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For other uses of the term "butterfly", see butterfly (disambiguation).

|- | style="text-align:center;" | Kamehameha Butterfly
Kamehameha |- style="text-align:center;" ! style="background: pink;" | Scientific classification |- style="text-align:center;" |

|- valign=top |Kingdom:||Animalia |- valign=top |Phylum:||Arthropoda |- valign=top |Class:||Insecta |- valign=top |Order:||Lepidoptera |- valign=top |Division:||Rhopalocera |} |- style="text-align:center; background:pink;" !Families |- | Superfamily Hesperioidea:
Superfamily Papilionoidea:
  Lyceanidae |} A butterfly is a flying insect of the order Lepidoptera belonging to one of the superfamilies Hesperioidea (the skippers) and Papilionoidea (all other butterflies). Many butterflies have striking colours and patterns on their wings. People who study or collect butterflies (or the closely related moths) are called lepidopterists. Butterfly watching is growing in popularity as a hobby.


The four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly

Unlike many insects, butterflies do not experience a nymph period, but instead go through a pupal stage which lies between the larva and the adult stage (the imago).


Butterfly eggs consist of a hard-ridged outer layer of shell, called the chorion. This is lined with a thin coating of wax which prevents the egg from drying out before the larva has had time to fully develop. Each egg contains a number of tiny funnel-shaped openings at one end, called micropyles; the purpose of these holes is to allow sperm to enter and fertilize the egg. Butterfly and moth eggs vary greatly in size between species, but they are all either spherical or ovate.


Larvae, or caterpillars, are multi-legged eating machines. They consume plant leaves and spend practically all of their time in search of food. As they mature their skin is shed several times.


When the larva has eaten enough it will will form a chrysalis (Butterflies do not spin cocoons, moths do.) The larva usually moves to the underside of a leaf. To form a cocoon it spins a silk-like thread around itself. A chrysalis is formed by hardening bodily secretions. A larva completely covered by a cocoon or chrysalis is called a pupa. Inside its protective shell the larva will transform into a butterfly (or moth), a process known as metamorphosis.


Lange's Metalmark Butterfly
Lange's Metalmark Butterfly

The adult, sexually mature, stage of the insect is known as the imago. As Lepidoptera, butterflies have four wings, but unlike moths, the fore and hindwings are not hooked together, permitting a more graceful flight. A butterfly has six legs; the larva also has six true legs and a number of prolegs. After it emerges from its pupal stage it cannot fly for some time because its wings have not yet unfolded. A newly emerged butterfly needs to spend some time 'inflating' its wings with blood and letting them dry, during which time it is extremely vulnerable to predators.

Many species of butterfly are Censored page. Some butterflies, such as the Monarch butterfly, are migratory.

Butterflies are often confused with moths, but there are a few simple differences between them, including colour, habits, and pupating appearance. See the difference between a butterfly and a moth.

Butterflies live primarily on nectar from flowers. Some also derive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, dung, and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt. Butterflies are also pollinators.


Blue Morpho
Blue Morpho

Although the butterflies are classified in two superfamilies, Hesperioidea and Papilionoidea, these are sister taxa, so the butterflies collectively are thought to constitute a true clade. Some modern taxonomists place them all in superfamily Papilionoidea, distinguishing the skippers from the other butterflies at the series level only. There is only one family in the Hesperioidea (or series Hesperiiformes), the skipper family Hesperiidae. The families in the Papilionoidea (or Papilioniformes) are:

Some older taxonomies recognize additional families, for example Danaidae, Heliconiidae and Satyridae, but modern classifications treat these as subfamilies within the Nymphalidae.

There are between 15,000 and 20,000 species of butterflies worldwide. Some well known species include:


Chrysalis of Gulf Fritillary, Georgetown, South Carolina
Chrysalis of Gulf Fritillary, Georgetown, South Carolina

Butterflies (and their immature stages) have many natural enemies such as:


Ants will sometimes attack a larva in hordes. However, there are actually some species of ants that keep myrmecophilous (ant loving) butterfly larvae as cattle, taking a larva into their nest, feeding it leaves on one end and milking it for honeydew on the other. This symbiotic relationship can turn to the larvae becoming myrmecophageous (ant-eating). The ants actually tolerate the larvae even while they eat the ant pupae.


Some butterflies have evolved 'eye' like markings on their wings, scaring off some birds. Also, since some birds attack the eyes of an animal first, the butterfly has a chance of escaping in the confusion when the bird simply pokes a hole in one of the wings.


An erroneous etymology claims that the word butterfly came from a metathesis of "flutterby"; however, the Old English word was buttorfleoge and a similar word occurs in Dutch, apparently because butterflies were thought to steal milk.

Field guides to butterflies

Junonia coenia, Common Buckeye. Note "eye" pattern on wings.
Junonia coenia, Common Buckeye. Note "eye" pattern on wings.
  • Butterflies of North America, Jim P. Brock and Kenn Kaufman (2003)
  • Butterflies through Binoculars: The East, Jeffrey Glassberg (1999)
  • Butterflies through Binoculars: The West, Jeffrey Glassberg (2001)
  • A Field Guide to Eastern Butterflies, Paul Opler (1994)
  • A Field Guide to Western Butterflies, Paul Opler (1999)
  • Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths, Paul Opler (1994)
  • The Millennium Atlas of Butterflies in Britain and Ireland by Jim Asher (Editor), et al.
  • Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington
  • Butterflies of Britain and Europe (Collins Wildlife Trust Guides) by Michael Chinery

See also


  • Pyle, R. M. (1992) Handbook for Butterfly Watchers. Houghton Mifflin. Originally published, 1984. ISBN 0-395-61629-8
  • Heppner, J. B., 1998. Classification of Lepidoptera. Holarctic Lepidoptera, Suppl. 1.

External links

Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to Butterfly .

  • Butterfly Net International, internet resources for butterfly systematists
  • Butterflies of North America
  • Butterfly Conservation

Last updated: 02-08-2005 11:19:53
Last updated: 03-13-2005 10:44:27