Introduction to butterflies

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Butterflies are the adult form of a number of lepidoptera, the group that includes butterflies and moths, that have adapted to flight by day. Unlike moths, they usually sit with their wings closed above their bodies when at rest, whereas moths wrap their wings around their bodies. Some 2400 species of lepidoptera occur in Britain and only 58 of these are butterflies.

They go through four stages during their life. Taking the brimstone as an example, this starts as an egg, laid on the leaves or twigs of the plant on which the next stage, the caterpillar, feeds, which for the brimstone is alder buckthorn.

The caterpillar is the only stage that grows in size, and considerably, shedding skins as it does so. Eventually it sheds its final skin to reveal a chrysalis underneath. The chrysalis conceals itself, under a leaf like the brimstone or for some species underground, until the fully formed butterfly is ready to emerge.

Butterflies exploit every habitat where there are nectar plants for the adults and food plants for their caterpillars, which vary from species to species. Most gardens provide nectar plants and that attracts common butterflies like the red admiral and the peacock.

There are many species that rely on flower-rich natural grassland, such as the tiny small skipper or the gatekeeper.

Woodland species include the speckled wood and the heath fritillary, once extinct in Essex but reintroduced to several woods in the south-east of the county.

Two species were on the brink in Essex but recently have recovered. They are the white admiral, another woodland species, and the marbled white, which likes tall unimproved grassland.

© Tony Gunton

More information

"Hamlyn Guide to Butterflies of the British Isles" or "Philip's Guide to Butteflies of Britain and Ireland", both by J A Thomas."The Butterflies of Essex" by David Corke (Lopinga Books). Butterfly Conservation website