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Introduction to Butterflies

Butterflies are a large group of insects, belonging to the order “Lepidoptera”, which means “scaly wing”. They are characterized by their large, often colorful wings and by their proboscis, which they use to suck flower nectar. They lay eggs that hatch into a larvae (called caterpillar), which has a totally different appearance, with its cylindrical body, and feeds mainly on plants leave, before going through the metamorphosis of the chrysalis.

Caterpillar, chrysalis and adult of the Orange Tip
Caterpillar, chrysalis and adult of the Orange Tip

Anthocharis cardamines
Photographs © Jaap Bouwman, Kars Veling and Chris van Swaay (De Vlinderstichting).

Many butterflies are valued for their beauty, but they have also an economic interest and play an important role in ecosystems through pollination and as prey for other species. They also support a wide range of parasitoids, many of which are specific to their host and worthy of conservation in their own right.

In Europe, there are 482 species of butterflies, divided into six families: the largest one is the Nymphalidae, also called brush-footed butterflies, with often large and brightly-colored species, such as the fritillaries, admirals, emperors, and tortoiseshells; the subfamilies Libytheinae and Satyrinae were until recently a separate family, the latter including the large group of the browns, but are now part of the Nymphalidae; then the Lycaenidae, including the blues, the coppers and the hairstreaks, generally small brightly colored butterflies, sometimes with a metallic gloss; the Pieridae, where the adults are mostly white or yellow with black spots; the Hesperiidae, named skippers due to their quick and darting flight; the Papilionidae, or Swallowtail butterflies, which are, as their name suggests, often tailed like the forked tail of some swallows. Finally, there is one representative of the Riodinidae family whose members are mainly distributed in the Neotropical region: Hamearis lucina, the Duke of Burgundy Butterfly which is similar to the Fritillaries, although this family Riodinidae is closely related to the Lycaenidae. Cacyreus marshalli, a South African species that was introduced in the Balearic Islands in 1989 and is rapidly spreading across the Mediterranean and up to the Netherlands is not a native species and therefore not considered in this assessment.