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Butterflies and Moths: FAQ

Q. What are butterflies and moths?
A: Butterflies and moths belong to a group of  insect known as Lepidoptera.  Like all insects, butterflies and moths have a head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae, and six legs.  Additionally, moths and butterflies have four wings that are almost always covered by colored scales, and a coiled proboscis for drinking liquids such as flower nectar.  There are exceptions such as wingless adult and moth without proboscis.

Q. What is the difference between butterflies and moths?
A. Butterflies are mostly brightly colored, have clubbed antennae and fly by day while Moths are usually dull colored, nocturnal and have tapered or feathery antennae.

Branded Imperial
(Eooxylides tharis)


Refer to the butterfly page at  Beal Early Childhood Center for a pictorial comparison between butterflies and moths.

Q. How many species of butterflies and moths are there in the world?
A. There are approximately 20,000 species of  butterflies and 120,000 species of moths.
In Singapore, 3811species of butterflies have been recorded but only 240+ have been verified over the last 6 years. Of the 381 species, about 55 are now extinct.

Q. What is the life cycle of butterflies?
A. Butterflies go through complete metamorphosis. They pass through 4 distinct stages which are:

  1. Egg (ovum)
  2. Caterpillar (larva) - 4 stages (instar)
  3. Pupa (chrysalis)
  4. Adult (imago)

: 2~3 days,
: 1 week ~ 3 weeks,
: 1 week (birdwing ~ 4 weeks), and 
: 2~4 weeks
Butterflies lay between a few to more than 1000 eggs.  Eggs are normally laid after they are fertilized.

Q. How long do butterflies live?
A. The typical life span of adult butterflies is between 2 to 4 weeks but some butterflies can live for more than 6 months.

Q. What do butterflies feed on?
A. Caterpillars feed mainly on plant parts while adult butterflies eat liquids to maintain their water balance and energy stores. They sip flower nectar and imbibe fluids from sap flowers on trees, rotting fruits, bird droppings, or animal dung.  Adult butterflies can usually be found drinking fluids at wet sand or mud, especially along stream courses or the edges of dirt roads or trails.

Q. Can butterflies see? How do they communicate?
A. Butterflies have compound eyes that see multiple blurred images.  The eye allows them to see color and movement while their legs and antennae sense movement through vibration.

Butterflies communicate with each other by color, chemicals, sound and physical actions.
Color patterns are used to signal their sex or species to each other.  Chemical pheromones are used by both sexes of some butterflies to attract the opposite sex or to signal species identity in courtship.   A few butterflies make clicking sounds to protect their space.  Physical actions such as aggressive flight or postures are used in courtship or to protect resources such as an important flower.

Q. Where do butterflies go at night or when it rains?
Butterflies seek the shelter of leaves at night.  Most park themselves on the undersides of leaves where they are sheltered from the rain and winds.

Q. What is the biggest known butterfly?
A. The female Papua New Guinea Birdwing, which is about  25cm across, is the biggest in the world.
In Singapore, the female Common Birdwing and Common Tree Nymph are the biggest butterflies, while the Atlas moth is the biggest moth.

Q. Are butterflies poisonous?
A. Some butterflies are 'poisonous' but they are not so poisonous that they kill people or large animals. Butterflies, especially the Danaide (the Tigers, Crows),  whose caterpillars eat poisonous plants such as milkweeds, pipevines, and passionvines, are distasteful and can cause birds who eat them to vomit or spit them out. Other good-tasting butterflies (called "mimics") come to resemble them and thus benefit from this "umbrella" of protection.

Q. What is the best time to observe butterflies?
A. Butterflies are day flying insects and thus are active during the warmer part of the day. The best time to observe butterflies is when the sun is up and there is a light breeze, typically from 9:30am-12pm, 2:00pm-3:30pm.

Q. Where can I find butterflies?
Butterflies can be found any place where there are plants.  This can be your neighbourhood garden, wildlife refuges, open grasslands and nature parks.

In Singapore, the best places to observe butterflies are Town and Nature Parks such as West Coast Park, Bukit Batok Nature Park, Telok Belangah Park, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Pulau Ubin and the Central Catchment area such as Mandai Zoo, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Sime Forest, Upper Seletar Reservoir and Upper Pierce Reservoir.

Q.  What are some the most common butterflies in Singapore?
A. The Lime Butterfly, Lemon Emigrant, Common Palmfly are commonly found in Housing Estates and urban areas while the Common Grass Yellow, Chocolate Pansy, Painted Jezebel, Striped Albatross and Orange Emigrant are commonly seen in parks and open grassland.

Q. Where can I find out more about butterflies?
A. There is an abundance of butterfly literature in print and on the Web.  See our books recommendations and web links for more information.

1 381 is derived from the 363 species recorded in the books of W.A Fleming and Corbet & Pandlebury, plus 18 new species recorded recently by Khew SK and Steven Neo.