Butterflies

Their bright colours make our butterflies by far and away the most widely loved group of insects, interesting to watch, easy to identify (and so to become our familiars), challenging to paint and photograph and, in a different era,, satisfying to collect. Biologically, butterflies are a relatively small branch of the Lepidoptera (scale-wings) a distinct group of insects with patterned hindwings and clubbed antennae. Culturally, we tend to see them as joyful spirits, happy, frivolous and carefree – in other words, their actions and their beauty create such feelings in ourselves. We love them, pursue them and long to know them better.

Large moths are mainly nocturnal and so less familiar. We see them only briefly, buzzing at a lamp or passing through the beam of a headlight or kitchen window. They are mysterious beings of the dark, with a matching ghostly reputation, and when we find them by day, they seem to be asleep or in a trance. Many moths are better known by their big, horned or hairy, day-feeding caterpillars. A great way to preserve these is insect resin.

But what, technically, is the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Surprisingly little. The average moth is somberly coloured to blend in with its surroundings when at rest during the day. It often has a plump, hairy body over which it wraps its wings like the folds of an old coat. Butterflies all fly by day, are more or less brightly coloured and rest with their wings over their backs, pressed closely together. Butterflies have clubbed antennae, while those of moths are shaped like feathers or wire. But there are exceptions: the day-flying burnet-moths also have clubbed antennae, albeit of a heavier type. Butterflies tend to flutter, while moths do not.