A butterfly is a flying insect of the order Lepidoptera (as are moths), usually with striking colours and patterns on its wings.

People who study or collect butterflies or moths are called lepidopterists.

Table of contents
1 Etymology
2 The four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly
3 Species
4 Survival
5 Field guides to butterflies
6 Reference
7 External links
8 Other meanings


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

The four stages in the lifecycle of a butterfly

Unlike most insects they do not have a nymph period, but have a pupal stage between the larva and the adult stage (the imago).


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


Larvae, or caterpillars, are multilegged eating machines. They live on plant leaves and spend practically all their time eating. As they grow they shed their skin several times.


When the larva has eaten enough it will will either spin a cocoon or form a chrysalis. 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).


Lange's Metalmark

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 sexually dimorphic. 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.


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


Common Buckeye

Butterflies (and their 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.

Field guides to butterflies

  • 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


External links

See also metamorphosis (biology).

Other meanings

  • The butterfly stroke is a type of swimming stroke, in which the arms are thrown forward together out of the water while the feet kick up and down.
  • In chaos theory, the term butterfly effect is used to describe certain chaotic phenomena.
  • A butterfly nut is a fastening, for use with a bolt, with a pair of metal "wings".
  • To have butterflies in your stomach is to be very nervous.
  • Butterflies was a TV series in the UK.
  • A butterfly knife is a knife used in certain Filipino martial arts, also known as a Balisong.
  • A butterfly needle is a small needle attached to flexible tubing, and is used to collect blood (venipuncture).
  • A Butterfly Fish is one of a number of species of fish, popular with aquarium keepers [1].