Butterflies 101: The Full Info Guide

Butterflies are fascinating animals that belong to the insects and form the second most abundant insect order after beetles. They are found on all continents except Antarctica and have adapted to different habitats and climates. In this article you will learn more about the characteristics, anatomy, life cycle and importance of butterflies.

Differences between day and night butterflies

Butterflies are often divided into two groups: day butterflies and night butterflies, or moths, if you will. However, this division is not entirely correct, because there are also butterflies that are active both during the day and at night. In addition, there are many transitional forms between the two groups. Nevertheless, some typical differences can be identified:

Day butterflies usually have colored wings that they spread for sunbathing or camouflage. They also often have thin antennae with a thickened tip and well-developed proboscises for sucking nectar.

Moths have rather inconspicuous wings, which they fold up to rest. Their antennae are usually thicker and have a feathery or combed structure and short or no proboscis. They feed on other fluids such as tree sap or animal excrement.

A peacock butterfly is a day butterfly
The peacock butterfly is a classic day butterfly. Source: Beentree, CC BY-SA 3.0
A peppered moth is a moth
A peppered moth. Source: Chiswick Chap, CC BY-SA 3.0

Of course, butterflies are not suitable for a closed terrarium, as they need some space to fly. If you are looking for insects for your terrarium, check out 6 types of insects and other animals for a perpetual terrarium.

Anatomy and sensory organs of butterflies

Butterflies basically consist of three main parts: the head, the chest section (thorax) and the back body (abdomen). On the head are the eyes, antennae, mouthparts, and, of course, the brain. On the thoracic section are the six legs and the four wings. At the back are the sexual organs, the intestines and the respiratory openings.

You read that right. Butterflies, like many other insects, breathe through their rear end.

Butterflies have various sensory organs with which they can perceive their environment:

  • The eyes consist of many individual eyes (ommatidia) that provide a multifaceted image. Butterflies can see colors, even those that are invisible to humans, such as ultraviolet.
  • The feelers serve as olfactory and gustatory organs. Butterflies can use them to pick up scents (pheromones) from conspecifics or nectar sources.
  • The mouthparts consist of a long proboscis that can be curled up to suck nectar. Some butterflies also have chewing tools (mandibles) with which they can pick up solid food.
  • The legs also have taste organs (gustatory organs) that butterflies use to test the quality of their food.
  • The wings have tactile hairs (trichoids) with which butterflies can sense air currents or touch.

Butterfly life cycle

Butterflies undergo a complete transformation (metamorphosis) from larva to adult (imago). This life cycle consists of four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa and moth.

The females usually lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, which serve as food for the caterpillars. The eggs are often very small and have different shapes and colors.

The caterpillars hatch from the eggs after a few days or weeks and immediately begin to feed. They grow rapidly and shed their skin several times until they reach their maximum size. The caterpillars often have conspicuous patterns or hairs that serve as camouflage or warning for them.

The pupa is the dormant stage of butterflies where they change from a caterpillar to a butterfly. It is also called a cocoon and is often attached to a twig or leaf and has a hard covering that protects it from predators. The pupa can be different colors depending on the species and environment.

The finished butterfly hatches from the pupa when the transformation is complete. It must first unfold its wings and allow them to dry before it can fly. Tropical moths in particular usually have a short life span of a few days to weeks, during which they reproduce and suck nectar.

Examples of common butterfly species in Germany

In Germany, there are around 3,700 butterfly species, many of which are endangered. Here are some examples of common butterfly species you may see in your garden or in nature:

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

The red admiral is a migratory butterfly that comes to Germany from the Mediterranean region. It has pale brown wings with a dark tip and a red cross band. It flies from May to October and likes to visit red and blue-violet flowers.

Close up of red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) butterfly
A red admiral butterfly. Source: Christian Fischer, CC BY-SA 4.0

Orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines)

The orange tip is a spring messenger that flies from March to July. It has white wings with black wing tips. The male has additional orange coloring on part of the forewing. It likes to stay at forest edges and wet meadows.

Orange tip butterfly Anthocharis cardamines, Michael H. Lemmer, CC BY-SA 2.5
An orange tip. Source: Michael H. Lemmer, CC BY-SA 2.5

The comma (Polygonia c-album)

The comma is a striking butterfly with serrated wing edges. It has brown wings with a white C on the underside, which gives it its name, flies from March to October and hibernates as a moth. It prefers to stay in sparse places in mixed and riparian forests.

C-Falter von oben betrachtet
From above, you can't see the C of the butterfly. Source: Quartl, CC BY-SA 3.0
A C butterfly with a visible white C on the wing
On the underside you can see the C of the C butterfly. Source: Darkone, CC BY-SA 2.5

Marbled white (Melanargia galathea)

The marbled white butterfly is an elegant butterfly with a black and white wing pattern reminiscent of marble or a checkerboard. It flies from June to August and likes to stay in dry meadows and rough pastures. It sucks nectar on various flowers such as thistles or scabiosa.

Der Schachbrettfalter sieht aus wie ein Schachbrett
The marbled white butterfly. Source: MichaD, CC BY-SA 2.5

How do butterflies live?

Butterflies are not only beautiful to look at, but also very interesting to observe. They have developed different strategies to survive, reproduce and protect themselves from predators. In this part you will learn more about the feeding, the flight behavior, the reproduction and the mimicry of butterflies.

Nutrition and foraging of butterflies

Most butterflies feed on nectar, which they suck from flowers with their long proboscis. In the process, the butterflies often pollinate the plants by carrying pollen from one flower to another. It's a win-win situation for flowers and butterflies.

However, some butterflies also have other food sources, such as plant juices, fallen fruit, honeydew or animal excrement. In addition to sugar, these also contain other nutrients such as minerals or proteins that are important for reproduction.

From a long distance, they look for their food first with their eyes. Similar to us, but not exactly, they can see colors and often prefer red or blue flowers. They can also sense scents and follow the scent trails of conspecifics or nectar sources. They can also taste with their legs to check the quality of their food once they land on it.

Flight behavior and migrations of butterflies

Butterflies are masters of flying. They can fly forward, backward, sideways, and some even fly on the spot. Their wings also serve as heat regulators: they can spread them out or fold them up to warm up or cool down. Especially on warm summer days, you can often see a butterfly relax and open and close its wings.

Some butterflies also travel long distances and migrate from one area to another. The best known example is the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which flies from North America to Mexico every year. Other migratory butterflies include the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) or the painted lady (Vanessa cardui), which come to Central Europe from the Mediterranean region.

The reasons for the migrations vary. Some butterflies are looking for new food or habitats, others want to escape winter or reproduce.

Reproduction and development of butterflies

Butterflies usually reproduce in spring or summer when there is enough food. Males attract females with perfumes (pheromones) or fight with rivals for a female. Mating can take several hours, and the male transfers a nutritious substance to the female in addition to sperm.

The female then lays her eggs on a suitable plant, which serves as a food plant for the caterpillars. The eggs are often very small and have different shapes and colors. Some females lay their eggs singly, others in groups or clusters.

Eggs of the butterfly Discophora sondaica
Eggs of the butterfly Discophora sondaica. Source: Atanu Bose Photography, CC BY-SA 4.0

Where do butterflies live?

Butterflies are found on all continents except Antarctica. They have adapted to different habitats and climates. In this part you will learn more about the distribution, habitats, adaptation and importance of butterfly plants for butterflies.

Distribution and habitats of butterflies

Butterflies are found in almost all regions of the world, from the tropics to the polar regions. However, most species live in the tropics, where it is warm and humid all year round. There is also a great variety of plants there that provide food for the butterflies.

Some butterflies prefer open landscapes such as meadows, fields or heaths where they can find many flowers. Other butterflies prefer to live in forests where they can hide on trees or shrubs. Still other butterflies are tied to wetlands such as bogs or riverbanks, where they need special plants to feed their caterpillars.

Adaptation to different climates and seasons

Butterflies have developed different strategies to cope with different climates and seasons. Some of them are very tolerant of temperature changes and can live in both cold and warm areas. Other butterflies are very sensitive to cold or heat and must adapt accordingly.

Some butterflies have a special adaptation to the cold: they produce an antifreeze in their blood that prevents them from freezing. The best-known example is the white admiral (Limenitis camilla), which hibernates as a caterpillar.

Hibernarium of the white admiral
The hibernarium of the white admiral. Source: Harald Süpfle, CC BY-SA 3.0

Why are butterflies threatened?

Butterflies are not only beautiful to look at, but also very useful for nature and humans. They pollinate many plants and are an important source of food for other animals. But unfortunately, many butterfly species are threatened with extinction. In this part you will learn more about the causes, consequences and ways to protect butterflies.

Causes of threats to butterflies

The main cause of the threat to butterflies is der loss and destruction of their habitats by humans. Intensive agriculture, deforestation, land development, or climate change are reducing, altering, or completely destroying many butterfly habitats. As a result, butterflies lose their food sources, their food plants for their caterpillars or their overwintering sites.

Another cause of the threat to butterflies is the use of pesticides in agriculture and horticulture. Pesticides are poisons that are only supposed to kill pests such as aphids. But they also kill many beneficial insects such as butterflies or bees. The pesticides can also get into the soil or water and thus pollute the environment.

Implications for the threat to butterflies

The threat to butterflies has negative consequences not only for the butterflies themselves, but also for nature and humans. When butterflies become extinct, not only beautiful animals are lost, but also important functions in the ecosystem.

Butterflies are important pollinators of many plants, both wild and cultivated. Without butterflies, many plants would not be able to produce fruits or seeds and thus also become extinct or less productive. This would have negative consequences for biodiversity and food security.

Butterflies are also an important food source for other animals such as birds, bats or spiders. Without butterflies, these animals would find less food and thus also become threatened or have to emigrate. This would have negative consequences for the balance and stability of the ecosystem.

Ways to protect butterflies

In order to stop or reduce the threat to butterflies, there are several ways to protect butterflies. These can be on different levels: global, national, regional or local.

At the global level, international agreements and conventions can regulate the protection of biodiversity and the prohibition of trade in endangered species. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is also an international agreement that promotes the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity.

How can you help butterflies?

NABA organizes regular counts of butterflies. It's just as easy as it sounds. If you are interested in butterflies and want to contribute to our knowledge and conservation of their populations, why not take part in one of the butterfly counts?


Schmetterlinge sind nicht nur schön anzusehen, sondern auch nützlich für die Umwelt. Sie bestäuben viele Blütenpflanzen und tragen so zur Erhaltung der Artenvielfalt bei. Außerdem sind sie wichtige Nahrungsquellen für andere Tiere wie Vögel oder Fledermäuse. Leider sind viele Schmetterlingsarten bedroht durch Lebensraumverlust, Pestizideinsatz, Klimawandel und Krankheiten. Deshalb ist es wichtig, Schmetterlinge zu schützen und zu fördern, indem man ihnen geeignete Lebensräume bietet, naturnahe Gärten anlegt oder sich an Schmetterlingszählungen beteiligt. Schmetterlinge sind ein wunderbarer Teil unserer Natur, den wir bewahren und genießen sollten.

Butterflies 101: The Full Info Guide
Article name
Butterflies 101: The Full Info Guide
Butterflies are beautiful animals that inspire many people. Learn more about the species, way of life and protection of butterflies.

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