Lepidoptera families

Below is a brief account of each family of butterfly and macro-moth that occurs in Northern Ireland. Clicking on the family name will bring up the list of species in that family in the left hand frame, clicking on the representative photograph will bring up a page of thumbnails of all the species in that family.



The Nymphalidae contains some of the most familiar N. Irish butterflies including the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral as well as the largest resident species the Silver-washed Fritillary. There are 9 species recorded from N. Ireland, including 5 resident species and 4 migrants or rare vagrants.

The adults of this family are medium to large butterflies which can be distinguished by only have 2 pairs of functional legs, the front pair being degenerate. Many of the species are highly coloured. The adults are capable of long-distance flight. The caterpillars are often conspicuously coloured and covered in protective spikes.


Members of this family are often called 'browns', as most species are some shade of brown. Most species also have eyespots on the underside of the hindwing or upperside of the forewing. There are 6 species of this family found in N. Ireland. The larvae of all European satyrids feed on grass and most species hibernate as a young larva. The larvae of most species are characterised by a smooth tapered outline ending in two short 'tails' on the last body segment.


This family comprises mostly white or yellow butterflies including the familiar 'cabbage whites'. Seven species have been recorded in N. Ireland, including 5 resident, one migrant and one former resident species. The adults of N. Ireland species are medium-sized, mainly white or yellow butterflies. The caterpillars vary in appearance, some being conspicuous and foul-tasting (e.g. Large White), others being camouflaged (e.g. Brimstone).


Included in this family are the species of blue, hairstreak and copper butterflies. Adults are mainly small with brightly-coloured, metallic patches on the wings. In many species the males and females are of different appearance. There are 6 species of this family found in N. Ireland. Lycaenid caterpillars are small and slug-like in appearance. The caterpillar has a gland which produces a sugary solution which is highly attractive to ants. Many species have a very close relationship to ants, even living within ant nests.


Members of this family are called skippers after the characteristic fast flight of the adults. Adults appear moth-like with hairy stout bodies and large heads. They are generally small predominantly brown or grey species. The caterpillars are small with a prominent head. Most rest and feed within a sheltered cocoon formed from leaves held together by silk. Only one skipper, the Dingy Skipper, is resident in Ireland.


A family of very large highly coloured butterflies. Only one species, the Monarch, has been recorded in N. Ireland and only on a few occasions. Caterpillars of this family are large and conspicuous relying on toxic chemicals for protection.


Zygaenidae (Burnets & Foresters)

A large family of medium-sized day-flying moths comprising ten species, three of which are resident in Northern Ireland. All species have bright metallic coloration, are colonial in their habits, and are most active in bright sunshine. Their distinctive appearance and vibrant colours serve as a warning to predators that they are distasteful, and contain toxic substances throughout all stages of their life cycle. The burnets are usually found in open flowery habitats, (which can be dry or damp) and are often seen in large numbers, especially in coastal areas, where they are frequently observed as adults visiting flowers in bright sunshine. During dull and inclement weather, they are more difficult to detect, retreating deep into the vegetation.

The larvae of this family are predominately green with black markings, they hibernate during winter months concealed low down in the herbage and are not easily found. Pupation for most species takes place inside a paper-like cocoon, which is sometimes clearly visible attached to the stems of marram grass and other vegetation.

Lasiocampidae (Eggars)

Seven species represent this family of rather heavy-bodied moths in Northern Ireland. Two of these have day-flying males that are active in bright sunshine. The females are nocturnal, flying from dusk onwards and are not attracted to light in large numbers, therefore many of the records submitted are of larvae.

The general colour of these moths is predominately brown. The mouth parts are only partially developed, and therefore do not feed in the adult stage. The larvae are rather attractive, generally hairy and heavy bodied, often conspicuous, feeding mostly on the leaves of trees and shrubs. Two of the species are communal living within a silken web until the final instar.

Prior to pupation the larvae spin egg like cocoons (hence the name eggars) in which to pupate usually at ground level or among the foodplant. The flight period varies from winter (in two species) and from mid to late summer for the rest.

Saturniidae (The Emperor)

This family of moths are renowned for their great size and beauty. They are essentially of tropical origin with only one species resident in the British Isles. The mouth parts are vestigial and underdeveloped and therefore do not feed in the adult stage. The males fly by day and are most active during sunshine, when the males can be observed flying swiftly across heaths and bogs during spring. The females are nocturnal, flying from dusk onwards and come to light sparingly.

Sesiidae (Clearwings)

These rather unusual day-flying moths, of which there are four species recorded in Northern Ireland, are mimetic resembling hymenopteran wasps. Emergence tends to take place in early morning and they are most active in bright sunshine. The newly emerged adults of the Lunar Hornet Sesia bembeciformis, rest on the trunks and branches of the host tree, but are seldom seen and best looked for in the larval or pupal stages. The larvae infest the stems, crowns, roots of plants and the trunks, and branches of trees. They reach maturity over a period of one to two years depending on species. Successive generations of adults will use the same trees year after year. Prior to pupation the larva will prepare an exit hole through to the surface of the trunk or stem leaving a thin wall for protection prior to emergence. The pupal cases after emergence may be found protruding from the stems and trunks, which is a reliable method of recording its presence. Because of the elusive nature and habits of this family, it is difficult to establish their true distribution. Two of the four species have only been discovered in the 1990's and no doubt may well exist more widely in other suitable habitats.

Drepanidae (Hook-tips)

A small family comprising four species, with characteristic hook-tips to the forewings, with the exception of the Chinese Character. The moths are attracted to light, but appear only in small numbers. The proboscis in this family is rudimentary and therefore the adults are not attracted to sugaring or flowers.

The Chinese Character bears no resemblance in colour or form to the other three species, but when at rest appears to resemble a bird dropping. It does however as a caterpillar (as do all the larvae in this family) have the characteristic humped-backed appearance and the projected tips from the abdomen, which is common in all three species. The absence of the anal claspers on the last segment gives rise to a modified anal segment in the form of a raised tip.

Thyatiridae (Lutestrings)

A smallish family of medium-sized moths comprising five resident species. Some are attractively marked and come readily to light in reasonable numbers. The adults have a well developed proboscis and are attracted to certain flowers and in some cases sugar.

Many of the larvae are nocturnal and retreat to the base of the foodplant during the day making them difficult to find. Others construct a protective tent from rolled up leaves in which to hide, emerging only at night to feed.

They feed on a wide variety of trees and shrubs and produce a single brood each year from June through to August. Some species are subterranean constructing chambers just below ground while others overwinter in cocoons spun among leaves.

Geometridae (Carpets)

Sphingidae (Hawkmoths)

This family contains some of the largest and most spectacular moths that are found in Northern Ireland. Their streamlined wing shape and aerodynamic structure give them the ability to make sustained flights over vast distances. A total of 12 species have been recorded in Ireland and all except one species, the Bedstraw Hawk-moth Hyles galii, have been reported in N. Ireland. Five of the N. Ireland species are resident and the other 6 are migrants. The majority of species (with the exception of two) are nocturnal and show some attraction to light. The other two are diurnal and most commonly encountered during sunny conditions. The six migrant species travel from the warmer regions of southern Europe and the Mediterranean each year in varying numbers to Britain and Ireland and in favourable years some individuals reach N. Ireland.

The larvae of this family are amongst the most impressive of any of our moths and most are strikingly coloured and large. Hawk-moth larvae are distinguished by the presence in some shape or form of a horn-like projection from the anal plate on the eighth segment of the body. Many of the larvae adopt a characteristic sphinx-like posture when at rest on the foodplant, or when threatened have the ability to retract their head into the larger thoracic segments making them appear larger and more intimidating towards a potential predator. The pupae are all subterranean spending the winter below ground in a constructed chamber. Most of the resident species are adult from May to late July, while the migrant species are most often seen between early summer and late autumn.

Notodontidae (Prominents)

The prominents are medium-sized moths, which take their name from the tuft-like scales which project from the inner margin of the forewings and which are present in many of the species. When the moth is resting these tufts come together, forming a raised projection. Most species are quite distinctive in pattern and markings and consequently most N. Ireland species are easily identified. Some species, like the Buff-tip Phalera bucephala, are superbly camouflaged; others such as the Puss Moth Cerura vinula and the 'kittens' are remarkably hairy.

There are fourteen resident species in N. Ireland. The adults are rarely found by day, but all species are attracted to light and appear in moderate numbers after dark. In common with other moth families, the males are most commonly encountered; the females of many species are seldom found in traps. The majority of adults fly during the summer months but a few appear in the spring or early autumn.

The larvae of this family are equally attractive and diverse. Characteristically the larvae have dorsal humps and sit with the head and anal segments raised. In a few species like the 'kittens' the anal claspers are modified into tail-like appendages. These protect thread-like flagellae which are protruded when the larva is threatened. All species feed on the foliage of trees and shrubs.

Lymantriidae (Tussocks)

This family is represented in N. Ireland by four species of medium-sized moths. The most commonly encountered species has a day-flying male and a wingless female. The others are scarce and mainly recorded in southern counties. Two species appear to be recent colonists and spreading north. The adults (with the exception of the Vapourer) are attracted to light, but appear only sporadically in traps. They do not visit flowers or sugar.

The larvae of this family are quite attractive and feed openly on the leaves of a variety of trees and shrubs. The larvae tend to be rather hairy with, in some species, distinctive dorsal tufts. Handling of caterpillars should be avoided as the hairs are irritant and may cause skin irritation in some individuals.

The pupa is protected inside a tough silken cocoon that is often covered with hairs spun on the foodplant, or occasionally on the trunks of trees and fence posts.

Arctiidae (Tigers & Footmen)

The 15 N. Irish species in this family of moths come from two distinct sub families, the Lithosiinae and the Arctiinae. The Lithosiinae are commonly known as footmen, so-called from their stiff appearance and elongated forewings, which they fold tightly around their body. The species in the Arctiinae include the tigers, which are medium-sized, often brightly-coloured moths.

The majority of the larvae of the footmen species feed on lichens and algae growing on walls, fences and tree trunks. Most of the adults have developed mouthparts and will on occasions visit flowers as well as sugar. The adults are attracted to light, but are seldom encountered by day with the exception of the Red-necked Footman Atolmis rubricollis, which has been observed in large numbers resting on ground vegetation or flying around the upper branches of conifers. Pupation takes place among ground vegetation and leaf litter.

In contrast the adults of the tiger species have non-functional mouth parts and therefore do not visit flowers or sugar. The larvae are often large and quite hairy; those of the Garden Tiger Arctia caja are familiarly known as 'woolly bears' or 'granny greybeards'. They come to the attention, particularly of curious children, in early summer when they can be seen crawling on roads and pavements in their search for suitable pupation sites. The adults are generally nocturnal and frequently attracted to light, though species like the Wood Tiger Parasemia plantaginis and the Clouded Buff Diacrisia sannio are often found during the day. Pupation takes place at ground level among leaf litter.

Nolidae (Black Arches)

Noctuidae (Noctuids)