Insects of Britain and Ireland: the families of Lepidoptera

DELTA home

L. Watson and M. J. Dallwitz


This data set is generated from a DELTA database (Dallwitz 1980; Dallwitz, Paine, and Zurcher 1993). The original intention of the ‘British Insects’ suite of packages, of which it forms part, was primarily to present scans of the fine hand-coloured engravings of insects in John Curtis’s British Entomology: illustrations and descriptions of the genera of insects found in Great Britain and Ireland (1824–1840). The first 12 volumes of the first edition (up to 1835) were directly available to us, and pages issued from 1836-1840 have been accessed from other sources (see Notes on John Curtis’s British Entomology).

In addition to presenting Curtis’s and other early illustrations, all the ‘British Entomology’ subsets incorporate descriptive data organized under the DELTA system, and purport to offer at least partial identification and information retrieval facilities via the interactive program Intkey. However, the Lepidoptera component (i.e., this subset, plus the separate generic level subsets for the families Noctuidae and Geometridae which accompany it; see also the species level subset of Phyllonocycter) goes further than the rest. By inclusion of copious images from other sources (Newman, 1869 and 1871 — see Notes on Edward Newman’s British Moths and British Butterflies; Nodder and Shaw, 1789 et seq.; Hubner’s Sammlung europaischer Schmetterlinge (1793-1836); Morris, 1843; Coleman (1860); Kirby, 1907), its scope has been extended to illustrate virtually all the species of British ‘Macrolepidoptera’. In this connection, we are especially pleased to offer comprehensive scans of Edward Newman’s beautiful woodcuts, depicting about 800 species, which are organized here into ‘plates’ to facilitate comparisons among related species. Many families of ‘Microlepidoptera’ are now also extensively illustrated by the plates from Stainton’s fine account of the Tineina, as well as from Hubner; and we have recently (2007) further extended the Lepidoptera ‘Families’, Geometridae and Noctuidae data sets to indicate conspicuous examples of melanism, including “industrial melanism”, illustrating these by original colour photographs of specimens collected near Stoke-on-Trent and Manchester in the decade 1948-1958 (i.e., before implementation of the “Clean Air Act”).

Most of the macro-lepidopterous species included in modern British lists but tagged there as ‘alien’, ‘adventive’, or ‘of doubtful British status’ (see Bradley 2000 for details), are illustrated here, and are collectively labelled ‘adventive’ in the descriptions. They include species occasionally or supposedly captured in Britain, which can scarcely be regarded as ‘native’ and which provide much scope for entertaining speculation and detective work. Some examples of these are briefly discussed in the notes on the contents of Curtis’s British Entomology provided with this package.

Apart from pursuing the nomenclature, identities of Lepidoptera depicted in plates from the various sources listed in the References have been checked with resort to Newman (1869, 1871), Stainton (1859), Morris (1893), Kirby (1907), Meyrick (1927), Le Cerf and Herbulot (1948, 1949, 1950), Beirne (1952), and Edelston and Fletcher (1961), by comparing illustrations with descriptive texts, and (where appropriate and possible) via Meyrick’s keys. The few Curtis plates that have so far defied these efforts are indicated by quotation marks in the Intkey displays of descriptions and images, and the folios involved are also available under ‘Unsatisfactorily resolved Images’ in our interactive Insect Orders package, at (see also Updated insect names for John Curtis’s British Entomology).

The nomenclature and classification have been aligned and cross-referenced throughout with the Bradley et al. (1972) and Bradley (2000) updates of the Check List of Kloet and Hincks (1945), and increasingly of late with reference to Internet sources. The frequency and extent of scientific name changes in this popular group rendered the cross-referencing of ‘Microlepidoptera’ an arduous task. Fortunately, however, the common names of British ‘Macrolepidoptera’ have remained remarkably constant for well over a century, and proved very useful in this connection. Coining common names for the ‘Microlepidoptera’ may be pointless, though they can be amusing, as exemplified by Heslop’s ‘The Ruddy Ochreous Flat-body’; but practical applications of taxonomic checklists are severely hampered when they do not include the long-standing common names for British insects, and their omission from them and from professional taxonomic treatments and zoological research papers seems calculated to render the extra-ordinarily rich earlier literature inaccessible to professional biologists in general, as well as to amateurs. Bradley’s index of English names in the latest, comprehensive Check List of Lepidoptera (2000) is therefore an excellent addition; and in view of the inevitability of numerous generic re-assignments and further nomenclatural upheavals when the classificatory results of comparative DNA studies displace the pseudo-phylogenetic classifications of the 20th century, we have likewise included English common names for Macrolepidoptera, at least with reference to Edelsten and Fletcher (1961) and Bradley, in this subset and in the separate packages for ‘Butterflies’ and for the genera of Noctuidae and Geometridae. They may be accessed in all four data sets via the ‘Refer common names ...’ (target) button in the Intkey main toolbar.

Organization under the Delta system ensures that all these packages are readily accessible for corrections and improvements. Informed criticism and constructive input are of course welcome, and will be appropriately acknowledged. Alternatively, the complete Delta data sets can be donated if required for teaching purposes, or to any professional or amateur entomologist or organization interested in developing them further.

Edited 4 June 2016