Easy Butterfly Glossary

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This butterfly glossary covers everything that is all about butterflies.. literally from A to Z!  More butterfly information just a click away.

Let's start with letter  'A' ...


The tail area of the butterfly. This is where the heart is located, malpighian tubules, reproductive organs and most of the digestive system is located.


Androconium - Plural. Tiny scales on male butterfly wings that produce pheromones to attract females for butterfly mating.


Antenna - singular. Found on the head of butterfly. Then antennae are used to sense smell. Antennae also help with balance for both the butterfly and larva. Yes, some larva have sensory antennae.

Anterior Margin

The front edge of the butterfly wing that is closest to the butterflies head. This area is usually thicker and is an important aid for the butterfly when flying. This is also called the Costal Margin.

Aposematic Coloration

Obvious bright colors and markings on butterfly wings warning predators that the species is poisonous or distasteful.


A large group of caterpillars. The term army is used because of the 'attack' they can make on host plants.


An invertebrate animal having an exoskeleton, jointed appendages and a segmented body.

                                                  butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - B

Butterfly Basking
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Photo: Erwin Straehley

When butterflies rest on an open area taking in the sun's rays. This is necessary as butterflies can't fly when it is too cold.
Dorsal Basking - When butterfly's wings are open completely.
Lateral Basking - When butterfly's wings are up, or closed.

Batesian Mimicry

When a butterfly looks similar to a toxic species. This was discovered by Henry Walter Bates as he learned this mimicry is to deter predators.

Tortoishell & Red Admiral
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Photo: Mille19

Different plants and animal species existing together in an environment.


Those butterfly species that have two generations a year.


Butterflies belonging to the Lycaenidae family. What is unique to this family of butterflies is their relationship with ants.


One generation of butterflies living during the same time period. This also can be defined as a generation from a common female.


Butterflies belonging to the Satyridae family. The Satyrids are a subfamily to the Brushfooted, or Nymphalidae, family.

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Photo: Koakidbob54

Butterflies belonging to the Nymphalidae family. Nymphalidae is the largest family of butterflies which includes the sub-families of Danaidae, Libytheidae and Satyridae.


This term used synonymously with Butterfly Watching. This is a past-time that is gaining as much popularity as bird watching. Should you find yourself starting this new hobby don't miss hidden areas they may be found such as on rotting fruit. Avoid casting a shadow over the butterfly as they may move to seek the warmth of the sun.

                                                  butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - C

Capital Breeders

An organism that stores up energy and body fat as fuel for reproduction. With Lepidoptera it depends on whether adults have functional mouth parts or not. For capital breeders it is at the larval stage when energy is stored. Also see Income Breeders.


The second of four stages for the butterfly. This is also the Larval stage where molting occurs and eating constantly to build up energy for the third stage, or Pupa stage.


A polysaccharide found in the exoskeleton of the butterfly and other insects. It is a polymer composed of repeating bonded structural units.

Chordotonal Organ

The chordotonal sensory organ is a sound organ found in some butterfly species. It is not common but these species make clicking noises that can be detected.

Science studies still progress and it is believed that this sensory organ works in conjunction with the Vogel's Organ in the Nymphalidae butterfly family, also assisting in the hearing process.

Another organ that assist butterflies in the hearing process is the Tympanal Organ.


The thin, but hard shell, encasing the butterfly egg. This shell helps retain moisture.


The Pupa stage of the butterfly during the third stage where metabolic activity forms the organs of the adult butterfly that will emerge from the chrysalis.


An appendage on the male butterfly found on the rear segment of the abdomen which holds onto the female during mating.


A difference in appearance of like butterflies due to geographical areas.


The thick end of some butterfly's antenna.


A small group. In butterfly terms it usually refers to a 'cluster' of eggs that the female places on a host plant.


A hard part of the exoskeleton found on the top of an insects head. Its purpose shows different class identification and is usually made by sulci, or grooves.

Cold Blooded

Any insect or reptile unable to regulate their body temperature. As the environmental temperatures rise and fall, so do the temperature of the butterfly.

Colleterial Glands

Colors and shapes of the butterfly egg vary depending on the species by the colleterial glands. It is also the colleterial gland that produces the sticky, cement like adhesive that adheres the egg firmly to leaves. This substance is similar to wax offering protection to the egg so it won't dry out


Functional living and non-living factors all tied-in where it provides a circle of nutrition and energy. Communities are all different. For example, your garden is a smaller community of a larger community such as your entire yard. A community is also known as an ecosystem.

Compound Eye

The butterfly has two compound eyes made up of about 6000 hexagonal lenses (what would be comparable to our Cornea). Light images are then communicated to the rhabdome, where optic nerves then carry information to the butterfly brain.


See 'Sphragis'

Corpus Bursa

A duct in the female's abdomen where the male's sperm sac is placed and held during butterfly mating. Once the female finds the host plant, she begins to deposit her eggs which will pass through the corpus bursa and become fertilized by the sperm.

Cryptic Coloration -

Those butterflies whose colors blend into the background of their native environment. These butterflies are not likely to get our attention as the brightly colored ones do. They are more drab in appearance. Also referred to as Crypsis.


The caterpillar sheds the top layer of skin by loosening and then beginning to separate. The new soft skin underneath forming is called the cuticle.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - D


The process of feeding on any remains found on the ground. This could be plants, animals, insects, including some butterflies that feed.


A period of suspending growth when weather becomes too harsh, as in winter, and food becomes less abundant. Butterflies stop development and become dormant. This happens to many insects, not all.


The same butterfly species with two different forms or appearances. This can be related to geographic location, season or sex.


Species of insects and animals that are active during the day.


The circle-eight pattern butterflies make when fluttering or hovering.

Butterfly Glossary - E


Emerging from the pupa.


A functioning community of living and non-living organisms providing a circle of nutrition and energy.


The female butterfly lays her egg or eggs after mating. This is the first of four developmental stages through the complete metamorphosis of the adult butterfly.


To exit or to leave any area permanently.


The study of insects. An Entomologist is one who studies insects.


The combination of evolutionary and developmental biologies.

It is the perfunctory combination of development influenced by evolutionary forces, or the process through which an embryo/egg develops into adulthood, then through the process of death.

I put this on the butterfly glossary because there are studies discussing Evo-Devo and Lepidoptera.


The outside protection of the butterfly which is made of chitin. It is hard and waterproof and supports the butterfly. An outside skeleton.

Eye Spots

Found on the wings of butterflies and some caterpillars. Eye spots are created as a defense mimicing the face of a larger animal scaring predators away.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - F


A group of related or similar organisms. A group of similar families forms an order.


Chemical compounds in the form of food for larvae that have different colors. After ingested these chemical compounds can influence the colors in the adult butterfly wing.


The two 'upper' wings on a butterfly. Learn how important forewings are to the Monarch for their butterfly migration.


The solid waste of the caterpillar.


The frontal area between the eyes of the butterfly. Frons is Latin for forehead, front. See more at butterfly anatomy.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - G


Genetic constitution, DNA, heredity for both the larva and adult butterfly present since fertilization.

Gossamer Winged

The Lycaenidae Family consists of the Gossamer-winged butterflies. By definition gossamer means an extremely delicate variety of gauze.


A gentic abnormality where both male and female characteristics are found on one butterfly.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - H


The native environment of an animal or plant. More information on the Food Web page.


Undergoing an incomplete metamorphosis. There are also insects that have a metamorphosis, in this case they go through three stages. The egg, nymph (an immature invertebrate) and adult stage. Development is gradual throughout all three stages. There is no pupal stage where metabolic activity takes place as with the butterfly.


The completion of one generation for a species that is two years. This is usually when habitat is harsh and hibernation can occur.


The blood of butterfly containing nutrients, fat and water. Can also be spelled Haemolymph.


This is a butterfly family which includes the skipper. Skippers wings appear smaller proportionately because of their much thicker body.


This is the location selected by the butterfly, or any species, for winter hibernation.


When a species becomes dormant over the winter. For those butterflies that do hibernate, depending on the species, some can hibernate during their larval stage, others their pupa stage.


The butterfly rectum.


The lower wings of a butterfly.


This is also another term to describe an insects complete metamorphosis within four stages. These four stages incluede the egg, larva, pupa and adult stage. Included with butterflies are insects such as beetles, flies, ants and bees.


A chemical solution secreted by caterpillars of the Lycaenidae family to attract other insects to feed upon. Honeydew can be created by other insects for the same purpose.

Host Plant

The environment where the female butterfly deposits her eggs. A host plant can be a tree, shrub or plant. Some butterfly species can only seek one plant where as others can use many plants for shelter.

Humeral Lobe

The mechanism that joins the wings to each side of the butterfly's body. For moths this mechanism is called Frenulum.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - I

Imaginal Discs

Non-fuctional cells strctured as 2-eye discs, 6-leg discs and other adult parts of butterflies during the caterpillar stage, becoming more prominent at the last instar. It is during the pupal stage these discs become cursors for the adult butterfly.


The adult butterfly that can reproduce. Most butterflies are able to reproduce almost immediately after emerging from pupa.

Immature Stage

The ovum, larva and chrysalis stages. Regulated by male and female genes, genetic constitution remains the same.

Income Breeders

Those organisms that use current food sources to intake fuel of stored fat for reproductive purposes. Because this group of breeders had functional mouth parts they feed primarily on carbohydrates. This is the opposite of Capital Breeders.


An invertebrate that, as an adult, is divided into three body segments - the head, thorax and abdomen. Insects also have three pair of jointed legs attached to the thorax.


A species that eats mostly insects, like birds. More detailed information on the Food Web page.


When caterpillars molt each stage is referred to as instar. The average a caterpillar molts is 4-5 times. There are other insects that have up to 9 motling stages.


The outer surface of the exoskeleton.


Any species without a backbone.


A seasonal expansion of some species of butterflies, or other animals, caused by population pressure in core breeding areas.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - J

Johnston's Organ

A sensory organ located at the base of the antennae. It is used to detect sound and motion and is more commonly used to find a mate.

Butterfly Glossary - L

Labial Palps

Two verticle scales that surround the butterfly proboscis. They each have sensory hairs helping to break down any food.


The butterfly upper lip.


The second of four stages in butterfly development. Also known as the caterpillar stage.

Butterfly Legs

The adult butterfly has three pair of legs. These six legs are attached to the Thorax, unless there are pro-legs. These legs are made up of five jointed sections. These sections are the Coax, Trochanter, Femur, Tibia and Tarsus. The Tarsus (Tarsi - plural) are clawed and located at the end of the leg acting like a foot. This is where the Chemoreceptors are located.


This is a Greek word and broken down Lepidoptera means 'Scale-Wings'. Butterflies and moths are the only insects with scales on their four wings.

Lepidopterist is one who studies butterflies and moths.

Life Cycle

The four stages that butterflies go through when reaching complete metamorphosis. The stages are Egg, Larva, Pupa and Adult.

Line of Thinness

Small opening, or line near the top of egg where the caterpillar can get out.

Lines of Weakness

The splitting line of cuticle that allows for molting and also the adult butterfly to emerge.


Fat. Lipids act as fuel and is stored for butterfly migration and reproduction.


The Lycaenidae Family consists of the Gossamer-winged butterflies. By definition gossamer means an extremely delicate variety of gauze.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - M


Areas of the butterfly where spots are located.

Malpighian Tubules

Long filiments that run down each side of the butterfly body. These tubes pick up waste throughout their body with hemolymph and passed into a liquid form, then into the hindgut for excretion.


During the caterpillar stage mandibles are the 'jaws' that thear the leaves and make them digestible.

Maxillary Palps

Sense organs in the caterpillar mouth helping guide them to food. For the adult butterfly this is the Maxillae, or Proboscis.


A butterfly species that is from the Riodinidae family. The metalmark butterfly, also known as Jewelmark, has wings that are metallic in appearance.


A transformation process that many types of species go through during their life cycle. The butterfly goes through four stages where tissue reorganizes until complete metamorphosis occurs in an adult butterfly.


To travel long distances away from or back to a location. For example, the Monarch butterfly migrates south from North America to Mexico over the winter avoiding adverse weather. When spring comes third and forth generation Monarchs make the trip back north.


Two unrelated butterfly species with similar markings designed to confuse predators. Most famous is Batesian Mimicry but there are other types as well.

Molt also Moult

During the Larva stage the caterpillar eats constantly to prepare for its Pupa stage. As the caterpillar grows the top layer of skin sheds, or molts and is replaced with a new layer.


Transformation of appearance into another. Morphism is a suffix meaning the condition of having of specified shape or the state of having a form. Morphe in Greek translates to 'Form'.


Various chemical substances that influences growth and differentiation of embryonic cells.


Any species that will only eat one food source.

Some butterfly species use only one host plant. If these species place eggs on a different host plant they won't survive.


Many short-lived generations in a year.

Butterfly Glossary - N


Sweet liquid produced by flowers. Nectar contains sugars, including monosaccharides (the simplest form of sugar), water, and amino acids (proteins which aid in growth and repair in cells) which helps the female butterfly with egg production. Nectar is also an immediate energy source and also can become stored fat.

Nectar Corridor

Any habitat that is along a migration route providing food sources to refuel. See the Monarch and their butterfly migration.


Any animal or insect species that is active at night. Moths are noturnal, where as butterflies are primarily diurnal. Both moths and butterflies are Lepidoptera.


The Nymphalidae family of butterflies is also known as Brushfooted. This is the largest family of butterflies worldwide. Nymphalidae family has many sub-families. Included are the Danaidae (Monarch) and Libytheidae families.

Butterfly Glossary - O


The butterfly larva has six pair of simple eyes called Ocelli, or Stemmata. The Ocelli/Ocellus assists but the caterpillars vision is still very poor.


Any animal species that feeds from a variety of food sources. Many butterfly species can use a variety of different kinds of host plants (and other things) unlike other species that are monophagous.


The hundreds of thousands of tiny units that make up the butterfly's compound eyes. They detect motion, colors, iridescent and ultraviolet patterns. Butterflies can't see distance well, only close up.


An order are similar organisms or species. A group of similar orders forms a class.


A fleshy organ found behind the head of many swallowtail caterpillar species. When they feel threatened the caterpillar's osmeteria emits a fowl odor to scare predators off.


Another, more familiar, term is hibernation. This is where a species become dormant over the winter. For those butterfly species that do hibernate, depending on the species, some over-winter during their larva stage. Other butterfly species over-winter during their pupa stage.


Any species that hatches from an egg. Butterflies are oviparous.

Ovipositor Also Oviduct

The organ through which a female will deposit her eggs. Oviposition is the process of laying eggs.

Butterfly Glossary - P


Appendages that protect and clean the proboscis.


Appendages that house the proboscis underneath the head. These help in identifying food.


Any species that feeds on pollen. Another term with different spelling which means the same is: PollinophagyOther terms that fall under this category are..
Phleophagy - Any species that feeds on bark.

Phyllophagy - Any species that feeds on leaves.

Phytophagy - Any species that feeds on plants.


Male butterfly species that flies throughout their habitat seeking a receptive female to mate with.


The base of each individual scale on the butterfly wing. Also the base (one of three parts) of an insects Antenna. These three parts of antenna are the: Flagellum - This is the part of the antenna that we see with ease. This part of the antenna helps with communication and navigation.

Pedicel - This is the second segment where the Johnston's Organ can be found. It aids the insect with sound, smell, motion and orientation.

Scape - This is the base of antenna that attaches directly to head. It acts as the socket keeping the antenna in place and helping with coordination.


Male butterfly species that sits high up (in a tree, atop a hill, etc.) waiting for a receptive female to fly by for butterfly mating.  Many males who perch are not likely to be of a local habitat.


A chemicka, or natural odor, secreted by some animals and insects to cause specific reactions in other species. Many times the reaction is to create a reaction for potential butterfly mating.  Both male and female butterflies emit pheromones. The male can smell the female pheromones up to one mile away.

Sometimes these 'scent patches' are used to repel species to.


Light-sensitive cells that detect the absence of presence of light. Not all, but some butterfly species (male and female) have them in their genitals. Why is not completely understood yet.


The pollination process transfers a reproductive cell (called a gamete/s) to the reproductive cell of the opposite sex for fertilization. Self-Pollination - Movement within a flower or flowers from the same plant.

Cross-Pollination - This is pollination between flowers from separate plants.


Pollen can be transferred in a variety of ways including wind and other environmental factors. A pollinator is any insect or animal that will transfer pollen from one location to another.


The last of the larval stages when butterflies and other insects prepare for the pupal stage. At this point the caterpillar will stop eating and start to rest.

Primary Consumer

Those that feed on plants, like caterpillars or butterflies.


This is the butterfly family that is know to be Whites, Yellows and Sulphurs. One of the most common butterflies in the Pieridae family is known as the Cabbage White. Many species in the Pieridae family are known to be pests.


Polymorphism is the existence of one or more than one form of morph. The quick definition is differences in butterflies appearances. Multiple forms of the same species.


Butterflies or other species that uses host plants from different genus class.


Having multiple broods each season.

Orange Banded Heliconian
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Photo: Cosmin Manci

Like or same species.


A coiled tube made of two attached halves that unrolls to sip nectar.


Also known as False Legs. Prolegs are what differs brushfooted (Nymphalidae) butterflies from other butterfly families. Sometimes difficult for the human eye to see, Brushfooted butterflies have a front pair of legs that are smaller in size than others.

Because of this Brushfooted are also called the four-footed butterfly. These small legs allow them to taste their food.


Pterins - Amino acids and enzymes that also produce colors in butterfly wings. Pterins are found in all butterfly families, especially the Pieridae family.

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Butterflies need water and often times it is found in a puddle of water.

They are attracted to puddles because of the necessary minerals and salts needed in their diet. These are found in the soil.

Photo: Jonathan Souza

The third stage of four in the butterfly life cycle. This is the chrysalis stage where the butterfly remains dormant while it undergoes metabolic transformation. This is where internal organs change from caterpillar to adult butterfly.

Butterfly Glossary - R


Many butterflies. A collection not necessarily orderly.


The butterfly 'retina'. The compound eyes sends all light to the rhabdome then all information is then carried to the brain.


A location where winged animals rest, or roost.

Butterfly Glossary - S


The wings of butterflies are made of membranes. On these membranes are overlapping rows of many little hairs called setae. Setae are more commonly called scales.


Different sections of an insects body. The butterfly body has three segments - Head, Thorax, and Abdomen.


Sensory hairs found on some caterpillars that respond to air-borne vibrations by triggering defensive movements. These sensory hairs can also be found on the adult butterfly antenna responding to mating signals. More information at butterfly larva.


Tiny hair-like bristles all over the body of butterfly that are sensitive to smell, touch and some sound.

Sexual Dimorphism

Sexual Dimorphism is where males and females within the same species have different colors, shapes and patterns. This is widespread in butterflies. For example, something as simple as the width of the vein in the male butterfly wing can distinguish him from the female.

Sex Patch

Scent scales, or pheromones, that are located on wings.


Individuals that are similar in appearance that form a grouping of similar looking offspring. Sub-species - Same species that differ slightly in appearance by geographical location due to interbreeding of each.


The male deposit in the female's corpus bursa. This provides sperm and nutrients needed to for the female to produce and deposit eggs.

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Photo: Dragi52

After mating some males deposit a waxy substance in the female opening to prevent her from mating again.

Some females refuse this. By doing so she will be more desirable to mate again. This is also known as a Copulatory.

Simple Eye

Adult Butterflies have simple eyes combined with compound eyes. Larva have only a simple eye which senses light and vague images. This is also an Ocelli and Stemmata.


Nine pair of pores, or holes, along the sides of a butterfly that allows them to breathe.


See 'Ocelli' and the above term 'Simple Eye'.


Scent scales located on the wings of many male butterflies. See more at butterfly mating.


A group of butterflies, which can also be known as a Rabble.


A population of like species is further broken down into a sub-species by interbreeding. As many species are located to a geographic area, so are the sub-species.

Butterfly Glossary - T

Trap Lining

A daily 'route' which the butterfly takes to seek food sources. More often this is the nectar from flowers.

Tactile Setae

The butterfly wings have over-lapping rows of tiny hairs called setae. Tactile Setae are are longer hairs attached to nerve cells on appendages such as antennae and mouth parts helping the butterfly to sense touch. All information through these nerve cells is relayed to the butterfly brain.


The spiracle holes that allows a butterfly (also some caterpillar and pupa) to breathe. They connect to a network of long tubes, called tracheae, that pumps the air through the tubes.


Like the butterfly is divided into segments, so is the the butterfly leg divided into segments. The tarsus is the last of five segments in the leg that touches surfaces. See also butterfly anatomy.


The thorax of a butterfly is one of three body segments. This is where the four butterfly wings are attached.

Extremely strong muscles in the thorax make the legs and wings move for the butterfly. The root of this word is 'Thora' which means 'chest'.


A donut like cell that circles around the pedicil on butterfly wings.


Produces a sex pheromone secretion that helps flatten scales. It also allows them to overlap like shingles on a roof.

True Legs

Three pair of larger legs attached to the butterfly Thorax. There is a front leg (fore leg for Brushfooted butterflies), a Middle leg and a Hind leg.

Tympanal Organ

The hearing organ for some butterflies and insects through vibration. These vibrations are heard as sounds through the Chordotonal Organ.

butterfly glossary

Butterfly Glossary - U


Any color with wavelengths too short to be seen by humans. Butterflies are able to see ultraviolet light and, therefore, see colors differently than we do.


Any species that have one generation a year, or a one year life cycle.

Butterfly Glossary - V


These are the tubes found in butterfly wings that carry nourishment throughout.


The patterns of the veins on butterfly wings.

Vitelline Membrane

The sac that lies beneath the chorion that surrounds developing larva.

Vogel's Organ

Studies have shown males of one butterfly species (Cracker butterfly, a Brushfooted butterfly species known as a Hamadryas butterfly.) have hearing organs.

Some males of this species make a clicking sound with their wing veins for territorial display. Other males of this species hear this clicking with an organ at the base of their Forewing Veins, called Vogel's Organ.

Butterfly Glossary - W

Wing Span

The distance measured across the wings.

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