The Online Library of Knowledge


Butterflies and moths

Purple emperor butterflyPurple emperor butterfly Butterflies and moths make up a group of flying insects called lepidoptera. They have four scaly wings and stalk-like feelers on their heads, called antennae. Most butterflies fly in the day and have clubbed antennae, whereas most moths are night-flyers with feathery antennae. Both have a long, hollow tongue, called a proboscis, used to feed on nectar. A butterfly or moth starts life as a caterpillar, hatched from an egg. When it is big enough, it grows a pupa, called a chrysalis, around its body, inside which its adult form takes shape.

Wing scales on a swallowtail butterflyWing scales on a swallowtail butterfly


Butterflies and moths have wings that are covered with tiny, overlapping scales. These scales give butterflies and moths their bright colours and striking markings. Most butterflies and moths have scales that are coloured. Others have scales that reflect light to give the impression of colour. The scales are loosely attached and may fall off without harming the insect.

Some butterflies have colours that make them look very similar to other butterflies. This is known as mimicry: it allows the butterfly to "pretend" to be a species that is, for example, poisonous to eat.

Peacock butterflyPeacock butterfly The colours and patterns of butterflies and moths are used to attract mates, for camouflage, and also to deter predators. Large spots that look like the eyes of a large animal, or bright colours to warn that the butterfly or moth is poisonous, help these insects to avoid being eaten.

There are around 17,000 known species of moth and butterfly—but there may be 300,000 more awaiting discovery.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile