Photograph of silver washed fritillary

Silver-washed fritillary gets its name from the beautiful streaks of silver visible on the underside of its wings (Photo: Andreas Eichler/Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies, like moths, are in the insect order Lepidoptera. It's derived from the ancient Greek meaning 'scale' and 'wing' referring to the tiny scales (actually modified hairs) that cover their wings.

These scales often create many wonderful, colourful wing patterns. All butterflies and most moths have a specialist tongue-like mouthpart (proboscis). They can curl up or extend this to suck nectar from flowers. They also taste through their feet.

Butterflies start out as an egg laid by an adult female. The caterpillar (or larva) hatches out and is an eating machine with most species consuming leaves. During this time it grows and sheds its skin several times. It then creates a chrysalis (or pupa) around itself. It undergoes a complete metamorphosis into a winged butterfly. Some species have more than one generation in a year.

When to see British butterflies

In the UK, they are mostly seen on the wing during warmer months. As the year moves into autumn and winter their numbers dwindle. Some over-winter as eggs, caterpillars or chrysalises. Others find spots to hibernate until the weather warms again. These are the first butterflies and moths to be spotted in early spring the following year.

Several woodland species are of conservation concern. Their numbers are dramatically declining due to habitat destruction and poor land management.

Top woodland butterflies

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