Butterfly Picture Butterfly Picture Butterfly Picture

The Lepidoptera Part 1. Butterflies

Introduction Description About Colour Metamorphosis
Classification Book Reviews Images Links


The Butterflies and Moths are by far the most popular group of insects in both the mind of the general public and with Entomologists, there are more books on Lepidoptera, and more people collecting and working on Lepidoptera than any other insect order, everybody loves Butterflies. The Lepidoptera are one of the five great orders of insects and when all the counting has been finished will probably be fighting for 3rd place with the Diptera behind the Hymenoptera and the Coleoptera, but ahead of the Hemiptera (especially in those taxonomic organisations that split the Hemiptera into 2 orders). There are about 150 000 named species most (more than 85 percent) of which are Moths. In comparison with many other orders they are remarkable uniform in their general appearance, and for most species, and most people who are not lepidopterists, it is more effective to look at a picture guide than to use a key for their identification. The name Lepidoptera comes from the Greek 'Lepidos' a scale and 'Pteron' a wing, they are called this because their wings are covered in small scales (these are modified hairs). The common name Butterfly comes from the colloquial name for the Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni which was known in England as 'The Butter coloured Fly'. The earliest known Lepidoptera are larval heads preserved in amber from the Cretaceous.



Butterflies and moths are easy to recognise, they have large wings and long, sometimes feathery antennae. Mostly moths fly at night and butterflies fly during the day, but some moths fly during the day also, the most commonly seen are the Hummingbird Hawkmoths, or Sphinx Moths. The lepidoptera have a metamorphic life cycle, meaning that they start life as an egg which hatches into a small larvae. Often the first thing it does is to eat its egg shell, after this it normally sticks to vegetation, though a few species are carnivorous. The larvae, commonly called a caterpillar is an eating machine. It is often very attractively coloured, sometimes cryptically so, and sometimes, if it is poisonous, warningly so. Whichever they are fun to watch. Caterpillars grow quickly in most cases as all they do is eat and hide from predators. One the caterpillar is full grown it forms a pupa. The pupa is often called a cocoon for moths and a chrysalis for butterflies, this is because the butterfly pupa is often shiny like a crystal. Inside the pupa a miracle happens and the worm-like caterpillar turns into an adult butterfly or moth with delicate wings. This miracle is called metamorphosis and there is more about it below. For more on different insect life cycles and how they work see Life Cycles.

Other Lepidoptera Pages at this Site

About Moths
Raising British Butterflies 1 Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Red Admiral, Peacock
Raising British Butterflies 2 Wall, Speckled Wood, Ringlet.

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Order Description

They are described as Holometabolous insects (insects which have larvae that look nothing like the adults/imagos and having a complete metamorphosis with a pupal stage).They possess two pairs of membraneous wings with few cross veins, (though these may be absent in the females of some moths). The mandibles are present in the larvae but nearly always absent in the imagos/adults in whom the principal mouth parts are a sucking tube or proboscis formed from the maxillae which is held curled up in a spiral under the head when not in use (in anumber of species of Moths the mouthparts are all degenerate in the imagos and these do not feed at all. The antennae are variable in length and may be quite complicated in some male moths The imagos have two large compound eyes with as many as 6 000 omatidium and two ocelli, while the larva often have simple ocelli. The wings and body of the imagos are covered in scales and the body of the larva are generally covered in hairs (though these may be very fine and short). The salivary glands of the larvae have become modified to form the silk glands. The larvae are 'eruciform' (which means they look like a caterpillar) and in most cases have 13 body segments with three pairs of jointed legs on the first three segments, (which are roughly equivelent to a thorax in the imago). Segments 3 to 6 of the abdomen (6,7,8,9 counting back from the head with the head as 0) each have a pair of unjointed pro- or false-legs, these end in a contractile pad surrounded by a ring of minute hooks; there is also a pair of unjointed claspers on the final segment.

You may want to ask. Why do caterpillars have so many legs? (In fact somebody already has, that's why I have the answer ready) If you watch a caterpillar walking and eating you will see that it needs all its legs just to move around. The front three pairs will become the adult legs, the rest, usually five pairs, (if you find one with more than five pairs then it is a sawfly larvae; Hymenoptera and not a Lepidopteran), are very useful to the caterpillar because they allow the middle and back-end of the caterpillar to hold onto the leaf or twig while the front part tries to work out where to go next, as well as making it harder for a bird to pull them off their food. Some caterpillars which bore into wood or live inside a leaf have no legs at all. If you really want to know why watch a caterpillar walk.

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Colourful Images

Butterflies and many Moths are extremely colourful, they get their colours from the scales on their wings in two different ways; Firstly from pigments which the hollow scales contain, these pigments are built out of a variety of substances, a clever way is to use waste products, and this is just what Butterflies of the family Pieridae do. They make a number of pigments from 'Uric Acid' one of these 'Xanthopteryn' (C6H5O2N5) is what gives the Brimestone its lovely yellow colour. Secondly as a result of changing the frequency of the light waves as they are reflected off the wing, either as a result of series of small ridges less than one thousandth of an inch apart which cause partial diffraction of the light waves that hit them, or as a result of 'interference' phenomena. Interference phenomemna are caused by the light passing twice through (once on the approach and once on the departure) the walls of the scales of the wings. In these cases the scales are built up of a series of very fine films each two of which sandwhich a second substance which has a slightly different 'refractive index' (the degree to which light is bent as it passes from one substance into another at an angle, the bending occurs because the light has different velocities in each substannce). This is also what causes a stick standing half in the water and half in the air to appear bent when you know it is straight, light travels slower in water than it does in air.

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You may ask, how does a caterpillar become a Moth or a Butterfly?

The answer to that can actually get quite complicated but basically what happens is this. When the caterpillar has eaten enough it turns into a pupa, more about this later on because it is different for different groups of Lepidoptera. To do this it stops eating and finds somewhere safe, here it becomes very still (pupa never eat and seldomly move at all) it then moults its skin the same as it does when it is growing only instead of another larval skin it secretes a pupal skin, (inside its old larval skin) that is much thicker and stronger. Generally this pupa then breaks out of the old larval skin, though in many moths the pupa remains inside the old larval skin, you can often find the remains of the caterpillar skin around the tail of a Butterfly pupa. All that is fairly straight forward, where it gets tricky is how the caterpillar inside its new pupal case changes itself into a Butterfly or Moth. The first thing that happens is that a lot of the caterpillars old body dies. It is attacked by the same sort of juices the caterpillar used in its earlier life to digest its food, it would not be far wrong to say the caterpillar digests itself from the inside out, this process is called "histolysis". Not all the tissue is destroyed however some of the insects old tissue passes on to its new self, the amount that does this varies between different insects, and is not very much in the Lepidoptera. There is one particular sort of tissue left, in a number of places in the insects body are collections of special formative cells, which have played no part in the insects larval life, and have stayed hidden or protected during this partial death, each of these groups of cells is called an "imaginal bud" or a "histoblast". The job of these histoblasts is to supervise the building of a new body out of the soup that the insects digestive juices have made of the old larval body. This they do using the same biochemical processes that all insects use to turn their food into part of their bodies. This rebuilding process is called "histogenesis". During this time the insect is very vulnerable because it cannot run away, and this is why insects try to choose somewhere safe to hide away when they are going through this incredible change, still I think you have to be very brave to be a Caterpillar and become a Butterfly or a Moth.

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Lepidoptera at the Tree of Life The Cladistic view.

The differences between Butterflies and Moths are not so obvious as you may think, there are dull coloured Butterflies and there are brightly coloured Moths which fly by day, the real way to tell the diference is to look at two characteristics in conjunction (though generally you know what is a Moth and what is a Butterfly). Firstly Butterflies have 'clubbed' antennae (they appear to have little lumps on the end) while very few moths do, secondly Moths have a small spine like structure called a 'Frenulum' projecting from the base of the hind wing which helps hold the hindwings and the forewings together while the insect is flying, only one Butterfly in the world has a 'Frenulum' and that is an Australian Skipper, the rest have a 'Humeral lobe' to hold the wings together instead, between these two characteristics you can always tell which is which.

The order Lepidoptera is divided into four suborders, one of these the Ditrysia contains 16 superfamilies, two of which, Papilionoidea and Hesperioidea contain all the Butterflies, these will be dealt with here, to learn more about Moths you have to go to Lepidoptera Part 2. Moths.

Book Reviews

The Butterflies of Europe, by Tristan Lafranchis
An Atlas of the Distribution of the Butterflies in Bulgaria, by Stanislav P. Abadjiev.
The Butterflies of Hong Kong, by M. J. Bascombe, G. Johnston and F. S. Bascombe.
The Butterflies of Papua NewGuinea, by Michael Parsons
Butterflies of Britain and Europe A Photo Guide, by Michael Chinery
The Moths and Butterflies of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, by By F. H. N. Smith
Butterflies on British and Irish Offshore Islands, by Roger Dennis and Tim Shreeve
The Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland, by A. M. Emmet and J. Heath (Eds)
The Development and Evolution of Butterfly Wing Patterns, by H. Frederik Nijhout
Breeding butterflies and Moths, by Ekkehard Friedrich
Field Guide: Butterflies of Southern Africa, by Ivor Migdoll
The Lepidoptera Journal
The Butterflies of Greece, by Lazaros N. Pamperis
The Butterflies of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia , by John Tennent
The Butterflies of Venezuela, Part 1 , by Andrew F. E. Neild
The Butterfly Book A Kid's guide to Attracting, Raising and Keeping butterflies, by Kersten Hamilton
The Butterflies of West Virginia and Their Caterpillars, by Thomas J. Allen
Peterson Field Guides: Western Butterflies, by J.W. Tilden and Arthur C. Smith (For N. America)
Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Butterflies, by Paul A. Opler and Vichai Malikul (For N. America)
Guide to the butterflies of Russia and adjacent territories (Lepidoptera, Rhopalocera). Volume 1: Hesperiidae, Papilionidae, Pieridae, Satyridae by P. V. Bogdanov, A. L. Devyatkin, L. V. Kabak, V. A. Korolev, V. S. Murzin, G. D. Samodurov, E. A. Tarasov, and V. K. Tuzov.
Butterflies of Britain and Europe, text by Tom Tolman illustrated by Richard Lewington.
A colour Identification Guide to Caterpillars of the British Isles, by Jim Porter
The Butterflies of Costa Rica Vol.1, by Philip J. DeVries
The Butterflies of Costa Rica Vol.2, by Philip J. DeVries
The Butterflies and Moths of Bedfordshire by V.W. Arnold, C.R.B.Baker, D.V. Manning and I.P.Woiwod.
Butterflies and Moths of Berkshire, by B.R.Baker
Butterflies of New Jersey a guide to their status, distribution, conservation and appreciation. By Michael Gochfeld and Joanna Burger
Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, by John and Gloria Tveten
The Conservation of Butterflies in BritainPast and Present, by John Feltwell
Ecology and Conservation of Butterflies by A.Pullin (Eds)
Butterflies of Australia 2nd Edition by I.F.B. Common and D.F. Waterhouse
Butterflies of Tanzania, by J. Kielland
The Butterflies of Kenya and their natural history, by T.B. Larsen
The Lepidoptera; Form, function and Diversity by M. J. Scoble
Monitoring Butterflies for Ecology and Conservation ; E. Pollard and T. J. Yates
Butterflies and Moths of Britain and Europe, by by H. Hofmann and T. Marktanner
Butterflies and Moths by M. Chinery
Carcasson's African Butterflies , by P.R. Ackery, C.R.Smith and R.I. Vane-Wright (Eds)

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Picture Parade

The following plates were scanned in from Noel H. Humphries monograph on the British Butterflies published in the 1850's I am sorry to say they do not look as good as they do in the original.
Plate 1 :- Large Swallow-tail and Brimestone. JPG, 70K
Plate 2 :- Black Veined White and Large Cabbage White. JPG, 63K
Plate 3 :- Green Veined White and Small Cabbage White. JPG, 54K
Plate 4 :- Green Chequered White, Wood White and Orange. TIP JPG, 63K
Plate 5 :- Grayling, Meadow Brown and Gate Keeper. JPG, 59K
Plate 6 :- Small Heath, Marsh Ringlet and White Admiral. JPG 66K
Plate 7 :- Painted Lady and Red Admiral. JPG 67K
Plate 8 :- Peacock and Camberwell Beauty. JPG 71K
Plate 9 :- Large Tortoise-shell. JPG 64K
Plate 10 :- Small Tortoise-shell and Comma. JPG 59K
Plate 11 :- Silver-washed Fritillary. JPG 66K
Plate 12 :- High-brown Fritillary and Queen of Spain Fritillary. JPG 74K
Plate 13 :- Glanville Fritillary and Heath Fritillary. JPG 76K
Plate 14 :- Green Hair-streak and Purple Hair-streak. JPG 70K
Plate 15 :- Large Copper and Scarce Copper. JPG 78K
Plate 16 :- Small Blue, Azure Blue and Mazarine Blue. JPG 62K
Plate 17 :- Silver-studded Blue and Brown Argus. JPG 54K
Plate 18 :- Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper and Chequered Skipper. JPG 57K
Plate 19 :- Small Skipper and Lulworth Skipper. JPG 60K Some Enlargements of individuals from the previous plates, scanned in at a higher dpi rate.
Plate 20 :- Mazarine Blue. JPG 31K
Plate 21 :- Brown Hair-streak. JPG 54K
Plate 22 :- Peacock. JPG 79K
Plate 23 :- Camberwell Beauty. JPG 60K
Plate 24 :- Red Admiral. JPG 67K
Plate 25 :- Painted Lady. JPG 58K These last two are taken from the Lepidoptera paintings of John Curtis FLS they were also painted in the 1850's
Plate 26 :- Brimestone and Black-veined White. JPG 15K
Plate 27 :- Purple Emperor, Camberwell Beauty, Green Chequered White, Pale Clouded Yellow, Ringlet and Small Heath. JPG 29K

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Butterflies on the Web


British Butterfly Conservation
The Butterfly Web Site
Electronic Resources on Lepidoptera
Andrew Neild's Neotropical Butterfly Site
Dutch Butterflies
Simon's butterfly Pics Some nice photos of European species
Butterflies and Moths Of the Shetland Islands.
LepiList Demonstration
Butterflies of JCU campus James Cook University of North Queensland
Butterflies of North Dakota
Butterflies of the United States
Butterfly diversity in Trinidad OU research project
Thais - Butterflies - Farfalle butterfly pictures
Butterflies of Northern Mexico and Sonora
Butterflies of Southeastern Arizona
Checklist of Finnish Lepidoptera
Butterfly images at Furman University
A Butterfly Page with a Difference includes 'Cherkerspot Resources'.
Insect conservation with a particular emphasis on Lepidoptera
Host Plant Data Base
Butterflies at BugWatch
Painted Lady Butterfly Culture Instructions
How to make butterfly gardens Entfacts University of Kentucky
Butterfly Plants A list for North America
Monarch Butterflies educational materials from the Butterfly Lady
Lepidopterist's who's who
Journey North A global study of wildlife migration - incl Monarch Butterfly
Karner Blue Butterfly as endangered species
LEPS-L Lepidoptera listserver
Belgian Migrating Lepidoptera Survey
Monarch Watch Monarch butterfly migration project Univ of Kansas
Monitoring butterflies on OU campus
Order Lepidoptera
Allyn Museum of Entomology butterfly collection
Dominick Moth annd Butterfly Collection catalogue and checklist, University of South Carolina, Columbia
English Names of North american Butterflies
Butterflies and Moths at Berkely
Lepidoptera at University of Colorado Museum
Lepidoptera catalogue at UMMZ
A Species List University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Lepidoptera holdings at US NMNH

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