Butterflies and Moths (Order Lepidoptera)

A photograph of a Red Admiral butterfly (_Vanessa atalanta_).

A photograph of one of the most attractive butterflies in the British Isles, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).


A little known passion of Sir Winston Churchill's was his concern for the diminishing numbers of British butterflies. In 1946 he planned a butterfly garden to increase the numbers of common species around his house at Chartwell, Kent. About 1,500 chrysalids were hatched each year in a summer house. Churchill would spend hours waiting for the moment when the butterflies emerged. Once on the wing he set them free.

The Order Lepidoptera comprises over 160,000 species of butterflies and moths, with most of these being moths. Only the Coleoptera (Beetles) form a larger order of any animal.

The Lepidoptera are probably the most widely studied order of invertebrates, and have been for more than 400 years. More books have been written about them than on any other group of invertebrates. Indeed, the long history of their study by Lepidopterists has itself been the subject of a few books, and is a fascinating study on its own!

Scientifically, there is no real distinction between butterflies and moths. However, in general, butterflies are day flying, whilst moths fly mainly at night. Butterflies are usually slimmer bodied, and have thin antennae with distinct clubs at the end. Moths have antennae of various designs, from thin and tapering to wide and 'feathery'. Feathery antennae are found in male moths, and help them to sniff out females!

Due to their often bright colours and association with warm sunny days, butterflies have tended to catch the popular imagination over the centuries, more than any other insects. They can even be found adorning some ancient Egyptian tombs.

Moths are not always thought of so highly, no doubt due to their nocturnal habits and duller colours. However, many moths are brightly coloured and fly during the day. On the other hand, some butterflies are active at twilight, and some are no more brightly coloured than many moths. Even the tiniest moths can look spectacularly beautiful when viewed closely.

Moths are often arbitrarily split into two groups - the larger moths, or macrolepidoptera (macros) and the smaller moths, or microlepidoptera (micros). While the micros tend to be more primitive in evolutionary terms, this is not always the case; and, some micros are in fact larger than some of the macros! So, like the division between moths and butterflies, this distinction is arbitrary too, and has no scientific basis.

The one advantage these subdivisions do have is that people can study and get to know the Lepidoptera in stages! Often, people start with the butterflies (around 70 species in the UK) then their curiosity takes them on to the larger moths (around 900 species) and finally to the microlepidoptera (around 1,500 species). Most of these species are resident in the UK, others are recorded when they migrate here every year from warmer climes.

A photograph of an adult Puss Moth (_Cerura vinula_).

A photograph of an adult Puss Moth (Cerura vinula).

Main characters of Order

Finding butterflies and moths


Providing the weather is reasonably warm, it is not difficult to find butterflies during the day, and moths are often attracted to a source of light during darkness. However, that is not to say it is easy to find all species of Lepidoptera. Although some are widespread, others are highly specialised in their habitat requirements, and many of them are rare and only found in a few limited areas.

Finding butterflies usually means finding a suitable area of countryside, such as a woodland, hillside, meadow or other such place and patiently observing the species that are found there. Since different species have different flight times, what can be found one month will not necessarily be there the next. A good field guide book will be invaluable for the enthusiast who wishes to find any particular species. This will have clear pictures (illustrations or photos) to enable the butterfly to be identified and will give information on preferred habitat types and flight periods.

Traditionally, adult butterflies are usually caught in hand held butterfly nets and placed temporarily in a transparent container while they are identified. The ova, larva and pupa can also be searched for, but finding the flying adults is much easier.

Butterfly populations can be recorded and monitored by means of transect walks. This involves dividing an area of land into sections of different habitats and defining a route across it. The route is then walked regularly between April and September and the numbers of each species of butterfly noted down.


Although moths are usually nocturnal, there are also many day flying species which are often quite colourful and can be spotted on a country walk. Bushes and long grass can be scrutinised during daylight, and walks just before, and at, dusk will reveal more species.

Nevertheless, the most usual method used nowadays for finding and recording the nocturnal species of moths is a moth trap. This is normally a light source, which attracts the moths, and this can be placed in front of a white sheet or fixed to a box or other receptacle, which traps the moths when they arrive. Bulbs with a high ultraviolet component tend to attract many more moths than ordinary bulbs.

A photograph of someone emptying a moth trap

You don't need an expensive moth trap to find moths, a light bulb suspended over a bed sheet will attract a suprising number of moths and other nocturnal insects.

Other light sources, such as house windows, also attract small numbers of moths, and it is always useful to check house lights. However, not all species are attracted by light, and other methods include using sweet substances, perhaps on a fence post, a technique known as 'sugaring'. The sugaring mixture can be applied to ropes hung from trees and some wine added to make the moths drowsy - these are 'wine ropes'.

Why are moths attracted to light?

Nobody really knows. There are many possible reasons why moths are attracted to light but the most common theory is that many moths use the moon to navigate at night. By keeping the moon in a particular position the moth can fly in a straight line and in the direction it wants. Unfortunately moths confuse bright lights for the moon and when they get close to the light they can't navigate properly and end up flying round and round in decreasing circles until they reach the source of the light.

Breeding butterflies and moths

Some butterflies and moths have amazing lifecycles. Some blue butterflies, for example, spend part of their lives underground being looked after by ants before they become fully grown butterflies. Many species have been studied closely by breeding them in captivity, but the early stages - eggs, caterpillars and pupae - of some species are still comparatively unknown. This is especially true of the smaller moths, some groups of which spend their larval life in leaf mines - in-between the upper and lower membranes of leaves - and in other unexpected places. There are therefore still many exciting opportunities left for amateur entomologists to research moth lifecycles.

See also our caterpillar caresheet.

Reference collections

Many museums, societies and some individual entomologists maintain a reference collection of preserved specimens of butterflies and moths (and other insect orders) for reference or study. These specimens are kept in either glass topped drawers in a cabinet, or in purpose made storage boxes.

Briefly, the specimens are arranged on setting boards and left to dry, normally for a period or 2 to 3 weeks. When ready they are then transferred to the drawer/storage box where they can be kept indefinitely if kept correctly.

However, it should be remembered that many insect species are declining, and most people now prefer to study the living insects than to collect dead specimens. Digital photography has lessened the need to maintain reference collections, thereby releasing more time to watch and study these fascinating creatures.

Suggested bibliography

The following books were selected for their quality and appeal to both beginners and seasoned entomologists. However, there are also large numbers of other books in print and out of print which are excellent.

Modern field guides (butterflies & larger moths)

Both of the following books show the insects in their natural resting positions and are excellent guides for beginner and seasoned lepidopterist.

Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and IrelandRichard LewingtonBritish Wildlife Publishing 2003 ISBN 0 9531399 1 3
Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland
Covers all the larger British moths
Paul Waring and Martin TownsendBritish Wildlife Publishing 2003 ISBN 0 9531399 2 1
The Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland Vols 1 to 11
This is the definitive work on British Lepidoptera. It describes the biology of every species, with detailed illustrations and distribution maps, as well as expert chapters on the general biology of the Lepidoptera. The series is not yet quite complete. NB Volume 7 Part 1 deals with the butterflies.
Emmet, M and J. Heath Harley Books.
Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles
A comprehensive guide with photographs of every British species
Bernard SkinnerViking, 1984 ISBN 0-670-80354-5
British and Irish Pug Moths
A more specialised guide to a difficult to identify group of moths
A.M. Riley and G.PriorHarley Books, 2003
The Butterflies of Britain and Europe
Second edition
J. Thomas. Illustrated by R. Lewington.British Wildlife Publishing, April 2010. ISBN 978-0-9564902-0-9

Guides to the Microlepidoptera

In addition to the Moths & Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland (above), the following are some of the books that focus exclusively on the microlepidoptera:

British Pyralid and Plume MothsBryan P. BeirneWarne (Wayside and Woodland)
British Pyralid MothsBarry GoaterHarley Books
Microlepidoptera of Europe.
(Vol. 1: Pterophoridae. Vol. 2: Scythrididae. Vol. 3: Gelechiidae I. Vol. 4: Scopariinae. Acentropinae. Vol. 5: Momphidae l. 2003).
Edited by P. Huemer, O. Karsholt & L. Lyneborg.Apollo Books. 1996 onwards.
Field Guide to the Micromoths of Great Britain and Ireland
This covers just over 1000 of the 1600 micros in Britain (most species in most families are described) and 927 species are illustrated by the excellent insect illustrator Richard Lewington.
Sterling, P. and Parsons, M.British Wildlife Publishing, Gillingham, Dorset. 2011.

Other selected books: Butterflies & moths

A Handbook for Lepidopterists
Covers all aspects of capturing, breeding and photographing butterflies and moths
Compiled by Peter MayAES, 2014
Breeding Butterflies and Moths
A very useful reference volume
E.FriedrichHarley Books, 1983
Textbook of British Butterflies and Moths
The main value of this book (which is out of print but still available from second hand book shops) is its tables showing at which months of the year various species and their immature stages may be found
L.W.Newman and H.A.LeedsGibbs & Bamforth, 1913
Caterpillars of the British IslesJim PorterViking 1997
Butterfly and moth
A very colourful introduction in the Eyewitness Guides series
Paul WhalleyDorling Kindersley
Collecting & Breeding Butterflies & MothsBrian Worthington-StuartWarne (Wayside and Woodland series)
The Aurelian Legacy. British Butterflies and Their Collectors.
A fascinating history of British Lepidopterists
M.A. SalmonHarley Books, 2000
The Scientific Names of British LepidopteraA.M. EmmetHarley books, 1991

Other selected books: Butterflies

Larval Foodplants of the British ButterfliesP.R.MayAES, 2003
The Butterflies of the British Isles
A still useful field guide but superseded by more recent volumes
Richard SouthWarne (Wayside and Woodland), 1906
British butterflies throughout the year
An excellent book for children.
P.R.MayAES, 2007
The Caterpillars of the British Butterflies
A still useful field guide although there is a more recent volume (see Jim Porter, above) with modern photographs
W.J.Stokoe, & G.H.T.StovinWarne (Wayside and Woodland), 1944
Butterfly WatchingPaul WhalleySevern House,1980
Breeding the British ButterfliesP.W.CribbAES, 2001
How to attract butterflies to your GardenJohn and Maureen TampionGuild of Master Craftsmen Publications, 2003
A major work discussing how the study of butterflies has contributed to our knowledge of genetics
E.B. FordCollins, 1945
The Butterflies of Britain and IrelandJeremy Thomas and Richard LewingtonDorling Kindersley in association with the National Trust, 1991 ISBN 0-86318-591-6
Variation in British ButterfliesA.S. HarmerPaphia, 2000
The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
The results of a survey by amateur entomologists of British butterflies during the second half of the 20th century
Asher Press, 2001
The Ecology of Butterflies in BritainRoger L. H. DennisOxford Science Publications. 1992

Other selected books: Moths

The Moths of the British Isles (2 Vols).
For many years this was the definitive guide. Still useful, but now superseded by the more recent field guides indicated above. Deals with the larger moths
Richard SouthWarne (Wayside and Woodland)
The Caterpillars of British Moths (2 Vols)
Still useful, but now superseded by the more recent volumes indicated above. A companion set to the above.
W.J.Stokoe, & G.H.T.StovinWarne (Wayside and Woodland)
Hawkmoths of Great Britain and EuropeL.Hugh NewmanHarley Books
The first of two New Naturalist volumes, this one providing much information on genetics
E.B. FordCollins, 1955
The second New Naturalist volume on moths, an excellent general natural history of moths written by the current President of the AES
Michael MajerusCollins, 2002
A Guide to Moth Traps and Their Uses
The main publication on this subject
R Fry and P WaringAES, 2001
Enjoying Moths
A practical guide to moths and where to find them and how to breed them
Roy LevertonPoyser Natural History, 2001
A Silkmoth Rearer's HandbookB.O.C. GardinerAES, 1982

Essential reading from the Amateur Entomologists' Society

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