Field Guides > Identifying common butterflies

adonis blue butterfly

Adonis Blue

brimstone butterfly


cabbage white

Cabbage White

comma butterfly


Common Blue

gatekeeper butterfly


common blue

Holly Blue


Meadow Brown

Orange Tip

painted lady butterfly

Painted Lady

peacock butterfly


red admiral butterfly, butterflies field guides

Red Admiral


Small Copper

speckled wood butterfly

Speckled Wood

tortoiseshell butterfly


What are butterflies?

The scientific classification of butterflies is as follows:

  • Common name: Butterfly
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera

Butterfly facts

The life-cycle of butterflies goes through four main stages:

  • Egg
  • Caterpillar
  • Chrysalis
  • Butterfly

The adult butterflies mate and the female lays eggs on the caterpillars food plant. Once the eggs hatch, the caterpillars emerge and gorge themselves on leaves, growing bigger and bigger, until they are ready to pupate and prepare for their next stage. As they grow bigger, they must molt or shed their skins (called an instar). The, once they are mature enough, they have cocoon themselves in their chrysalis, they undergo an amazing transformation – they turn from wriggly caterpillars into beautiful, winged butterflies.

Most butterflies only live for between 2 weeks to a few months in their butterfly form. But, their whole life-cycle, from caterpillar to adult butterfly, can take up to a year.

During the winter, some butterflies hibernate in their caterpillar form, while others migrate to warmer climates. This is because, much like birds, butterflies migrate mainly in search of food and also because, being cold-blooded creatures, they cannot survive in cold temperatures.

Butterflies feed on trees and plants and each butterfly has its own favorite food source. As caterpillars they tend to eat leaves, munching merrily through them. But, as adult butterflies, they drink nectar and liquids, sucking it up through their straw-like tongue or proboscis.

At a glance, butterflies are made up of a central body (usually slender), including their head, thorax and abdomen; four wings, including two fore-wings and two hind-wings;  six legs; and two antennae (often clubbed).

Butterfly families

There are six butterfly families:

  • Swallowtails (Papilionidae)
  • Brush-foots (Nymphalidae)
  • Whites and sulphurs (Pieridae)
  • Gossamer wings (Lycaenidae)
  • Metalmarks (Riodinidae)
  • Skippers (Hesperiidae)
The swallow tail butterflies bear the typical swallowtail appearance, having those beautiful trails at the ends of their hind wings.
Brush-foot butterflies make up the biggest family of butterflies and include peacock butterflies, red admirals, emperor butterflies and comma butterflies. They are names for the shape of their legs – at first glance, they appear to have only two pair of legs. But, look a little closer and you will see a smaller pair tucked away at the front, which they use to help them taste their food.
White and sulphur butterflies are amongst our most commonly spotter species – cabbage whites and little whites. They tend to have pale, white or yellow coloured wings with black or orange markings.
Gossamer-winged butterflies, contain many of our smaller butterfly species, such as hair-streaks, blues and coppers. They get their name from the shiny appearance of their wings, which flash and shimmer as they fly.
You will be very fortunate indeed to spot a metalmark butterfly, as these species tend to live in the warmer climates of the tropics. But, they are spectacular-looking butterflies with shiny metallic patterns on their wings.
Skippers are sometimes not considered ‘true butterflies’ as they look very much like day-flying moths. They tend to be a drab brown or grey in colour, with white or orange marking; have thick, stout bodies, hooked antennae and a quick, dancing flight.
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