Frequently Asked Questions PAGE 1    NEXT >>
If you have any interesting questions of your own please send me an e-mail and I'll do my best to provide an answer, either personally, or via this page. Click on the links below to see the answers !
How did the word "butterfly" originate ?
According to popular belief, the word butterfly is derived from the expression "butter-coloured fly", a term which may have been applied to the Brimstone - one of Britain's most well known insects, and often the first butterfly to be seen when the adults awake from hibernation in early Spring.
There may however be more truth in another explanation -
In Old English the word was spelt "butterfloege".  In Old Dutch and German it was "botervleig" and "butterfliege" respectively. All of these translate as "butter fly".  Another German name "milchdieb" translates as "milk-thief" and probably refers to the habit that these insects have of being attracted to the aroma of buttermilk. In areas of eastern Europe where ancient farming methods are still practiced butterflies of various species are sometimes attracted to buttermilk being hand-churned in farmyards. Could this explain the origin of the word butterfly ?
Brimstone butterfly - the original "butter-coloured fly" ?
Elsewhere in the world, butterflies are known by other names. In Spain and much of Latin America they are called mariposas, in Portugal and Brazil they are borbolettas. To the French they are papillons, in Russia they are babochka, and in Armenia teeternig.
My favourites however are the Romanian flutturi ( because they are fluttery ? ), and the Nigerian olookolombooka ( oh look - a lombooka ! ).
Click here to see the historic names of all British butterflies.

What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth ?
All butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera. This is divided into 34 superfamilies, each with particular characteristics. Most of the 600000 species distributed across these superfamilies are nocturnal species, and have traditionally been called moths. It just so happens that in among them are 2 particular superfamilies - the Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea, whose 17000 or so members are almost exclusively day-flying species. Due to this aspect of their behaviour, and their generally brighter colours, they became unscientifically regarded as "different" - and got called butterflies.
However, there is no scientific division between butterflies and moths. If you were to look at the evolutionary tree of life, you would see that the so-called "butterflies" are merely a subgroup of the "moths" which branched away part way along the line.
Moths are usually thought of as being drab in colour and nocturnal in habit, but there are plenty of very colourful day-flying moths, e.g. Urania moths ( Uraniidae ), Burnets ( Zygaenidae ), and Tiger moths ( Arctiidae ). Conversely, while it's true that most butterflies are sun loving creatures, there are many tropical species which spend their lives in the darkness of the forest interior, and only fly between dusk and dawn. Also, while it's true that many butterflies are very colourful, there are a vast number, including most of the Skippers ( Hesperiidae ) and Browns ( Satyrinae ) which are very drab and mediocre.
The butterfly families do have a few characteristics which help distinguish them from the rest of the Lepidoptera. In butterflies the antennae are narrow-stemmed, with a pronounced club at the tip. Moth antennae, with the exception of the Burnets ( Zygaenidae ) and Urania moths ( Uraniidae ) are usually tapered to a fine point, and often have feathery plumes.
The fore and hind-wings of all moths are physically linked in flight by a wing-coupling bristle known as a frenulum. This is absent from the wings of butterflies, with the exception of a single Australian species the Regent Skipper Euschemon rafflesia, which has a frenulum in males but not in females.
One family of moths, the Hedylidae, are considered to be living ancestors of modern butterflies, with which they share a remarkable number of characteristics. See Macrosoma - the "Butterfly moth".
For more details about classification please visit the Taxonomy pages.

How do scientists describe and name new species ?

When someone thinks they have discovered a "new" species, they have to send a sample specimen to a taxonomist for analysis. By examining the structure of the wings, legs and antennae the family and subfamily can quickly be determined. Next, examination of the layout of the wing veins makes it possible to ascertain whether the insect belongs to an existing genus. If the venation is unique, a new genus has to be invented as a "container" for the species.


Sometimes a new species is so closely related to a known species, that the only way to distinguish them is by dissecting and comparing their genitalia. Other methods are also employed, including microscopic examination of wing scales, and DNA analysis.


If the butterfly does turn out to be a new species, the taxonomist then creates a Latinised name for it, and publishes the description and name in a recognised scientific journal.


The origin of scientific names varies enormously. Some species are named after Greek gods, some get their name from the place where the butterfly was discovered, or are named in honour of some eminent entomologist. It is considered unethical for people to name a species after themselves, but there is at least one instance where someone got away with it - a scarab beetle named Cartwrightia cartwrighti CARTWRIGHT.


Names are often descriptive of the caterpillar's foodplant : the Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines gets its name from the plant garlic mustard Cardamines pratensis. Equally often names refer to the colour or pattern of the butterfly - the Clouded Yellow's species name crocea means "deep yellow", while the Eyed Hawkmoth's name S. ocellatus means "eye" and refers to the eye-like markings on the moth's hindwings.

The Charismatic Metalmark

Taxonomists are not usually renowned for having a great sense of humour, but amongst their more hilarious moments they have managed to provide us with a few amusing scientific names. Hence we have a metalmark from Colombia, named by Hall and Harvey in 2002 as Charis matic ! It has since been renamed rather less attractively as Detritivora matic. The new genus name refers to the fact that the caterpillars feed on decaying leaves and other detritus on the forest floor.

The World's dullest Skipper ?

Sometimes it can be difficult to think up names for some of the more mundane looking species, particularly for the hundreds of near-identical dull brown skipper species found in the neotropics. In 1997 the taxonomist Austin was apparently so unimpressed with his latest discovery that he gave a "new" Mexican species the unfortunate name Inglorius mediocris, which needs little translation !


Below is it's official scientific description :



Inglorius Austin, new genus
Type species: Inglorius mediocris Austin, new species

Description. Palpi slender, third segment straight, protruding well beyond second segment, about equal to length of dorsal edge of second segment; antennae long, extending beyond end of forewing discal cell, nearly 60% length of forewing costa, black with pale ochreous beneath distad and below club; club just over 1/4 (28%) antennal length, bent to apiculus at thickest part, apiculus length about 2x club width, nudum grey, of 12 segments (3 on club, 9 on apiculus); forewing discal cell slightly produced, 75% length of anal margin, origin of vein CuA2 nearer to CuA, than to wing base, hindwing discal cell just over 1/2 wing width; mid tibiae with four fine spines on inner surface and single pair of spurs, hind tibiae with two pairs of spurs; forewing produced with slight concavity between CuA! and 2A; hindwing convex anteriorly, somewhat concave between CuAj and 2A; no apparent secondary sexual characters. Male genitalia with short tegumen; uncus longer than tegumen, undivided, and hood-like over gnathos; gnathos as long as uncus, divided, extending laterad of uncus in dorsal view and as rectangular flaps mesad in ventral view; vinculum sinuate; saccus short; valva very long, ampulla/costa long and sloping somewhat downward caudad, harpe long, roughly triangular ending in an inward turned point caudad, dorsal margin undulate, weakly serrate cephalad; aedeagus tubular (anterior portion missing), caudal end expanded terminally in lateral view, no apparent cornutus.

For more details about nomenclature / classification please visit the Taxonomy pages.

Click here for a further selection of fascinating scientific names.

How long do butterflies & moths live ?
It varies considerably according to species. The average lifespan of an adult butterfly is about 2 weeks, but some species ( e.g. Heliconius erato and Taygetis mermeria from South America, and Gonepteryx rhamni from Europe ) can live for at least 11 months.
The whole lifecycle from egg to adult takes about 3 weeks to complete in many tropical species. In temperate regions however there are usually only 1 or 2 generations a year, while in the sub-arctic tundra several species take 2 full years to complete their lifecycles.
The longest-lived species of all is a moth by the name of Gynaephora groenlandica, which lives on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic. The adult moth, a member of the family Lymantriidae, lives for only a few days, but it has been estimated ( Kukal & Kevan, 1987 ) that its caterpillar, known as the Arctic Woolly Bear, takes an amazing 14 years to reach full growth - although later research by Morewood & Ring suggests that the lifecycle can sometimes be completed in only 7 years.
Either way Gynaephora groenlandica and it's close relatives rossi, ginghaiensis, relictus, selenitica & menhuanensis are almost certainly the longest-lived species of Lepidoptera on Earth. Temperatures in their Arctic habitats can drop as low as minus 60 C, forcing the caterpillars to spend 10 or 11 months in hibernation, frozen solid. Only for a few short weeks in June and July is it warm enough for them to defrost, allowing them to feed and grow. In their final year they pupate in a thin silk cocoon. The adult moths emerge a few days later, find mates, lay their eggs and die.
Arctic Woolly Bear moth, Gynaephora groenlandica ( photo supplied )

How many butterfly species are there in the world ?
The Barcode of Life Project estimates that 1.7 million species of animal are currently known to science, of which 253,680 are butterflies or moths.
In "Butterflies of Mexico & USA" ( Scott, 1992 ) a census was published which estimated that there were approximately 14,750 butterfly species ( including skippers ) worldwide.
Since then many more species have been discovered, and many species previously listed as sub-species have been elevated to full species status. In 2007 Adrian Hoskins collated data from a number of sources and produced a World Butterfly Census which enumerates 17657 currently known species.
The true total will never be known, as many species will become extinct before they are discovered, but is likely to be in the region of 18,000 - 21,000 species.

Why are butterflies heavily concentrated in the tropics ?
There are several contributing factors :
Firstly, there are a great many more biological and climatic niches to be occupied in the tropics - in Peru for example, where there are more butterfly species than anywhere else in the world, there are deserts, high altitude grasslands, rainforests and cloudforests. These habitats contains many sub-habitats, each capable of supporting a sizeable fauna, e.g. a rainforest will have an entirely different range of species in the canopy, sub-canopy, and understorey.
Secondly, during ice ages, it is only the tropical and sub-tropical regions which are able to support butterflies, so these become refugiae into which species from elsewhere contract. The butterflies that normally live in temperate regions either become extinct or migrate and survive on remote mountains in the tropics where conditions are suitable for them. When the Earth warms up again, and temperate regions once again become habitable by butterflies, they are recolonised slowly, either by species that return from the tropical mountains, or by tropical lowland species which are able to adapt to the new conditions. Temperate butterflies are therefore comprised of a small proportion of species that re-emerge from the tropics.
Thirdly, the climate, and the evergreen nature of the foliage in the tropical lowlands, enables many more generations to breed each year - perhaps as many as 8 generations for some species, compared with just one or two in temperate regions. This, according to the Theory of Evolution provides many more opportunities for new forms to arise.

How do you tell the difference between a male and female butterfly ?
In many species there are obvious visual differences. The Polyommatinae ( Blues ) for example usually have blue males and brown females.

Common Blue - only the males are blue - the females are brown

Only the male Orange tip has the orange wing tips

The males of Hairstreaks, Satyrines, large Fritillaries and Skippers often have androconia ( scent emitting scales ) in the form of dark patches or streaks on the upperside forewings.

male Large Skipper showing diagonal band of androconia on forewings

male Silver-washed Fritillary has 4 bands of androconia on forewings

The differences in other species may be more subtle - males generally have more angular wings, longer thinner bodies, brighter colours, and stronger patterns than females of the same species. There are usually obvious differences in behaviour as well - males tend to actively patrol their habitats, or to establish a small territory which they defend against other butterflies. Females by comparison are far more sedentary, and in the early part of their flight period tend to stay in areas where both adult and larval food sources are present.

What is the most widespread butterfly in the world ?
There are several very widespread species including the Monarch Danaus plexippus, the Plain Tiger Danaus chrysippus, the Long-tailed Blue Lampides boeticus, and the Small White Pieris rapae, all of which are found on at least 3 continents.
The Painted Lady Vanessa cardui however is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world, found in North America from Alaska to Mexico, and south to the Caribbean islands and Venezuela. In the Old World it occurs throughout Europe and temperate Asia, over most of Africa, Madagascar, the Azores, the Canary Islands, the Arab states, and across to the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. In the Far East it occurs in Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra - and extends it's range south through the Indonesian islands to Western Australia. The New Zealand Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi is also regarded by some taxonomists to be a sub-species of cardui.
Painted Lady Vanessa cardui
The cosmopolitan distribution of the Painted Lady is caused by a combination of it's very strong migratory behaviour and polyphagous nature - in Britain its caterpillars feed almost exclusively on thistles, but elsewhere they utilise a vast range of foodplants amongst the Compositae, Malvaceae, Boraginaceae, Hydrophyllaceea, Ulmaceae, Rutaceae, Chenopodiaceae, Convolvulaceae, Labiatae, Plantaginaceae, Leguminosae, Urticaceae, Verbenaceae, Cucurbitaceae, Cruciferae, Umbelliferae,  Rosaceae, Rhamnaceae, and even one or two grasses !

Which is the largest butterfly in the world ?
The female of the Alexandra Birdwing Ornithoptera alexandrae, found in Papua New Guinea has a wingspan of about 20cms ( 8" ).  The largest butterflies in South America are the Owl butterfly Caligo idomeneus ( 14cms ), and Morpho helena, the iridescent blue male reaching 13cms, and the orange and brown female 15cms. In Africa the largest species is Druryeia antimachus at 17cms.

Alexandra's Birdwing Ornithoptera alexandrae, Papua New Guinea ( photo supplied )
....and the smallest ?
At the opposite extreme are the tiny Lycaenids Itylus titicaca from Bolivia and Freyeria miniscula from Madagascar. The tiniest of them all however is a dull brown Lycaenid Micropsyche ariana, found only in Afghanistan, which measures just 8mm across the wings. 
....and the largest moth ?
The largest moth in the world, in terms of wingspan ( measured across forewing at widest point ) is the White Witch Thysania agrippina from South America, which measures as much as 32cms across the wings. It is generally accepted however that the title of largest moth should go to the Giant Atlas moth Attacus atlas. The latter has a slightly smaller wingspan at 30cms, but a greater surface area. The Giant Atlas moth is a common species across much of tropical Asia.

Giant Atlas moth Attacus atlas, West Malaysia ( photo courtesy Gan Cheong Weei 2008 )


Why are tropical butterflies and moths so large ?
Insects are cold blooded, so in cooler climates caterpillars grow slowly and are only able to produce one or two generations of small or medium sized butterflies or moths per year.
In hot climates they can feed almost continually and grow much more rapidly, so tropical species have been able to evolve to produce much larger caterpillars, resulting in larger adults.
There are limits to the maximum size a species can attain however. The limitations of the insect respiratory system make larger bodies less efficient. Consequently large butterflies and moths tend to react and fly more slowly than their smaller counterparts, and are easy prey for birds.
Note also that not all tropical Lepidoptera are large - there are many very small species. These are the result of an alternative strategy whereby many species produce several generations of small insects per year, rather than a single generation of large ones.

Can caterpillars lay eggs ?
Sometimes caterpillars are found surrounded by what appear to be "eggs"; for example Agnieszka Mitka recently asked :
"....... caterpillars that have been feeding on nasturtiums in my garden are coming over and laying eggs on the windows. The eggs are yellow and covered with a yellow sticky web. I thought it was only butterflies / moths that laid eggs".
The only caterpillars which feed commonly on nasturtiums are those of the Large White and Small White ( collectively known as "cabbage whites" ). The yellow "eggs" surrounding the caterpillar are actually the tiny cocoons of a little parasitic wasp called Apanteles glomeratus. The wasp injects its eggs into the caterpillar when it is quite small. The eggs hatch inside the caterpillar, and the wasp grubs eat the caterpillar's flesh. When the grubs are fully grown they eat the caterpillar's vital organs and kill it. They then break out through the caterpillar's skin leaving it to die, surrounded by a mass of between about 20-80 tiny yellow fluffy wasp cocoons. The wasps hatch from the cocoons the next spring, and look for more caterpillars to parasitise. About 80% of Large White caterpillars are killed this way. Every species of butterfly has it's caterpillars parasitised by some kind of wasp or fly.

Which country has the most butterfly species ?
Peru has over 3,700 butterfly species - more than any other country, and equal to about 20% of the world total. The butterflies of Peru however are still vastly under-recorded, and it is estimated that as many as 4,200 will eventually be discovered.
The highest known concentration of species is at Pakitza, an area of about 4000 hectares within Manu national park. Over 1,300 species have so far been recorded at Pakitza.
The great diversity and abundance of butterflies in Peru is largely due to the extraordinary range of climatic conditions and vast diversity of habitats. Together these create a vast array of ecological niches in which species can exist and evolve.
Not far behind Peru are Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, each of which have about 3,200 species. In all of Central and South America there are about 7,500 species, compared to about 3,600 for the whole of Africa.

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