It is hard to believe that the colorful insects that are often called flying flowers possess wings that are actually transparent. Let me explain.
It seems that butterfly wings are composed of a rugged material called chitin. This same substance comprises the exoskeletons of all butterflies. The thin layers of chitin found in a butterfly wing is actually transparent. The colors seen in a butterfly’s wings stem from literally thousands of loosely attached tiny scales covering each wing. Some 600 scales/sq. millimeter blanket the surfaces of the wings of some butterflies. These scales contain pigments that reflect light. The colors we see on the wings of the butterflies we spot flitting around our yards are the result of the types of scales and the amount and kinds of pigments they possess.
Butterflies constantly lose scales as they age. Consequently, some of the individuals of the same species we spot are less colorful than others. When we see pale versions of species, we know these individuals are much older than those that display more iridescence and color. In some cases, butterflies lose so many scales it is difficult or even impossible to identify them.