Butterflies and moths are the biggest insect family after beetles, with 200,000 known species. And although butterflies are the more popular, carrying with them associations with sunshine and summer idleness, it’s the moths who make up 80 per cent of the Lepidoptera (‘scale-wings’). One of the reasons for this is temperature: butterflies are basically high performance sex machines fuelled by flower nectar, Formual One cars to the moth’s family saloon. If a butterfly’s body temperature falls below 30°C it can’t fly and will either die or fall into a torpor. That’s why northern countries like Britain are relativley poor in butterfly species – there are only 59 natives and some of them, like the Red Admiral and the Painted Lady, migrate annually, all the way from the Mediterranean. In comparison Continental Europe has over 400 species of butterfly, but tropical Costa Rica (which is the size of Wales) has 560.
Moths are much hardier, and are usually nocturnal. Their bodies are designed to conserve heat rather than absorb it, so they tend to have fatter, fur-covered bodies and rest with their wings spread to the side, rather than folded together above their backs like butterflies. Another point of diffentiation is the antennae: butterflies have smooth antennae with knobs at the end; moths’ are feathery. Again, this is partly to do with the day/night split. Moths are much less dependent on sight: they use their antennae as spatial orientation sensors, like gyroscopes, to steady themselves as they fly and hover. Cut a moth’s antennae off and it will immediately collide with walls, and crash into the floor.
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.
Vladimir Nabokov collected butterfly genetalia. He said: 'The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new organ'. And claimed that if it wasn't for the Revolution he would have probably been a lepidopterist rather than a writer. The Harvard Museum of Natural History still possesses Nabokov's 'genitalia cabinet', where the author stored his collection of male blue butterfly genitalia.
He was a true expert and 'developed forward-thinking ways to classifying the butterflies, based on differences in their genitalia' as well as a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves. No-one took the theory seriously at the time, but in the last 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to the Poluommatus blues and have proven the writer to be correct.
Some island-dwelling butterflies have evolved to have no wings because the heavy winds would blow them out to sea if they could fly.
England’s Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) has a taste for ‘dung, urine & animal carcasses’. It’s rarely seen - because it feeds in tree-tops - but each midsummer a Purple Emperor’s breakfast is laid out in Northamptonshire to attract the insects. Foods include horse manure, Shito - an evil-smelling fish paste from Ghana - rancid pickled mudfish, fox scat, stinking Big Cock shrimp paste and Thai Boy shrimp paste. Male Purple Emperors are thought to like this rotting food as it contains sodium that replenishes their bodies after mating.
Robert Penicuick Heslop, a colonial official turned Latin schoolmaster turned lepidopterist once said: ‘I have caught exactly as many purple emperors as I have shot elephants, viz. four in each case; but I think I would rather have one of the former than all four of the latter: and nothing in all my sporting or collecting career has ever given me so much joy as the seeing of my first emperor safely in the net’.
Moses Harris, author of The Aurelian (a natural history of English insects) gave the Purple Emperor its name in 1766. In German, it’s called ‘the large shimmer butterfly’; in French, ‘the greater flashing mars’. Other English names include the Emperor of Morocco, the Emperor of the Woods and His Imperial Majesty (or simply HIM).
The butterfly often forgets it was once a caterpillar.
Many species of moth feed on the tears of larger animals. Tears are a surprisingly nutritious broth of water, salt and protein.
The two butterfly species Heliconius melpomene and Heliconius erato look almost identical but are an example of two different species which have evolved to look the same for mutual protection. Predators learn to avoid one species following a distasteful experience and, because the other one looks the same, it’s also safer from future attacks. This is called Müllerian mimicry, after Fritz Müller who proposed the concept in 1878.
But there are ways of telling them apart: the best is by dissecting and comparing their genitalia (though you could also examine the wing scales under a microscope, or use DNA analysis).
Butterflies taste with their feet.
Nicole Kidman suffers from Lepidopterophobia, she is scared of butterflies
In China, two butterflies flying together are a symbol of love.
Moths and butterflies have anti-reflective eyes to see in poor light.
Britain has about 60 native species of butterfly, Costa Rica (which is about the size of Wales) has about 560.
We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think its forever.
The word 'leper' and the word 'lepidoptera' both derive for the Greek word for 'scale'.