'Sex, Lies and Butterflies': Documentary Takes a High-Def Look at These Extraordinary Insects

Adelotypa annulifera with ants in Peru. Phil Torres

They’re beautiful, they’re delicate, they’re imperiled. But butterflies are also highly sophisticated, tough and not above using deception and warfare to get ahead in this world.

Nearly 20,000 species of butterflies exist around the Earth, and with 50 million years of evolution under their belts, the diversity is simply jaw-dropping. So, it’s no wonder that PBS Nature is taking a very close look at the lives of these extraordinary insects.

Birdwing butterflies mating. Deerfield, MA.
Birdwing butterflies mating in Deerfield, Massachussetts. Ann Johnson Prum/© THIRTEEN Productions LLC

Using sophisticated macro-filming techniques and equipment, the documentary "Sex, Lies and Butterflies" explores how butterflies use chemical weaponry, 360-degree vision and camouflage to stay alive.

"Moths and butterflies are going through one of the most miraculous transformations in the animal kingdom, and are able to travel thousands of kilometers in astonishing altitude and with unbelievable speed," notes Terra Mater Factual Studios, which co-produced the documentary. "They produce sparkling colors through their wings’ nanostructures, and communicate with each other using exotic chemicals ... Scientists are starting to get a better grasp of how butterflies and moths see, avoid their predators, and why their flight techniques differ so extraordinarily from birds."

Close-up wing of a painted lady butterfly in New Haven, CT.
Close-up wing of a painted lady butterfly in New Haven, Connecticut. Ann Johnson Prum/© THIRTEEN Productions LLC

The documentary takes a look at the painted lady butterfly, which has eyes that include more than 30,000 lenses! It includes monarch butterflies, which eat noxious plants in order to taste horrible and be avoided by predators. It also looks at Adelotypa annulifera, which find safety alongside killer ants that offer protection as the butterflies and caterpillars feed (as shown in the lead photo of this article).

That last one is particularly fascinating, since these same ants will chase away other insects that try to dine on their food. National Geographic reported in 2016 on biologist and photographer Phil Torres' revealing observations:

Many animals steal food, but this is the first time that scientists have discovered adult butterflies swiping food from ants... Now Torres' observations, in addition to more by study co-author Aaron Pomerantz, an entomology Ph.D. student at University of California, Berkeley, suggests the adults have figured out a way to pilfer food. What's more, victims of these brazen nectar thefts appeared to ignore or be completely unaware of the butterflies, says Pomerantz, a National Geographic explorer.
A butterfly's eyes and coiled-up proboscis, the insect's "tongue." Tambopata, Peru.
A butterfly's eyes and coiled-up proboscis, the insect's "tongue." Tambopata, Peru. Mark Carroll/© THIRTEEN Productions LLC

Five species of butterfly — each with their own incredible behaviors and adaptations — are featured in this 60-minute documentary that will change the way you think about butterflies ever again! Take a sneak peek:

The show premiers April 4, 2018 at 8 p.m. EST on PBS.