In nectar-feeding butterflies, reproductive potential is usually thought to depend on the size of the reproductive reserves in the abdomen, the adult food quality and, for females, the amount of resources received in the spermatophores at mating. Recent findings show that thorax mass and nitrogen content decrease with age in some butterfly species, and that thorax resources may be used for reproduction in the butterfly Pieris napi, just as in some other insects. In order to determine whether this is a general pattern and ascertain how it relates to the investment of resources in reproduction we studied the dynamics of thorax and abdomen mass changes in 11 Swedish butterfly species. By regressing thorax and abdomen mass on age of field-collected specimens, we show that loss of mass from both the thorax and the abdomen is a common phenomenon among nectar-feeding temperate zone butterflies under natural conditions. We argue that our results indicate that resources from flight muscles can be reallocated to reproduction by these butterflies, thus increasing their reproductive potential. Within species, females use proportionately more resources from the thorax than do males, as expected from the difference in investment of resources in reproduction. Among males we expect species with a higher reproductive investment to have a larger decrease in thorax and abdomen mass, and our data indicate that this is the case. Looking at the change in relative thorax mass, our results suggest that the use of resources from the thorax does not affect flight performance negatively, something that could constrain the use of muscle resources. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 86, 363–380.