Butterfly Drinking Parties, a Matter of Survival
Water is essential to all life. No animal, large or small, can survive without water.
In arid environments, large congregations of all kinds of animals can be found near a water source. Such spots are sometimes called watering holes. Watering holes in parts of Africa frequently attract large mammals of many species. It is not uncommon to find giraffes, elephants, water buffaloes, zebras, and several species of deer and antelope drinking from the same watering hole.
Natural above-ground water is sometimes in short supply on the grassy rangelands of the western United States. Bison on these lands once roamed great distances to watering holes. Once the land was fenced for cattle, ranchers provided artificial watering holes using windmills and tanks.
Insects also need water to survive. That's why cockroaches are commonly found around sinks and bathrooms in our homes. Like large mammals, some insects also congregate around water sources. Butterflies are the best known of the insects that can be seen drinking in groups.
Butterflies don't like to stand in water when they drink, so they can frequently be observed ringing a puddle of water on the sidewalk or roadway. Butterflies also commonly sip water from mud puddles. The yellow butterflies called sulfurs and small blue butterflies, called blues, are so numerous near puddles in the fall of the year that an entomologist once referred to them as “the mud puddle gang.”
Hibernating groups of monarch butterflies must have free water to drink during the winter. As a result, the overwintering habitats for the monarch must be cold enough to slow the insect down so it conserves stored energy, but warm enough to keep water from freezing. Such an area exists in the mountains of central Mexico, and that is where the millions of North American monarch butterflies spend the winter.
Butterflies drink water through mouthparts that form a coiled tube. Proboscis is the scientific term for butterfly mouths, which resemble the coiled noisemakers humans use at parties.
Delicate butterflies at a watering hole could accurately be described as sipping water through a straw. But these insects are not social butterflies at a highbrow party. For butterflies, as with other animals, water is essential, and a drinking party is a matter of survival.