Butterfly and Moth Scales 

Some simple notes for beginners 

By Paul James (UK)

 Butterfly and Moth scales were amongst the many curiosities that I saw through my first microscope. The butterfly of course must rank as one of the most beautiful creatures that is known to us all. It is a little too large to put under a compound microscope as such, but its wings, which appear so colourful and delicate, are exquisitely complex structures which the stereo microscope can reveal in full measure.

A Word of Advice :- Please do not capture and kill a butterfly or moth just to observe its wings etc. Dead examples can often be found. When you do find one try to handle it carefully so its structures are preserved, and keep it in a container, away from sunlight and dust for it will keep for a very long time.

Here are the remains of a Peacock butterfly I found at the roadside. Compare it with the drawing on the right.

Only two main wings remain on the right side, and of course all the colourful patterns of this pretty creature are nearly all preserved. I have put a white 'O' over the part of the wing that I have photographed through the microscope using a hand held digicam. The microscope is a simple one that can be bought secondhand for a few pounds.

Demonstrating that we can get results using this simple and easy technique will hopefully encourage the beginner to combine photography with microscopy.

These are the scales on the wing of a Peacock butterfly inside the 'O' shown above. This light patch is a 'dot' on the wing when seen by eye. There are approximately 375 scales in this image, and since the real area of this is about 1.8 square millimetres, it makes the total for all the wing surfaces at roughly 750,000 scales! Some butterflies have well over a million scales. If you were making some permanent slides and used about 100 scales per slide, you'd be able to make 7,500 mounted slides from one butterfly's remains!

This photo above is the same one as before but cropped from an enlargement in the PC. It's a bit grainy but shows the wrinkly bottom edges of each scale, and also too the iridescence on the lighter ones. Roofing slates are laid in a similar way.

These photo's above and below were taken to show the sockets that the scales fit into, where some scales have fallen off. Note the transparency of the wing membrane below. It looks like polythene sheeting, it is so thin.

This photo above is of the same area but the image was taken with transmitted light. The sockets are clearly visible, but the scales look a different colour. This is the nature of light in microscopy and is one of many factors you will be aware of as you become more experienced with reflected and transmitted light techniques.

The scales differ in shape too, some having no lobes, others up to 3 or 4 or 5 as seen above. Some show spiky lobes and are quite long and narrow, others broader.

This image has been greyscaled to reduce download time. It shows the intricate detail of the butterfly's scales which are very thin, yet immensely stiff for its weight. It is a non lobed example from a prepared slide of the Red Admiral butterfly. The stalk is clearly shown. The markings are present on most scales and some actually split up the light that reflects off them into different colours, causing the butterfly to appear even more colourful.

Finally, after observing these rather delicate structures, some questions might cross your mind....."Why are these scales necessary on the wing's surface?"......"Why are they coloured?"......... and perhaps after seeing them for yourself you might wonder how all this could possibly be created inside the pupa (chrysalis), in a matter of a few days or weeks.

Good questions, and even if you do not know the answers, it does not prevent you from appreciating one of nature's most beautiful creatures. It is far more important however that we protect their environment, and if you are interested in butterfly and moth conservation write to 'Butterfly Conservation' PO Box 222, Dedham, Colchester, Essex CO7 6EY.

All comments to the author Paul James are welcome

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Published in the May 2003 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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