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
the French they are
papillons, in Russia they are
babochka, and in Armenia teeternig.
My favourites however are the Romanian
( because they are fluttery ? ), and the Nigerian
( 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
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 ).
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
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.
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
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
Macrosoma - the "Butterfly moth".
For more details about classification
please visit the
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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 :
Austin, new genus
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
For more details
about nomenclature / classification please visit the
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
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.
and it's close
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
Arctic Woolly Bear moth,
photo supplied )
How many butterfly
species are there in the world ?
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 ?
are several contributing factors :
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
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
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.
Common Blue - only the males are blue - the females are
Only the male
Orange tip has the orange wing tips
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.
Skipper showing diagonal band of androconia on forewings
Silver-washed Fritillary has 4 bands of androconia on
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
Lampides boeticus, and the Small
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
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,
Boraginaceae, Hydrophyllaceea, Ulmaceae, Rutaceae,
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
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
....and the smallest ?
At the opposite extreme are the tiny
Lycaenids Itylus titicaca from
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
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
Papua New Guinea
Giant Atlas moth
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
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 ?
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".
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
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.
more questions.... >>
Send a question to be
answered on this page