Thirsty Butterflies

Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterfly, Belize

We had been birding the Belizean tropical jungle for days, when a new phenomenon greeted us one dawn morning: clouds of butterflies congregating around the ground.


Up until then, we had been seeing that same species, the Dark Kite-swallowtail butterfly, flying around all week. One or two, here and there, on flowers–like usual.


But this day they were in clumps of 40 and 50, always on the earth.


Dark Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize



There were hundreds, and as we headed down the road to our destination–to watch toucans feeding–we watched them flutter all around, quite magical.


They were all on the road and the dirt, and as our truck trundled by I was nervous for their safety. They could easily be run over.


I asked the guide, “Why are all the butterflies around this morning? And in such big groups?” It was 6 a.m., no one was especially gregarious yet.


He explained that due to the rain we’d had the night before, the ground was moist, and the butterflies were drinking the water.


Keel-billed Toucan, Belize’s national bird


Hours after we’d watched the toucans, we came upon the local village’s small airport hangar, and found a drainpipe surrounded by the swallowtail butterflies. It’s hard to make out, but that dark smudge in the bottom right of this photo, right of the drainpipe, is all butterflies…at least a hundred. They were having a drinking party.

Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies at base of drainpipe between building and road, Belize


Every butterfly has a proboscis and a pair of antennae. The proboscis is a mouth part, used for sucking. It is a long tube (technically, two tubes) with muscles; part of the digestive system. We don’t always see a butterfly’s proboscis because it can be coiled-up, out of sight.


Their antennae, generally club-shaped, have a different function: as receptors, and for balancing.

Butterfly anatomy








That day, each individual was using its proboscis to suck water from the ground.


The butterfly uses the proboscis not only for sucking water, but also for sucking nectar and sometimes, for extracting minerals. If you’ve ever witnessed a butterfly landing on a person’s skin, the insect is seeking the mineral salt in human sweat.


It was windy and the gusts were blowing their long-tailed wings, but each individual steadily continued to drink the rainwater, undeterred.


Everyday in the rainforest it was very hot and humid and we were always hot and thirsty…but who would’ve guessed that the butterflies were thirsty?


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.


Black Kite-swallowtail Butterflies, Belize


78 thoughts on “Thirsty Butterflies

  1. “Butterfly people” I know call it ‘mud-puddling,’ and it’s a behavior even I have seen. I was astonished the first time I saw them congregating on dung — that’s also just part of their life, and related to the search for salts, sugars, and proteins.

    I’ve never seen such large groups engaged in the practice, though. Usually I see only one, or perhaps two or three. The photos are delightful, and the explanation clear, as always. It’s always fun to catch a butterfly in a photo with its proboscis partly uncurled, but that’s always been a lucky shot for me, and something I notice after the fact.

    • I enjoyed your input, Linda, as always. Butterflies on dung, doesn’t seem quite right somehow, and yet that’s the glory of nature…it’s all right. We had never seen such large groups before either. Thanks so much, my friend, always a delight.

    • Thanks, Craig, I like hearing that you see it in the desert, and that makes perfect sense. The rainforest was pretty moist already, as you guessed, but apparently not enough. Many thanks.

  2. Another colourful and informative post! I had no idea butterflies did this, but it seems obvious now you’ve described it. So used to enjoying them fluttering about, as if their purpose is to be colourful entertainment, never gave any thought to their real life.
    Thanks, Jet, and have a wonderful weekend!

    • I liked your term “colourful entertainment,” pc, which butterflies are indeed. Thanks so much for your warm words, always appreciated. And my best to you for a fantastic weekend, too. 🙂

  3. What a wonderful phenomenon to witness. Life in all its forms amazing but butterflies have got to be one of the most colourful and joyful to see. I can certainly see what they are called swallowtails – and kites for that matter 🙂 What was it like to see the toucans eating?

    • I am so happy to have shared the butterflies and toucans with you, Alastair. It was indeed a wonderful phenomenon to witness. Imagine this gorgeous butterfly fluttering around, numbering in the hundreds! The toucans were a total delight. They fly with that giant bill in front of them, and are consequentially very distinctive in flight. They have a unique way of laddering their way up the tree, also due to that giant bill. The bill, however, is made of keratin, so it’s not heavy, and their movements are surprisingly graceful. We went out intentionally early to see the toucans, for the guide knew they would be gone later, having breakfasted. It was heavenly to watch. Oh, and since you’re a sound man, they have the most glorious sound. There were about ten of them, and they were all calling: “groik groik.” Sounds like a frog. A delight to share the experience with you, thanks so much for your interest.

    • Yes, Donna, no matter how much we’re out in wilderness, there is always more to learn. I’m so glad I could share the butterflies with you today, and very much appreciate your warm response. Thank you.

  4. I took the time to go through the comments (something I don’t always have time to do) and learned another thing or two. Thanks for the informative post and for the butterfly shots. Love the toucan, too. 🙂 Have a wonderful weekend.


    • I think they are stunning butterflies, too, John, thanks for your remark on that. I love swallowtails, with that long tail, and then black and white patterning, with highlights of red and that light blue on the wings…stunning creatures. Glad you enjoyed the post today, and thanks for your delightful comment and visit…always a joy, my friend.

    • Yes, it was an amazing sight to see, Eliza. And everywhere we turned! Always happy to share a garden-like experience with you, Eliza, thanks for stopping by.

  5. Pingback: Thirsty Butterflies — Jet Eliot |

    • Glad you enjoyed the butterflies today, Wayne. We have monarch migrations here in California, and I have seen them in Santa Cruz. Really spectacular. Always a joy to hear from you, my friend, thank you.

  6. i would’ve never known that butterflies can get thirsty! their anatomy is very interesting having the proboscis as their natural straw, and the toucan’s colorful and huge bill is a treat 🙂 great post and photography! thanks as always, Jet 🙂

    • I agree, Belinda, butterflies are such beautiful insects. Always a pleasure. Not so easy to photograph, as I am sure you’ve experienced, but really a joy to behold. Thanks so much for your visit today.

  7. You’re right. I never thought about butterflies as being thirsty, but like all animals they need water. These are beautiful butterflies. I don’t think I’ve seen this kind before. We get the Old World swallowtail (the yellow ones) here, but that’s the only kind I’ve seen. Those dark kites are interesting, especially when you get hundreds of them together.

    • Glad you enjoyed the curious event of butterflies drinking water, Anneli. There are so many different kinds of butterflies in Central America, and each one so beautiful. Glad I could share them with you. Thanks so much.

  8. Something to be admired is learning from all Nature’s creatures. You must have seen this before in the rainforest muddy river shores. Butterflies by the thousands, all different colors and shapes, not drinking water or moisture but salt and other minerals. It happen with certain birds too. Thank you Jet, for the interesting post. 🙂

    • I had never seen quite so many butterflies as this, so it was a treat. You know tropical rainforests, HJ, always something to learn, and as you say, admire. Thanks so much, dear friend.

  9. a beautifully winged
    butterfly tropical adventure
    and lesson, Jet!
    i’m happy you observed & shared
    them quenching their little thirst!
    wouldn’t it be wonderful if people
    could use their proboscis so well? 🙂

    • Your comment has me smiling, David. As a former nutrition teacher, I can say that it would be a happier, healthier world if more people drank water as heartily as these lovely butterflies do. A pure delight to share the butterfly adventure, David, my warmest thanks.

  10. I think these beautiful butterflies also like to suck water from small puddles in order to absorb mineral salts. It’s really a treat to see such a lot of them. When I was on Rhodos – a wonderful greek island – I saw a lot of Callimorpha quadripunctaria rhodosensis in the so named butterfly Valley (Κοιλάδα των Πεταλούδων Kilada ton Petaloudon). It was an exciting experience for me!

    • Yes, the minerals are what the butterflies seek too. Your visit to Butterfly Valley on Rhodos sounds fantastic, Simone, thank you. How wonderful to have butterflies on this planet.

    • Yes, it was a lovely sight, Andrea. We were out seeking birds, and we got birds and butterflies in so many magical ways. Happy to share it with you, Andrea, thank you.

  11. Thanks for sharing your observations on these beautiful creatures. Butterflies are a world apart and yet they’re here as well. Proboscis for a drinking tube; the human eye and camera lens to take in what we can.

    • Really enjoyed your reflections, Walt, on the ethereal butterfly. I liked this line… “a world apart and yet they’re here as well.” So very true. Thank you, my friend.

  12. Great images of these lovely creatures. I’ve heard of butterflies ‘puddling’ but have yet to come across it. How delightful that you had the opportunity! 🦋

    • Yes this was a great opportunity, Gunta, and there were so many hundreds of butterflies wherever we looked. A little nighttime rain sure did bring a lot of daytime magic. Thanks, my friend, always a joy to hear from you.

  13. This is a wonderful post, Jet! I adore butterflies, and am very concerned about the Monarch. We live on a Monarch migratory path. 20 years ago, when we came to live here, twice a year there would be CLOUDS of Monarchs crossing from the lakeshore to inland. Now, I’m lucky to see 3 each summer.
    So, 4 years ago, we planted milkweed for them to procreate in. The 1 plant has sprung babies. I’m hoping this will be the summer of big time egg laying.
    AND, we heard they are attracted to their own colours, so we are having a ginormous Monarch painted on the second story wall of our home. I can hardly wait!!!!!

    • I like your monarch story, Resa, because you took action. When we open our eyes, see the loss, make a change and keep trying, it is very possible that we can produce results. Thanks so much, and best of luck this summer. If it doesn’t happen this summer, keep trying. 🙂

  14. Great post Jet, butterflies are magical! Besides them being beautiful, the whole process of the tiny little egg into a caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly, never ceases to amaze me and gives me joy.

    • I agree with you, Bertie, butterflies and their transformation story is joyous to watch. I also find it very inspiring, as a reminder when we’re going through change, that we can come out beautiful just like butterflies do. Warm smiles coming your way.

      • Warm smiles to you too Jet, and so true what you say. I read this somewhere maybe you know it: Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly…. – proverb – 🙂

  15. You’re fortunate to have seen so many of these bright butterflies together in one place.

    I think most Americans have never heard of Belize, and of those that have, many probably don’t realize that in spite of being wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is a primarily English-speaking country. When I was briefly there in 1968 or ’69 it was still called British Honduras.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the black kite-swallowtail butterfly tale, Jane. It was a fun day, seeing them fluttering all around…quite magical. Thanks for your visits today, always appreciated.

  16. There are obviously things in nature I have never considered. How does a butterfly drink? Well I would never have guessed that coiled up like an elephant trunk or two, butterfly-sized of course, the gorgeous winged beauty rolls out its proboscis and sucks up rainwater. I wonder if there is a rainwater scout who calls out to all at the finding of the gutter location, ” We’ve hit the mother load gang. Let’s all belly up to the bar!” or more aptly “Let’s wing our way to the rain spout.” Fascinating post Jet.

    • Dear Sue, you had me chuckling and giggling here at the keyboard with your funny imaginings. “Let’s wing our way to the rain spout” had me guffawing. Thanks so much, dear friend, for your visit, your humor, and your curious spirit.

  17. What a bonus find! It must have been thrilling to see so many… and humbling to think of ‘thirst’ as a common link! Beautiful photos. Thank you. And I LOVE Enchanted Learning!!!!!!

    • Yes, the fact that thirst was a common link between me and those stunning butterflies was indeed humbling. Always a joy to hear from you, dear Nan, thank you.

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