- Butterflies do not have any lips or teeth, just a long coiled tongue.
- Most butterflies only lay their eggs on a few selective host plants, with each species having a preference for different plant types.
- Butterflies can select suitable plants by a combination of sight, smell and taste, with the butterfly identifying chemicals from the plant which signals it being a suitable host species for food.
- When an adult butterfly emerges from a pupa, the butterfly pumps fluid into its wings to expand them which is followed by a hardening process to allow the butterfly to fly.
- Butterflies in all stages of their life are preyed on by a wide variety of predators in the form of mammals, birds, spiders and other insects.
- Adult butterflies use colour to attract mates, avoid predation, but also to raise body temperature by basking and warming up. This is particularly important in British butterflies.
- A butterfly has thousands of lenses in it’s eyes.
Life Cycle of Butterflies
Butterflies are the final manifestation of a four-stage sequence that starts with an egg. The egg (ovum) becomes a caterpillar (larva), which then turns into a chrysalis (pupa) and finally becomes a butterfly (imago). The life span of an adult butterfly depends on the species and to some extent, on weather conditions; a small species such as a common blue may live for only a few days, whereas the larger peacock may emerge from its pupa in early August and after feeding up, hibernating, mating and laying eggs, it may still be on the wing in early June the following year. Most British butterflies overwinter as either eggs (eg. the white letter hairstreak, silver washed fritillary), some as caterpillars (eg. Small copper, meadow brown), some as pupae (orange tip, holly blue) and some as adults (brimstone, small tortoiseshell). Some species, like the painted lady, cannot withstand our winters and migrate northwards from their breeding areas each spring. The speckled wood can overwinter as either a caterpillar or a chrysalis. Some species are more mobile than others. Clouded yellow and painted lady can reach the UK from continental Europe, whilst others are mobile but not migrants, such as holly blue, brimstone and orange tip that wander through the countryside. However, most of our species are very localised and live in sedentary colonies, such as the silver-studded, Adonis blue and pearl-bordered fritillary.
Protection Against Predators
Caterpillars and adults have evolved a range of special defences to protect against predation, including spines, chemicals, camouflage and association with ants, which are aggressive and protect caterpillars and adults of some species, such as the blues. Blending Camouflage: Butterflies and caterpillars can merge with their background to make it harder for predators to see them. Species like green hairstreak are very hard to see when resting on a leaf. Mimicking: Black hairstreak and comma species can look like bird droppings. Warning Colours: Some caterpillars, like the large white larva, are conspicuous colours like black and yellow, sending a warning to predators “don’t eat me!” Chemical Defences: Some caterpillars, like the swallowtail, have foul-smelling organs they can push out when danger threatens.
Threats to British Butterflies
Butterflies are attractive insects that and as well as valuable pollinators of plants, fruit and vegetables, they give nature lovers a great deal of pleasure. In most cases, our butterflies have very specific habitat requirements which are affected by changes in their environment. In a fast changing British landscape, this pressure is now causing serious declines in many species. Intensive agricultural practices and woodland management are some of the main factors in this decline. Since the 1940’s, 97% of flower meadows have been lost, together with large areas of chalk downland and ancient woodland. One example of a species on the edge is the high brown fritillary, which has declined by 94% in recent years. Some of our butterfly species are legally protected, with species like the heath, marsh and brown fritillaries, large copper, large blue and swallowtail being afforded full protection. Many species cannot be caught in the wild or sold. These include the purple emperor, northern brown argos, pearl bordered and Glanville fritillaries, chequered, silver-spotted and Lulworth skippers, small, silver-studded, chalkhill and Adonis blues, large heath, mountain ringlet, wood white, large tortoiseshell and the black, brown and white-letter hairstreaks.
Gardening for Butterflies and Moths
Gardens provide essential food and homes for butterflies and moths all over the UK and provide an essential source of food through flowers and plants. As well as planting nectar-producing flowers, letting an area of your garden grow wild and allowing the grasses to grow tall could attract a range of regular visitors to your garden, including meadow brown, speckled wood, gatekeeper, small skipper, marbled white and ringlet.
Have flowers available throughout the season, but particularly in spring and autumn when early emerging butterflies need energy and later in the year with some species needing to build their reserves up for the winter. Prune some of your buddlea in March to ensure late flowering Nectar production is greater if plants are kept well watered Always buy genuine UK wildflower plants and seeds, as exotic species may not be suitable for butterflies. Grow caterpillar plants as well as flowering species. Limit the spread of stinging nettles by growing them in a large container sunk into the ground. Avoid buying commercially produced garden compost, as this is often sourced from peat bog habitats at the expense of lots of wildlife including rare species of butterfly, like the large heath. Go green and avoid using insecticides and herbicides in your garden. This will promote beneficial insects such as butterflies and bees, plus lacewing, ladybirds and even mammals like hedgehogs which control pest species such as aphids and slugs.
Planting for Butterflies
Spring Nectar: Aubretia, bluebell, clover, cuckooflower, daisy, dandelion, forget-me-not, honesty, pansy, primrose, sweet rocket and wallflower. Late Summer/Autumn: Buddlea, French marigold, ice plant, ivy, knapweed, lavender, marjoram, michaelmus daisy, mint, red valerian, scabious and thyme.
Planting for Caterpillars
Stinging Nettles: comma, red admiral and moths such as scarlet tiger, spectacle, small magpie and stout Holly and Ivy: Holly blue Buckthorn and alder buckthorn: Brimstone Cuckooflower and Garlic Mustard: Orange-tip and green-veined white Hop: Comma and moths such as buttoned snout, angle shades and dark spectacle. Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil: Common blue
Habitats and Nesters for Butterflies
Wildlife World manufacturer a range of beneficial insect habitats and nesters, including butterfly habitats and feeders. Etc etc
Useful Butterfly Contacts
Tel: 01929 400209
Moths are just as affected by habitat loss as butterflies, with numbers dropping by a third since 1968. Some moths, like the Reddish Buff and Barberry Carpet are highly threatened. Other species, like the Bordered Gothic may now be extinct in the UK.
Moths are an essential part of the food chain for birds, bats and mammals. Blue Tit chicks alone feed on an estimated 35 billion caterpillars a year in Britain. The sharp drop in our garden bird populations may be directly related to the drop in moth numbers.
Studying moths was a fashionable hobby as far back as the early 1700s. Many of the species more fanciful names, like Peach Blossom and Puss Moth, were coined at this time.
Myth: all moths eat clothes
Reality: Only about six of Britain's 2,500 moth species eat clothes. The ones that do, generally prefer dirty clothes that are hidden away in dark places where they are not disturbed. Damage is caused by these few species when they are caterpillars.
Myth: moths are nocturnal and only fly by night
Reality: It is true that most species fly by night. However, more species of moth fly during the day than there are butterfly species in the UK. Our Day-flying Moth Identifier has over 100 species of moth.
Myth: all moths are drab and hairy compared with butterflies
Reality: Many moth species are very colourful, such as the brightly patterned tiger moths. Others are less so, but on closer inspection cryptic patterns can be seen which have evolved to aid camouflage. Some species of moth are furry, but some butterflies have hairy or furry bodies too.