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Butterflies (Lepidoptera), also called butterflies, are found almost all over the world. There are over 160,000 species and about 100 families - making them one of the largest insects. Most butterflies are native to the tropics and subtropics - only in the coldest regions of the earth, such as the Antarctic, they are not found. In Germany there are about 3,700 species. According to recent studies, butterflies have been inhabiting the earth for 201 million years. This remarkably long period of time researchers find justified in the incredible adaptability of flying insects. What makes butterflies so popular - their varied and colorful appearance - is in truth a perfect form of natural adaptation. Dark colored butterflies can store even the smallest ray of sunshine. Other moths, mostly designed in natural and earthy tones, are perfectly camouflaged and thus escape predators. Still others warn with striking colors or patterns (very daunting for other animals: artificial eyes such as those of the peacock's eye) their surroundings and keep them away from them. The lifespan of butterflies is usually between a few hours (true sack carriers) and almost a year (for example, lemon butterflies).

Food sources and habitats

The natural habitats of butterflies are relatively untouched meadows, fallow fields, as well as wild shrubs and shrubs, as well as mixed forests. They prefer sunny locations and a varied flora. The main food is nectar, but the insects also feed on pollen, honeydew, tree sap or overripe fruit. Some species also eat moist soil, dung or carrion.

Anatomy of the butterfly

The outer skeleton of the butterflies is made of chitin. The individual chitin plates are arranged in rings and connected by joint skins. Feet and legs, which also consist of rings, are called attachments. As with most insects, the body is divided into three sections: head (caput), chest (thorax) and abdomen (abdomen).
At the head are two feelers, also called antennas, as well as the mouthparts. The feelers differ depending on the family, often by gender. Their shape makes them look like combs, clubs or threads. They are covered by special hair, through which the insects can absorb odors. The mouthparts are unique in nature. The upper jaws of butterflies are almost always completely regressed. Instead, they have a suction tube (trunk), through which they can only absorb liquid food. When not in use, the trunk is rolled up. The compound eyes of the butterflies consist of up to 30,000 hexagonal single eyes (ommatidia).


The pigeon tail has a particularly long proboscis - ideal to get to nectar from deep calyx

The organs of movement, ie legs and wings, are derived from the thoracic segment, which consists of three segments. The feet are clawed. Butterflies owe their remarkably beautiful appearance to the scales on their wings, which are actually heavily flattened hair. In them are color pigments. But the colorful patterns are mainly due to the delicate, rib-like arrangement of the scales, which make the insects look so colorful by light incidence or reflection. The butterflies also owe their scientific name to this shed: Lepidoptera means something like flake-wing. Many butterflies also have fragrance scales on their wings that attract sexual partners. In the most advanced butterfly families, such as the bear spinners, there are two hearing organs at the back of the breast, which specialize in ultrasound sounds. They allow the predominantly nocturnal insects to perceive bats and avoid them.
The abdomen contains the internal organs, ie the heart, parts of the intestine and the nervous system, as well as the reproductive organs and various glands. This is where the fragrances that attract potential sexual partners are also formed.

Developmental stages of butterflies

From the egg to the finished moth, butterflies undergo a so-called complete metamorphosis (Greek for metamorphosis). They change their shape several times and show up as caterpillars, pupae and finally as butterflies. The adult insect is called Imago.
Female butterflies lay on average 100 to 300 eggs. These have many different shapes: they can be oval, round semicircular, but also spindle-shaped or lenticular. Their diameter is about 0.5 to 2 millimeters. The shell of the eggs is very hard and often has a uniform pattern.The color is initially white, but changes shortly before hatching in a dark black or blue. The eggs are deposited individually or in heap-like groups mostly on the underside of leaves of plants.

Caterpillar stage swallowtail

Even in the caterpillar stage, the swallowtail is an absolute eye-catcher in the garden

Butterfly caterpillars have a uniformly articulated trunk consisting of the head and 14 so-called segments. The last three segments usually form a single anal segment. The Chitinpanzer of the head is more stable than the rest. On its underside sit right and left six point eyes (stemmata). On top is a pair of sensors, in front the mouthparts. The first three segments represent the trunk, from which each pair of legs depart. On the back is a robust neck shield. On the side are the stigmas, ie pore-like openings that lead into the tracheal system of the butterflies and supply the individual organs with oxygen. They form, so to speak, the lungs of the flying insects.
The doll of a butterfly resembles a nearly immovable mummy. Inside this resting stage, the transformation process from the caterpillar to the finished butterfly takes place (the anatomy of the butterfly can be found above).

Natural enemies

Depending on the stage of development, butterflies are exposed to numerous different enemies. Very often they are attacked by insect-eating songbirds such as coal and blue tits - or go spiders into the net. In addition to web spiders, however, crab spiders are also a great danger for butterflies. They are able to adapt in color to their favorite flowers and thus - well camouflaged - to ambush the insects. Wasps and hornets are also considered natural enemies. The silver-mouth wasp (Lestica subterranea) mainly hunts small butterflies and paralyzes them with a bite into the nervous system. After that, it is child's play to carry the prey into their nest. Sand wasps of the genus Ammophila only eat butterflies in the caterpillar stage. However, parasites have the biggest influence on the butterfly population. For example, brown-footed wasps develop in the eggs as well as the caterpillars and pupae of the butterflies. They kill their host every time. In addition, there are some parasitic fly species that specialize in butterflies. Although parasites are able to significantly reduce the number of butterflies, they also keep the population in their natural balance, so they are important for the entire ecosystem.


belt doll

The swallowtail hibernates as a so-called belt doll, firmly spun on a plant

Butterflies are among the warm-blooded organisms, that is: their body temperature is adapted to the respective outside temperature. In winter, they seek shelter from the cold and frost hidden hiding place. In the garden, the piles of leaves that have not been completely cleared away in the fall, but also sheds or unheated garden sheds. Peacock butterfly, Admiral or the small and the big fox overwinter in tree caves or in cold gazebos or sheds. The C-moth survives the winter, as well as the Lemon Butterfly, completely outdoors, but sometimes also takes shelter in tree caves. The Brimstone takes in winter a distinctive resting position, in which he folds his wings up. Internally, he concentrates his body fluids and thus reduces the freezing point. Thanks to the low body temperature, all body functions are kept to a minimum. In this so-called winter rigor many butterflies survive the cold season. Most, however, survive the cold as the kidney spot as an egg or as a caterpillar or pupal stage. So they are better protected.

Danger and protection

Many butterflies are endangered today and are under protection of species. This is due to changes in the environment and the disappearance of their natural habitats. The cause is the numerous drainage of wetlands, an intensification of agriculture with the accompanying use of pesticides and forestry and afforestation of poor meadows. In addition, the settlement and road areas of people are steadily expanding. Light pollution, for example due to street lighting, as well as lost food sources do the rest.
With flower meadows, wildflower borders and one or the other heaps of leaves in the garden, hobby gardeners can personally counteract this development. Below you will find a selection of native butterflies and their favorite plants, with which you can easily lure the beneficial insects into their garden.

butterfly species

Painted Lady

Caterpillar of the Painted Lady

The caterpillars of the Painted Lady are studded with hairy spines

The migratory butterflies are in the garden from April to September. In spring, they sometimes come to us in larger groups from North Africa - they can be carried by the wind over the Mediterranean and the Alps. On their arrival, the painted ladies sometimes covered up to 4,000 kilometers. This butterfly species is not fussy and "flies" on summer blooms like lavender, phlox and, of course, thistles.The painted lady also lays its eggs on thistles or stinging nettles, which serve as caterpillars for the caterpillars. At five to six centimeters in size, he is one of the largest butterflies that we can observe with us.



The eye pattern of the peacock's eye irritates predators and protects the butterfly from attacks

With its eye-like pattern on its wings, the peacock butterfly scares predators like birds. The butterfly is quite common here. Because he overwinters as an adult moth, you see him early in the year. In the spring, the peacock butterfly pampers pastures, coltsfoot and dandelion, later, among other things, summer lilac, clover, thistle and knapweed. There are up to three generations per year. The black and white dotted caterpillars like to eat on the leaves of the nettle.



The lemon moth is one of the longest living butterflies in this country

Butterflies are usually only allowed a short life of a few weeks - the lemon butterflies, however, is almost a year old. You often meet him in the garden in February. Only the males shine yellow, the females are greenish-white. Her nectar donors include Kratzthistel, Prachtscharte, loosestrife and summer lilac. The perfectly camouflaged green caterpillars exclusively eat at the decaying tree where they pupate.


This fascinating moth is the "hummingbird" among the butterflies. With his long trunk (see picture above) he prefers to suck flowers with deep goblets in the dusky morning and evening hours. In a flight he flies geranium or phlox - creating over 100 flowers in five minutes. Taubenschwänzchen come from the Mediterranean, but overwinter increasingly in southern Germany. The caterpillars like lab herbs like woodruff.

Orange Tip

male Aurora bracket

The wings of the male Aurora clusters have bright orange tips

When meadow-weed flowers bloom in the spring, even the small aurora-leaf is not far. The wildflower is like the garlic mustard not only nectar donor, but also food plant of the caterpillars. These form upright, so-called belt dolls, and also overwinter at this stage. Since the food plants are found only in the spring, the moth is only seen from April to June.

Abraxas Grossulariata

Gooseberry (Abraxas grossulariata)

The gooseberry (Abraxas grossulariata) is also called "harlequin" because of its eye-catching pattern

The gooseberry hawser was named butterfly of the year in 2016 by the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND). The decline of the native alluvial forests as well as the increasing monocultures in the forest are robbing the endangered butterfly more and more of its habitat. The colorful warning sign on the wings owes the gooseberry jar the nickname "Harlequin". The adult butterflies devote their lives solely to reproduction and ingest no food. Forage plants of the caterpillars are spiny and currants. To preserve the species, one should completely abstain from pesticides in his garden.

Medium wine lover

Caterpillar of the Middle Weinschwärmers

The caterpillar of the mid-wine swain shows eye-pieces, which protect them from enemies

Fuchsia lovers know the up to eight centimeters large caterpillars with the eye-catching eye pattern on the head only too well - because the offspring of the Mittleren Weinschwärmers likes to eat their potted plants. The caterpillars but also like fireweed or balsam. The moths are preferred from June to August at brooks and floodplains, Schonungen, but also in gardens, where they suck on various flowers nectar.

Little fox

Little fox

The little fox is found in many gardens

The mostly orange-red colored and strikingly patterned butterfly is one of the most well-known butterflies in this country. Where nettles are allowed to spread in sunny places, the little fox female lays its eggs on the shoot tips of the fodder plant. The dark caterpillars can easily be recognized by the double yellow stripes. As early as March gardeners can enjoy the moth, as it hibernates as an adult butterfly, which becomes active at the first warming sun rays. Among the garden plants, he particularly loves the water and the fat hen.


Caterpillar of cabbage white

The caterpillar of the cabbage white can cause great damage in kitchen gardens and destroy the entire coal crop

The little cabbage white is not very popular in kitchen gardens. He prefers to lay his eggs on the leaves of cabbages in April and July. After hatching in June, the approximately 2.5 centimeters large caterpillars can cause great damage in the vegetable patch. The butterfly itself hibernates as a pup and feasts on purple flowers such as lavender, the Dosts or the red clover.


Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful native butterflies (see cover picture) is the swallowtail. In gliding you see him gliding over species-rich meadows in summer. In the garden, he likes to fly, among other things, summer lilac. The females lay their eggs individually on caterpillar feed plants such as dill, carrot or fennel.Beautiful are the big caterpillars in their last stage of development. They then show themselves in a fresh green and with black and red stripes.



The different Bläuling species show different nuances of blue

Particularly bright are the colors of the male Hauhechel Bläulings. In flight, they are visible from afar. Nectar donates the common horn clover to the butterfly, which is also food plant for the green caterpillars.

Video Board: AJ Tracey - Butterflies (ft. Not3s).

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