Butterflies for beginners

Everybody loves butterflies. This page provides some basic information on butterflies. Actually, it is not only about butterflies but also about moths.

We will learn how to recognize butterflies and we learn about their life cycle. There will be some information on how to rear butterflies at home or in your classroom, and this page also has some proverbs and quotes about butterflies and some interesting butterfly facts.

What is a butterfly?

Butterflies and moths are insects. There are many types of insects in the world and they have been divided in about 30 different groups which are called "orders". One of these orders are the "beetles", another order are the "flies and mosquitoes" and perhaps the most famous order are the "butterflies". The scientific name for this order is Lepidoptera and it includes both butterflies and moths.

Butterflies and moths are very similar. One difference is that butterflies are usually (but not always) very colorful and fly during daytime, while moths have usually (but not always) dull colors and fly at night. Another difference between butterflies and moths is based on the shape of heir antennae, and the way how their front and hind wings are connected.

If you want to know more about insects in general go to "entomology for beginners" (entomology is the name for the study of insects).

Butterfly anatomy

If we want to know how butterflies differ from other insects we have to look at their anatomy (anatomy is the science that studies the structure of animals and plants). There are a few characteristics of butterflies and moths that set them clearly apart from other insects:

  • Butterflies and moths have two pairs of wings that are covered in tiny scales.
  • Butterflies and moths have a coiled tongue.

The scales on the wings are very small. If you look at them with a magnifying glass you can see that they overlap each other just like the tiles of a roof. It are these colorful scales that make their wings so beautiful. The scientific name for butterflies (Lepidoptera) refers to these small scales, because in old Greek language the word lepis or lepid means 'scale', and the word pteron means 'wing'.

The tongue of an adult butterfly of moth is specialized for sucking nectar from flowers. To reach far into deep flowers the tongue is a very long hollow tube. When the butterfly is not eating it rolls the tongue in a spiral coil which you can see under the head of the butterfly.

Butterfly side view

Side view of a butterfly.
Clearly visible are the coiled tongue and the colorful wings.
The drawing shows 3 legs but a butterfly has 6 legs just like any other insect.

Butterfly top view

Top view of a butterfly.
You can see that it has four wings (two pairs) and a pair of antennae.
In butterflies the antennae are often knobbed.

To recognize a butterfly we have mentioned the coiled tongue and the colorful wings which are covered with scales. Apart from this the body of an adult butterfly or moth has the same body parts as in most other insects. The body has three major parts (head, thorax, and abdomen). The thorax has two pairs of wings (= 4 wings) and three pairs of legs (= 6 legs). The head has one pair of antennae (= 2 antennae).

Click here to learn more about the general anatomy of insects.

Life cycle of a butterfly

When we talk about butterflies we are usually thinking about the colorful adult butterfly fluttering around in a garden or forest. But before reaching this beautiful adult stage it has to develop through a number of stages starting with a tiny egg. During its development from egg to adult, a butterfly passes several very different looking instars. This is called metamorphosis. The type of metamorphosis we find in butterflies is called "complete metamorphosis".

Complete metamorphosis

In a complete metamorphosis the wings develop internally during the larval stages. The larval stages of a butterfly is called "caterpillar" and it looks quite different from the adult butterfly. Caterpillars grow in a number of steps by shedding their skin (molting). Each instar is bigger than the previous one. The caterpillars are serious eaters and if there are a lot of caterpillars together they can do serious damage to a plant, eating all its leaves.

After the last larval stage there is a pupal stage. This pupal stage is inactive. Sometimes it can show some body movement (some wriggling) but it can not move around as it has no legs and often the pupa is fixed to the surface of a plant with some silk threads. Some pupa are "naked" but some species of butterflies have a pupa which is protected by a cocoon made of silk.

Inside the pupa the adult butterfly is developing and when it is ready the pupa opens and the butterfly emerges from it.

Complete metamorphosis

This figure shows the development from egg via caterpillar and pupa to an adult butterfly or moth.

Many people love the colorful adult butterfly but just as many don't like the caterpillars from which they develop. Caterpillars are often thought to be ugly and for farmers and gardeners the caterpillars can be a real pest destroying their crop or plants. But if you study them closely, even caterpillars have their beauty. Study them closely with a hand lens and see how they move and eat leaves.


You have already learned that larvae of butterflies and moths are called caterpillars. You have also learned that insects have 6 legs. In an adult butterfly you can easily count these six legs, but in a caterpillar it looks like there are many more legs.

If you look a bit closer at a caterpillar (with a hand lens) you can see that it has two different types of legs. Just behind the head (on the thorax) it has 3 pairs of legs which are the real legs. these legs have joints and they have small claws at the end. The other legs which you see at the rear (the abdomen) are not real legs. These are called the "prolegs" which are quite fleshy and have no visible joints.


A caterpillar has 3 pairs of real legs on the thorax (just behind the head) and several pairs of fleshy 'prolegs' on the rear part (abdomen) of the body.


There are quite some proverbs and quotes about butterflies, moths and caterpillars. Here are a few:

  • Even caterpillars can fly if they would just lighten up.
  • If caterpillars were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.
  • If only I were a bird! Ah, but eating caterpillars?
  • Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.
  • The butterfly often forgets it once was a caterpillar.
  • Happiness is a butterfly. Proverbs are like butterflies, some are caught, some fly away.
  • The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.
  • I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?
  • You are like the butterfly that flies from flower to flower.
  • Love is like a butterfly, hold it to tight it will crush, hold it to loose, it will fly.
  • He dreads a moth who has been stung by a wasp.

Click here for more proverbs about insects.

Rearing butterflies

It is quite interesting and not very difficult to rear butterflies at home or in the classroom. You can start with any stage in the butterfly's life cycle, but often it is easiest to start with caterpillars because they are easier to find than the eggs. When collecting caterpillars you have to make sure that you know the host plant it is feeding on, because many caterpillars just eat one type of plant (or some closely related plants). if you try to rear them on other plants they will refuse to eat and will eventually die.

To rear insects you need to prepare a living space for them from where they cannot escape and where you can easily observe them. You
could use an empty aquarium in which you feed them with fresh leaves every day. Even better is to have a living plant in a pot to make sure that they always have fresh food. Keep the plant in a cage made from a wooden frame covered with mosquito netting so that the insects cannot escape.

(More info about rearing butterflies coming soon.)


Butterfly facts

  • In some countries certain caterpillars and pupa of butterflies are eaten. Usually they are deep fried and actually they taste quite nice.
  • Silk is made from the cocoon of a moth, which called silkworm or silk moth. The scientific name of the silkworm is "Bombyx mori". The caterpillars of the silk moth feed on the mulberry tree.
  • Adult butterflies usually have 4 wings, but there are also wingless species. There are moths where the females have no wings. Only the males can fly and have to find the female to mate.
  • Caterpillars of the large blue butterfly live a part of their life inside an ant colony where they feed on the
    eggs and larvae of the ants. And the ants even protect the butterfly when it emerges from its pupa.
  • The largest butterfly in the world has a wingspan of about 27 centimeters (11 inches).
  • A biologist who studies butterflies and moths is called a "lepidopterist".
  • A showy or frivolous person is called a "social butterfly".
  • The "butterfly stroke" is a way of swimming which resembles a butterfly in flight.


This page was specially made for school children and school teachers to learn about butterflies. If your school has a website, and if you like butterflies, please link to this page. If you have ideas or requests for similar pages, please send me a message.

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