Insects & other Arthropods David A Kendall   BSc PhD
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Order Lepidoptera - Butterflies and Moths

(Lepido-ptera, from Greek lepidos = scale, pteron = wing)
Class: Insecta
Order: Lepidoptera

Small to very large insects, generally with two pairs of membranous wings which, together with the body, are more or less clothed with tiny scales, often brightly coloured. The females of some moths have only vestigial wings and are flightless. Eyes fairly large, occupying most of the head. The antennae are usually long, but vary greatly in form, ranging from simple thread-like structures, sometimes with a terminal club, to elaborate, feathery organs. Mouthparts in the form of a long sucking tube (called the proboscis), which is coiled under the head when not in use. There is a complex metamorphosis, with 3-9 larval stages, depending on species, and a pupal stage, the latter often enclosed in a cocoon. The larvae or caterpillars have three pairs of thoracic (true) legs and several pairs of fleshy, abdominal prolegs. They have biting and chewing mouthparts and most are plant-feeders. All butterfly and moth caterpillars have a pair of silk glands opening by way of spinneret on either side of the mouthparts. The silk is produced as a fluid material, that quickly hardens in contact with air. Caterpillars put their silk to several uses, including the formation of protective tents and lifelines, but the major use is in the formation of the cocoons which surround and protect the pupae of many moths and a few butterflies. Adult Lepidoptera are perhaps the most familiar and easily recognisable of all insects. They form a very large order of more than 100,000 species worldwide, of which nearly 2,500 occur in the British Isles.

Butterflies and moths are of great economic importance in the larval stages. Many species devour the foliage, shoots and roots of trees and crops; a smaller number bore into stems and several species damage timber; others attack manufactured goods such as carpets, clothing and other fabrics, while a few are extremely destructive to stored food products, including grain, flour, etc. One or two species live in beehives, destroying and fouling the combs. On the other hand, several moths are a direct benefit by yielding silk of commercial value - the so called 'silk-worms'.

'What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?' - a straightforward question, but without a straightforward answer. The division of the Order into butterflies and moths is really an artificial split. In fact, there are no consistent features that distinguish all the so called butterflies from all the so called moths. Nevertheless, these names are firmly established, with the idea of butterflies as the brightly coloured, day-flying insects which fold their wings together vertically over the body when at rest, so that the undersides are visible, compared with the popular notion of moths as generally rather drab, night-flying insects which fold their wings flat or roof-wise over the body when at rest, such that only the uppersides of the forewings are visible.

Small White Butterfly - Pieris rapae

Description. Butterfly 15-20 mm long. Wings more or less white, with one or two black spots differing in the sexes. Caterpillar up to 25 mm long, green, with a yellowish line along the back and yellow spots along each side.

Biology. Found in most types of countryside and also in towns. Caterpillars feed on most plants of the cabbage family and on garden plants such as mignonette and nasturtiums. An occasional pest of cultivated cabbages and other crucifers. Two broods a year, sometimes with a partial third brood in favourable years. Hibernates through winter as a pupa.

Distribution. Widespread in most of Europe and Asia and (by importation) throughout temperate North America. Resident throughout mainland Britain.

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Male butterfly illustrated - female has
two black spots on each forewing

Peacock Butterfly - Inachis (= Nymphalis) io

Description. Butterfly 20-25 mm long. Uppersides of wings mostly bright chestnut brown, with large 'eye-spots'; undersides dark mottled brown. Caterpillar up to 30 mm long, black with small white spots and black, glossy spines.

Biology. Adults commonly seen in gardens and found in areas of flowering knapweed, thistles, scabious or clover. They are especially fond of buddleia flowers and spend much time basking in the sun on walls and paths, with wings outstretched. Caterpillars gregarious and feed on the common stinging nettle. One generation a year and hibernates through winter as an adult.

Distribution. All of Europe and Asia to Japan. Most parts of the British Isles, except northern Scotland.

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Butterfly at rest and
basking with wings open

Death's Head Hawk Moth - Acherontia atropos

Description. Large moth, 45-55 mm long, with a distinctive yellow skull-shaped marking on the thorax. Forewings dark brown, flecked with yellow; hindwings bright yellow and black. Caterpillar very large and fat, up to 150 mm or more in length, green with purple stripes and black dots along the sides. Abdomen tip with a curved horn-like process.

Biology. The moths are strong flyers, mainly at night. They can squeak quite loudly when disturbed, very like a mouse, but they are quite harmless. Caterpillars feed on potato leaves and an entire plant may be consumed by one larva, leaving only the bare stalks. One generation a year and pupates in the soil to overwinter.

Distribution. Central Europe, but a fairly regular migrant to more northerly latitudes, including the British Isles, although the pupae cannot survive cold northern winters.

Photo: C.W. Wiltshire ©

Moth resting
with wings folded flat
over the body.

(Other Lepidoptera)

insect classification
(classification of insects)
(identification key to insect orders)
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Copyright © 2010 David Kendall Last revised May 2010