Butterfly Vision

The Color Wheel for Butterflies

Color Theory of Butterflies: 33 Little Girls Chasing Butterflies by Max Ernst, 1958.
The Color Wheel for Butterflies! 33 Little Girls Chasing Butterflies by Max Ernst, 1958.

We often wonder what it is like for our studio dogs to miss out on seeing all of the colors that we are able to see. Our third cone allows us to see not only the red in the rainbow, but also every other glorious combination of scarlet, rose, pink, orange and violet. Painting would be a very limited occupation if we only saw the color wheel and the world through a dog’s eye! Dogs’ dichromatic color perception (two cones only) limits them to blues and yellows. It is similar to the vision of people with red-green color blindness.

Now, let’s consider the vision of the bees and the butterflies. They are the Olympic champions of color vision. Bees and butterflies have five or more color receptor cones allowing their range of vision to extend past our accepted color wheel into the ultraviolet. We humans and especially artists are continually inspired, even awed by, the beauty and grace of flowers. But we don’t really see them fully, because we can’t. Many of the flowers bees and butterflies pollinate have ultraviolet patterns on their petals, like lights on a runway, to guide them deep into the flower. Their super-vision also helps them figure out who to hang with. Butterflies that look remarkably similar to us can be differentiated and identified by other butterflies by their ultraviolet markings.

Color wheel for butterflies: Children Pursued by Hostile Butterflies by Carroll Cloar.
Children Pursued by Hostile Butterflies by Carroll Cloar.

It has recently been discovered that the common bluebottle butterfly from Australia (Graphium sarpedon) has at least 15 different types of photo receptors in each of its eyes. One cone perceives ultraviolet, another violet. Three perceive varying shades of blue, one sees blue-green, four see green and five see red—five times the color receptors of a human being! If they could, they would have good reason to wonder how we humans can possibly navigate the world with our limited color perception.

The Butterfly Girl by Winslow Homer.
The Butterfly Girl by Winslow Homer.

Researchers examined the eyes of two hundred male bluebottle butterflies using physiological, anatomical, and molecular measurements. They were trying to understand why this particular species of butterfly evolved so many more color receptor cones. Their conclusions are that at least some of the receptors are tuned to perceive specific things of great ecological importance to them. Because of their extensive perception of variations in the color blue, for example, male bluebottles may be able to see and chase their rivals even when they are flying against a blue sky, something we limited three-coned humans would have a tough time with. We can only imagine the kind of rainbow a butterfly can see!

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.