragile, consider the following butterfly flight records as evidence of their strong construction:

  • The longest documented flight by a migrating monarch butterfly was 2,750 miles, from Grand Manan Island, Canada to the overwintering grounds in Mexico.
  • Painted lady butterflies are known to fly even farther, covering 4,000 miles from North Africa to Iceland.
  • A butterfly found only in Nepal, Paralasa nepalica lives and flies at an altitude of nearly 15,000 feet.
  • Researchers studying the flight of painted ladies using high-speed cameras reported they flap their wings 20 times per second. 

If a simple touch could render a butterfly's wings useless, butterflies could never manage such feats of flight. Butterflies are more robust than they look.

Butterflies Shed Scales Throughout Their Lives

The truth is, a butterfly sheds scales throughout its lifetime. Butterflies lose scales just by doing the things butterflies do: nectaring, mating, and flying. If you touch a butterfly gently, it will lose some scales, but rarely enough to stop it from flying.

A butterfly wing is made of a thin membrane webbed with veins. Colorful scales cover the membrane, overlapping like roof shingles. The scales strengthen and stabilize the wings. If a butterfly loses a lot of scales, the underlying membrane may become more prone to tears, and that could affect its ability to fly.

A butterfly cannot regenerate lost scales. On older butterflies, you may notice tiny clear patches on their wings, where scales were shed. If a large section of scales is missing, you can see right through the clear membrane of the wing.

Wing tears, on the other hand, will affect the butterfly's ability to fly. You should always try to minimize tears to a butterfly's wing when catching them. Never trap a live butterfly in a small jar or other containers, where it may damage its wings by flapping against the hard sides. Always use a proper butterfly net.

How to Hold a Butterfly So You Won't Damage Its Wings

When you handle a butterfly, gently close its wings together. Using a light but firm touch, hold all four wings together and keep your fingers in one place. It's best to hold the wings at a point close to the butterfly's body, to keep it as still as possible.

As long as you are gentle and don't handle a butterfly excessively, it will continue to fly and live when you release it.