Studying Butterflies

     Butterflies are so beautiful and mysterious that anyone can enjoy watching them, even if you don't know anything about them. But if the mystery gets the best of you, you'll want to learn all you can. A good notebook is always the most valuable tool in any scientific pursuit, particularly in studying butterflies.

     There is much to be said for photography and collecting, too, but the information and enjoyment I get from on-the-spot observation is the most valuable. Photography can be rather expensive (I couldn't throw-away film faster than I shoot it), and collecting can be quite a hassle (though I value my collection as much as I value my photos). I do recommend photography for those with the extra patience and the budget which can support it. I would only recommend collecting to those with extra time and patience who would benefit from having specimens to study in great detail.

The Basics:


  • When you're out butterflying, be sure to take your time and look around. There's so much you might miss if you hurry.
  • Write down what you see in a notebook. Try to note the time and place, as well as the species of butterfly and what it is doing. If you're having trouble identifying butterflies, take along a good field guide.
  • Get as close as possible so you can see exactly what the butterfly is doing and get a good look at its wing markings. It takes practice to learn how to avoid frightening them. Some people recommend binoculars, but I don't like carrying extra equipment. If you're good at this, you'll be too close for binoculars to focus, anyway.
  • Try to re-visit the same spots from time to time so you can get an idea of how the population and diversity change over time and seasons.
  • Try to learn the Latin names for the butterflies. They can help you understand how different species are related to each other. The "vulgar" (common) names don't tell you as much about the butterflies (especially if you don't speak English), though they can be kind of fun.
  • Remember: The more you learn, the more fun it will be.


  • Get a decent camera and lens which will let you focus up close, and make sure you get one with a built-in meter.
  • Now that you have the camera, make sure you get close to the butterfly so you'll get a great shot.
  • Don't carry too much equipment because it's not very fun to chase a butterfly with ten pounds of camera junk weighing you down.
  • Carry extra film.
  • Make sure you get sharp photos of any butterfly which you are having trouble identifying.
  • Use color film. (Duh.)


    Here are a few tips for amateurs. Though there are more don'ts than dos, collecting can be a very enriching part of your lepidoptera studies. A little caution can help make sure your activities aren't harmful to the butterfly population.
  • Don't start collecting until you get really serious about lepidoptera. There's no need to kill them if it doesn't bring scientific or educational gain.
  • Rely on photos instead of collection for identification puposes (when possible).
  • Make sure you keep data with your specimens.
  • If you are careful preparing your specimens and you take care of them, they may even out-last you!
  • Don't take multiple specimens of the same species, except to illustrate variations.
  • Make sure you obey all laws when collecting. (Example: no trespassing or collecting in national parks, etc.)
  • Don't do anything that might endanger local populations.
  • Know which local species might be endangered.