Butterfly Wings Mystery: Did You Know That Butterfly Wings Are Actually Transparent?

Butterfly Wings Mystery: Did You Know That Butterfly Wings Are Actually Transparent?

Most butterflies sport beautiful patterns on their wings, but those colors and patterns aren’t the actual wing membrane itself but rather are created by a fine powder. If we were to touch a butterfly’s wings our fingers could be coated in this fine powder, which is actually made up of tiny scales. If you were to remove all the scale powder the wing membrane underneath would be transparent! Some butterflies, such as the glasswing butterfly, naturally have transparent wings for better camouflage!

Curious? Well, let’s take a look at some butterfly wings with the uHandy Microscope!

Items You Will Need

  • uHandy Microscope - Hi-Mag Lens set: Hi-Mag Lens, Light Stage, Circular Glass Slide
  • uHandy Microscope - Lo-Mag Lens
  • uHandy Sampling Stickers
  • A smartphone or tablet
  • A butterfly which died naturally

How to

Let’s say you were taking a stroll at your local park and noticed a dead butterfly on the pathway. You could use your Lo-Mag Lens to examine its wings. Close up you’ll be able to observe the scale powder and cilia, the short fine hairs along the edge of a butterfly’s wings.

Notes: A LED light, held to the side of Lo-Mag Lens, will help illuminate the details.

The fine hairs in the middle of the image are the cilia, which are surrounded by wing scales.

Now, collect an impression from the wing so it can be observed under the Hi-Mag Lens.

Hint: Pressing down on the sampling sticker will help collect more powder.

If you are able to gently blot all the powder off one area of the wing you will be able to observe the transparency of the wing membrane.

A bit of transparent wing membrane peeking through the scales.

Supplemental Information

Butterfly wings also come in an array of beautiful colors and that is achieved through two methods: chemical color and structural color.

“Chemical color” refers to the basic color of the scales, so this is the color that our eyes will detect when we look at a butterfly. For example, if the basic color of the scales is yellow then the wings will appear to be the same color.

“Structural color” is a bit more complicated and doesn’t have anything to do with the original color of the wing scales. Structural color is due to the nanostructure of the wing scales and affects what light is reflected and how it is reflected. Structural color isn’t reliant on any type of pigment and therefore doesn’t fade, which explains the iridescent colors of butterfly wings!

So when viewing the wing scales, adjust the viewing angle and see if the colors change. If the color changes, the nanostructures in the wing scales are at work and you are observing structural color in action!