Butterflies and Moths (Order Lepidoptera)
A photograph of one of the most attractive butterflies in the British Isles, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).
- Main characters of Order
- Finding butterflies and moths
- Breeding butterflies and moths
- Reference collections
- Suggested bibliography
- Useful links
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).
Main characters of Order
- The scientific name of the order, Lepidoptera, is derived from one of their main characteristics, namely their having wings covered in tiny scales (from the Greek lepidos = scale and pteron = wing). Indeed, it is these coloured scales which give them their patterns. These scales are specially modified flattened hairs.
- The Lepidoptera undergo complete metamorphosis, i.e. ova (egg), from which emerge larvae (caterpillars), which become the quiescent pupae (chrysalis) from which emerge the imago (winged adult). This lifecycle can take anywhere between a few weeks to more than a year, depending upon the species.
- Lepidoptera are 'typical' insects, in that they have 4 wings, 6 legs, 2 antennae and a body divided into 3 sections - a head, thorax and abdomen. The leg and wings are attached to the thorax. In a few species of moths, the females have evolved to become wingless.
- Most butterflies and moths feed through a specialised tube formed by some of the mouthparts, known as a proboscis. Nectar is the usual food for adults.
- Sense organs on the feet can taste certain food substances with a greater sensitivity than the human tongue.
- The wings consist of an upper and lower membrane supported by a system of hollow veins.
- Most Lepidoptera larvae feed exclusively on plant matter, but a few are carnivorous for at least part of their life. Some species feed on a wide variety of plants, whilst others are willing to accept only one or two.
- The larvae moult several times, usually 4, 5 or 6 depending upon the species.
- The final moult reveals the pupa, which can be attached to part of the foodplant or other nearby item, unattached amongst debris such as leaf litter, or in a silk lined chamber underground.
- Survival strategies of butterflies and their earlier stages include camouflage, toxic defence such as being distasteful/harmful or mimicking species that are distasteful/harmful.
- Some species are quite small, having a wingspan of only a few millimetres, whilst others are giants among the insect world, being 30cm across.
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.
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.
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.
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)
- Guides to the microlepidoptera
- Other selected books:
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 Ireland||Richard Lewington||British 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 Townsend||British 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 Skinner||Viking, 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.Prior||Harley Books, 2003|
|The Butterflies of Britain and Europe|
|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 Moths||Bryan P. Beirne||Warne (Wayside and Woodland)|
|British Pyralid Moths||Barry Goater||Harley 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 May||AES, 2014|
|Breeding Butterflies and Moths|
A very useful reference volume
|E.Friedrich||Harley 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.Leeds||Gibbs & Bamforth, 1913|
|Caterpillars of the British Isles||Jim Porter||Viking 1997|
|Butterfly and moth|
A very colourful introduction in the Eyewitness Guides series
|Paul Whalley||Dorling Kindersley|
|Collecting & Breeding Butterflies & Moths||Brian Worthington-Stuart||Warne (Wayside and Woodland series)|
|The Aurelian Legacy. British Butterflies and Their Collectors.|
A fascinating history of British Lepidopterists
|M.A. Salmon||Harley Books, 2000|
|The Scientific Names of British Lepidoptera||A.M. Emmet||Harley books, 1991|
Other selected books: Butterflies
|Larval Foodplants of the British Butterflies||P.R.May||AES, 2003|
|The Butterflies of the British Isles|
A still useful field guide but superseded by more recent volumes
|Richard South||Warne (Wayside and Woodland), 1906|
|British butterflies throughout the year|
An excellent book for children.
|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.Stovin||Warne (Wayside and Woodland), 1944|
|Butterfly Watching||Paul Whalley||Severn House,1980|
|Breeding the British Butterflies||P.W.Cribb||AES, 2001|
|How to attract butterflies to your Garden||John and Maureen Tampion||Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications, 2003|
A major work discussing how the study of butterflies has contributed to our knowledge of genetics
|E.B. Ford||Collins, 1945|
|The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland||Jeremy Thomas and Richard Lewington||Dorling Kindersley in association with the National Trust, 1991 ISBN 0-86318-591-6|
|Variation in British Butterflies||A.S. Harmer||Paphia, 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 et.al.||Oxford Press, 2001|
|The Ecology of Butterflies in Britain||Roger L. H. Dennis||Oxford 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 South||Warne (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.Stovin||Warne (Wayside and Woodland)|
|Hawkmoths of Great Britain and Europe||L.Hugh Newman||Harley Books|
The first of two New Naturalist volumes, this one providing much information on genetics
|E.B. Ford||Collins, 1955|
The second New Naturalist volume on moths, an excellent general natural history of moths written by the current President of the AES
|Michael Majerus||Collins, 2002|
|A Guide to Moth Traps and Their Uses|
The main publication on this subject
|R Fry and P Waring||AES, 2001|
A practical guide to moths and where to find them and how to breed them
|Roy Leverton||Poyser Natural History, 2001|
|A Silkmoth Rearer's Handbook||B.O.C. Gardiner||AES, 1982|
Essential reading from the Amateur Entomologists' Society
- A Guide to Moth Traps and their Use (Vol. 24)
- A Label List of European Butterflies
- A Silkmoth Rearer's Handbook (Vol. 12)
- An index to the modern names (Vol. 23a - for use with Vol 23)
- Breeding the British Butterflies (Vol. 18)
- Butterflies of Cyprus 1998 (Records of a year's sightings)
- British butterflies throughout the year
- Collecting Clearwings
- Larval Foodplants of the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland
- Practical Hints for the Field Lepidopterist (Vol. 23)
- Preparing & Maintaining a Collection of Butterflies & Moths
- Some British Moths Reviewed
The following is a representative list of the Web sites dealing with the Lepidoptera. However, they are a relatively small sample of many very useful Web sites that are available.
Related links: Butterflies and Moths (Order: Lepidoptera)
- Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies
- Birdwing Butterflies of the World
- British Leafminers
- Butterflies and Moths discussion forum on BirdForum
- Butterflies and Moths of North America
- Butterfly Conservation
- Butterfly identification guide
- Cyprus Butterflies
- Dorset Moth Group
- Eggs, Larvae and Pupae of Butterflies and Moths
- Entomological Livestock Group
- HantsMoths - the Moths of Hampshire
- Irish Moth Recorders/Enthusiasts
- Lepidoptera Breeders Association
- Local Moth Groups (UK)
- Matt's European Butterflies
- Microlepidoptera discussion forum
- Moths Count - National Moth Recording Scheme
Moths Count aims to encourage interest in moths throughout the UK and to establish an ongoing National Moth Recording Scheme to improve knowledge and conservation of the 900+ species of larger moths.
- Rearing caterpillars (caresheet)
- Saturniidae of the Western Palaearctic
- Simply Birds and Moths
- Somerset Moth Group
- Suffolk moths
Includes a useful "What's flying tonight?" guide.
- The Butterflies and Moths of Northern Ireland
- The Cockayne collection: British and Irish butterflies and moths
- The Cornwall Moth Group
- The Moths and Butterflies of Northern Ireland
- UK Butterflies
- UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme
The scheme has monitored changes in the abundance of butterflies throughout the United Kingdom since 1976.
- UK Moths
A guide to the moths of Great Britain and Ireland.
- UK Moths discussion forum
- What's that caterpillar?
- Worldwide Butterflies
Livestock and equipment suppliers
A to Z of insects
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