Natural tree canopy gaps allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, a major environmental component and resource for many tropical rain-forest species. We compare here how butterflies use sunny areas created by the natural gaps in canopies in comparison with adjacent closed-canopy areas. We chose butterflies as our focal organisms as they are taxonomically tractable and mobile, yet habitat sensitive. Previous studies have shown that butterfly diversity in tropical forests responds to varying degrees of canopy openness. Here we assess butterfly behavioural responses to gaps and equivalent sized closed-canopy patches. Butterfly occupancy time and behaviour were simultaneously observed 61 times in gaps and 61 times in equivalent sized closed-canopy patches across four sites in a tropical rain forest in northern Borneo. Out of the 20 most frequently recorded species, 12 were more frequently recorded or spent more time in gaps, four occurred more frequently in closed-canopy areas, and four showed no significant differences. Overall agonistic, basking, patrolling and resting were more common in gaps compared with the closed canopy. Many butterfly species have complex behavioural requirements for both gaps and closed canopies, with some species using these different areas for different behaviours. Each butterfly species had particular habitat requirements, and needed both canopy gaps and closed canopy areas for ecological and behavioural reasons, emphasizing the need for natural light heterogeneity within these systems.