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This is one topic that I never imagined I would be writing about. The behavior I witnessed seemed like it must have been something more than the simple call of nature. I watched an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) expel copious amounts of fluid on the ground in a half-hour period. That I could actually see the butterfly doing this is a tribute to my telephoto lens.

This butterfly expelled so much fluid that I wondered if the poor creature was sick. After doing a little research1, it seemed plausible that that this butterfly had emerged from its chrysalis, or was consuming salts and minerals from the mud.

This butterfly could fly, and did fly off – but not far. I watched as he flew to a perch in a nearby tree and eventually returned to the muddy area where I was standing. It was a hot day near the end of July, in the Fort Worth Nature Center off the banks of the West Fork of the Trinity River. I’ve read in several sources that butterflies expel excess fluid shortly after emerging from their chrysalis. Fluid stored in the body is used to fill-out the wings. Excess fluid is expelled, though often that fluid is dark.

(this is a different individual)

Though I found several sources that mentioned these butterflies’ tendency to consume minerals from mud puddles, I did not find an explicit description of expelling excess water that might be consumed in the process. From the scene I witnessed, I think this is the most likely explanation. The swallowtail spent a LOT of time at the mud puddle, and “peed” out a LOT of fluid.

I’ll close with a couple of pictures of a Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) I saw on the same trip. If you’d like to see butterflies around your home, consider planting native plants to feed both the caterpillars and the adult butterflies. These plants are often called “larval host” plants and “nectar” plants. And for goodness sakes, don’t spray pesticides – let those caterpillars munch away on those plants and you may be rewarded with lovely butterflies like these.  Like so many species, habitat loss tops the list of factors contributing to the alarming decline of these and other pollinators. If you would like to learn more about what you can do to help conserve butterflies, please visit the Xerces Society, specializing in invertebrate education and conservation.

  1. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, by Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman. Copyright 2003 by Hillstar Editions, LC. Houghton Mifflin Company, Publishers

26 Responses to “Do Butterflies Pee in the Woods?”

  • Butterfly pee! Definitely not something you see a photo of every day.

  • Oh my, I’m going to give up blogging right now. There’s no way I can ever come close to the greatness of this post 🙂

    Insects do tend to eliminate water when taking in too much water. Mosquitoes pee when they are feeding on us, at least some kinds do. Many nectar and sap feeders send out excess water while they are feeding. We have sharpshooters here that make it seem like the trees are raining.

    I’ve never seen butterflies pee while puddling, though. The animation is awesome.

    • Wow, Roberta – glad you liked this! Now that you mention it, I can remember the occasional strange “raindrop” in the woods…never imagined that insects were peeing on me. Ha!

  • Lynn Watson:

    I gotta say it, does a bear….this blog made me laugh! But seriously, this is another mystery worth looking into and learning about!! Thanks for the sharp eye, and fun animation and this site! I love it!

    • Hi Lynn – I couldn’t resist the chance to prompt everyone to think the very same thing in their head when they read the title. Ha!

      I’ve been wanting a video camera for quite awhile now, but opted to spend the money on a macro lens instead. The animated .gif files are pretty easy to make and everyone really likes them…maybe I don’t need a video camera after all.

      • Lynn Watson:

        you should treat yourself to a video camera too! You are already mastering your macro, but hey there’s that much more you can do with video! Thanks again for your site!

  • That animation is totally cool! Great series of captures to put together.

    My guess is it’s excess water from puddling. I admit I’ve never seen it before, though I have stood beneath cicada-infested trees and discovered that it can rain on a cloudless day.

    Again, totally awesome! You really do find the coolest things, Amber.

    • Glad you like it, Jason, I’m getting pretty fond of making the animations these days. And I agree…I have had some real luck with coming across some cool stuff in nature. It is so fun to share it!

  • jeanie:

    that is so cool! photos are amazing

  • Interesting behavioral observation! I agree that this is excess water from puddling. I have a faint memory somewhere of observational reports of this behavior, but I can’t recall the citation. As you mentioned, liquid ejected after emerging from the chrysalis is very dark and almost blood-like, and it would be obvious if this butterfly had just emerged.

    • I still can’t believe that I was actually able to see this. If someone had told me that I would happen to notice a butterfly peeing, while waiting patiently for birds to appear – I would not have believed them.

      This butterfly spent at least 20 minutes muddling – I was amazed at the volume of water it expelled!

  • […] of links. If you are interested in bugs and other invertebrates (you’ve been wondering if butterflies pee in the woods, right?), you should check it out! Tags: […]

  • That is bizarre! Great find- my kids will love this.

  • Me:

    Hello, very interesting subject. I was looking for information about it. And it’s very good to know that not only me saw a butterly peeing, although I never saw again what I saw when I was a little kid. No one believes me but I swear I saw it.

    I was around 7 years (I’m 30 today) old playing alone in the backyard and a big butterfly came flying and landed on the wall (one of those very big and with brownish/greyish wings). And I was looking at it and suddenly it did the most bizarre thing I have ever saw. The butterfly started peeing, but it was a lot more than this animation you posted. It was continuous and went for about 5 seconds or more, but surely not more than 10. But what most scares to this day it was the color. it was a pink liquid, pink like melted strawberry ice cream !

    I imagine to this day what the hell was that.

    • Hello, “Me” – I am so glad to know that the few years of blog posts here continue to entertain and enlighten. Your comment came at a good time, while I go back and forth about whether to re-dedicate myself to posting new content or admit that my work has taken over all of my former blog time and close Birder’s Lounge. Gulp. So anyway…your butterfly story is very interesting. I’m guessing that the pink color would indicate the presence of blood…? And I believe you!

      😉

  • Yes, it IS pee. I was video’ing a Pipevine Swallowtail in 03 and it pee’d. We raise butterflies (thousands per week) and can assure you that YES, they do pee. But when we stopped to think about it, of course they do! They drink all day long and the liquid has to go somewhere. The first elimination after becoming an adult butterfly is meconium and is normally brown to red, depending upon species. After that, its clear to light tan pee. If you have butterflies and feed them red Gatorade, their pee will be red.

    This is a frame from the video clip that shows the Pipevine Swallowtail pee’ing. http://www.butterflyfunfacts.com/images/butterfly.pee.6.jpg

    Male butterflies also eat dung and carrion. They are not dainty creatures. They’re fascinating, all the same.

    • PS – Butterfly blood is yellow/green, not red, by the way. They breathe through holes in their sides. They taste with their feet. Caterpillars have 12 eyes that see only light and dark. There are so many fun facts about them.

  • TA Bolseng:

    Old post, new reader . Thank you for your reference to the Xerces Society in this post. I am keen observer of nature – both the mighty and the miniscule!

  • Marleen:

    Hi there, I have just come back from Borneo where I witnessed a Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing Butterfly pee for almost half an hour. I actually caught it clearly on an amazing video. After googeling around to learn more about it, I came on this blog which is really cool. Well done!

  • How cool that you captured that on video! I’m pretty sure most people have never seen anything like that!

  • Never thought about it. It is fun to share with my 9 year old Grandson. He loves stuff like this!

  • Diana:

    We just saw this happen today at the playground. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed like it was sick or something because it wasn’t flying very far away when my four and two-year-olds were chasing it. It settled in by the wet sandbox area and just sat there. My four year old told me it was going potty and after watching for a minute I noticed it too. It was expelling a lot of liquid for something so small. We came home to research it and found this article. It makes sense, it was sitting on some very wet sand from the sandbox. Thanks for this post!

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