How do Butterflies Fly?

Jenny came up with this question, and it’s a good one!  So let’s get started!

First I’m going to tell you how butterflies don’t fly.  When you watch a butterfly, it looks like the butterfly just moves its wings up and down, up and down, up and down.  But that’s not true!  Animals’ wings push air, so if a butterfly just moves its wings up and down, that’s where the butterfly will go: up and down.  It would not move forward.

strong butterfly

One thing that is true, is that butterflies have very strong muscles moving those wings.  They need to be able to move those wings in more ways too.  Butterflies need to use their wings to push air backwards.  And you say, “Wait… I thought butterflies fly forward?” And you’re right, they do!  Think about if you go swimming.  You use your arms and hands to push water back, right?  Well, that’s what butterflies do in the air.  They push the air back, so their body can move forward.  Just like your body in the water.

forward butterfly wings

Butterflies can also fly by getting some help.  Some butterflies can fly 40 km/h, and as high as 300 meters!  What do you think helps them?  Yep, it’s the wind.  Some butterflies can glide.  Gliding means they don’t flap their wings, but instead they hold them out in one place.  Their wings don’t move (like an airplane!).  The wind pushes them up and forward.

sunshine butterfly

The muscles that flap butterfly wings are quite strong, but they need to be pretty warm so they can work.  If a butterfly is too cold, its wings can’t flap.  That is why butterflies aren’t flying around at night; because the sunlight helps warm up their wings so they can move.


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