A new study has found that butterflies are responsible for much more pollination than previously thought, and their sharp sense of smell is the reason why. Despite an annual 1.6% decline in population, butterflies contribute enough to the pollination process that about $120 million is added each year to the cotton industry in Texas alone.
While both butterflies and moths lack a “normal” nose, their ability to detect odors is much keener than that of a human’s. Research into the butterfly’s sense of smell has increased over the past few years as awareness around butterfly pollination methods becomes more relevant in the wake of the dwindling bee population.
Read on to find out more about just how sensitive a butterfly’s sense of smell is, how it influences their behavior, and how it plays such an important role in preserving the ecosystem.
The Complex World Of Smell
Unlike humans, butterflies do not pick up scents via a nose. Instead, they use their chemoreceptor-covered bodies to sense smells. Chemoreceptors are essentially nerve cells that respond to the presence of different chemicals in the air, allowing butterflies to aromatically interpret what’s around them. Butterflies have chemoreceptors dotted all over their bodies, but the antenna is where most of them are clustered. Female butterflies have extra chemoreceptors on their legs, allowing them to identify appropriate plants to lay their eggs on.
There are two main fragrances that a butterfly is programmed to seek out: pheromones and nectar. Despite their vibrant, multi-colored wings, butterflies attract mates through releasing powerful pheromones that entice potential mates with fragrant beguiling. When a butterfly smells nectar, it becomes excited and hungry. For humans, the smell of lavender can make us sleepy, or the smell of peppermint can help us feel more awake. In this way, both humans and butterflies are influenced by the power of smell.
How Smell Helps Butterflies Be Better Pollinators
Butterflies being hardwired for picking up the smell of nectar has enormous environmental benefits. The combined power of their sensitive chemoreceptors and nimble flying abilities make them excellent carriers of wild pollen. Because butterflies prefer to land briefly on outer flowers, they can collect pollen from a much wider number of flowers than bees can. Far more valuable to the ecosystem than what was previously thought, butterflies will continue to spread charm and pollen wherever they go.