Mass butterfly and moth move at Museum

14 August 2009

More than 8 million butterflies and moths begin their move in to their new home in the Natural History Museum’s landmark Darwin Centre this week.

The 8-storey cocoon building in the Darwin Centre

The 8-storey cocoon building in the Darwin Centre

The Museum’s Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) collection is moving into new world-class storage facilities, with tightly controlled environmental conditions that will better protect the irreplaceable specimens.

The public can visit the new 8-storey cocoon building when the Darwin Centre opens on 15 September. It’s a state-of-the-art science and collections facility as well as being a new and exciting space for visitors.

Included in the move are 5578 drawers of British butterflies and moths and it will take 6 months for staff to carefully transport all of the fragile Lepidoptera specimens.

Museum Collections Manager Geoff Martin explains how the move is going. ‘The third floor was completed at the end of June, with 23,578 drawers of Lepidoptera and 10,096 drawers of Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants) installed without a hitch.’

Lepidoptera collections
Colombian butterfly, Idioneurula donegani, discovered by Museum butterfly curator Blanca Huertas in

Colombian butterfly, Idioneurula donegani, discovered by Museum butterfly curator Blanca Huertas in 2007 © Huertas and Arias 2007

The Museum’s Lepidoptera collections are unrivalled in their depth and breadth of coverage. 

They include representatives from about 90,000 described species and are studied by scientists and researchers worldwide.

The collection contains specimens old and new. From the oldest collected in 1680 to a new species discovered in Colombia in 2007 by Museum butterfly curator Blanca Huertas.

Some spectacular specimens from the collection will be on display in the new Darwin Centre including an Atlas moth with a 25cm wingspan.

Butterfly and moth facts
Museum specimen of a Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterfly, the world's largest butterfly

Museum specimen of a Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterfly, the world's largest known butterfly

There are about 20,000 species of butterfly worldwide and more than 6 times as many species of moth, about 147,000.

The world’s largest known butterfly is the rare Queen Alexander’s birdwing from Papua New Guinea. The females are larger and can have a wingspan of up to 28cm. 

The smallest known butterfly is the dwarf blue, from Africa, which has a wingspan of 1.4cm.

Telling butterflies from moths
Usually found in Papua New Guinea, this colourful moth is a day-flying moth called  Milionia paradis

Usually found in Papua New Guinea, this colourful moth is a day-flying moth called  Milionia paradise

The most reliable way to tell butterflies from moths is to look at their antennae. Butterfly antennae have a clubbed tip whereas moth antennae are usually thread-like or feathered. 

Many people think that moths only fly at night. However, many fly during the day, such as this Milionia paradise (image on the right).

Still millions to install

The mass move of butterflies and moths has only just begun and there is still plenty to do, as Geoff concludes, ’There are approximately two thirds of the Lepidoptera left to be installed’.

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