Hesperidae - General characteristics

Home | Ecological zones | Butterflies | Larval Food Plants | Nectar Food Plants | Dragonflies | Moths | Other insects | Links | Sightings | Glossary |

General Characteristics
These butterflies are often referred to as 'Skippers' because their habit of skipping quickly from flower to flower while visiting flowers for nectar. There are 48 species of skippers in the island comprising of roughly 20% of the total species in the island. They are classified under 3 Subfamilies, the Coeliadinae ( Awls, Awl Kings and Awlets), the Hesperiinae (Skippers, Hoppers, Bobs, Demons, Redeyes, Flitters, Aces, darts, Dartlets, and Swifts) and Pyrginae (Flats and Algles).

These butterflies are quite abundant and are found in many habitats in the island. Some species are found in the driest part of the island in open plains, others are confined to the wet ever green forests, while a third group has adapted well to cultivated areas near rice fields, canals and ditches. Some species of skippers are so alike in appearance that the only way to tell them apart is to examine their genitalia.

Compared to other butterflies families, the skippers have a greatly reduced wing surface compared to the size of their bodies. The forewings wings are mostly narrow and long, and this feature, combined with their relatively large thorax with their powerful wing muscles allows them to fly very fast. The forewings of males often have very distinct sex brands and these produce pheromones that are used during courtship. Most skippers fold up wings above their abdomen while at rest.

Skippers do not have the usual club shaped antenna of other butterflies. Instead, their antenna are hooked at the tip and the flattened club is found below it. 

The proboscis of skippers are long, and in some species extraordinarily long allowing it to access nectar from flowers with very long corolla tubes - Small Branded Swift Most skippers are nectar lovers and can be seen at flowers of herbaceous plants and shrubs. There is one species in Sri Lanka ( Indian Awl King)  that finds bird droppings irresistible and is invariably seen and photographed on them. Many of them also mud-sip.

Skippers spend much of their time resting on leaves of  grasses, bushes or a trees, either with their wings fully spread as in the 'Flats' and 'Angles' or held above as in most of the other groups. At other times, they would spread their hind wings wide open but hold the forewings vertical or almost so, resembling a miniature fighter aircraft. In this posture they would bask in the sun for a while before flying away or closing their wings to rest. When they do decide to fly, they do so explosively, and in an instant they are air borne. The flight of the smaller skippers is very fast and it is quite difficult for the human eye to track them while in mid-air. However, they do not a fly far, and after a few seconds in the air, they settle down in the the vicinity. Most species seldom fly high up in the canopy and keep very close to the ground or a few feet off ground, except perhaps during courtship when both the male and female may fly high up into the air. Although most skippers in the island fly during day, there are a few species that are crepuscular, such as the Giant Red eye.

Most skippers spend their entire life within a well defined relatively small area where they will mate, feed and die. However, the Flats and Awls move about a great deal more in their habitats and often join migrations. In most cases, whether they are patrolling or perching species, the females tend to fly close to their larval host plants.

The larvae have a characteristic shape with a large head, a narrow thorax and an abdomen that is widest at the center. The larvae of many species live inside rolled up leaves. The pupa are more moth like than those of other butterflies.

Coeliadinae. A small group of 7 species in 4 genera. They are referred to as Awls, Awlets and Awl Kings. They are among the largest of the skippers in the island and are insects of the wet evergreen and high elevation montane forests. Their bodies are built robustly, the thorax and eyes are very prominent and large, the abdomen comparatively narrow and short. The forewings are long and narrow, the hind wings rounded. The lower margin of the hind wing expands to form an anal fold and is evident only in pinned specimens. The large spots seen at the tornus of the hind wing in pinned specimens are hidden in the anal fold of live butterflies, and are never seen in butterflies encountered in the field. The male sex brands are on the forewings above and are varied in shape and size. The larval food plants are dicots.

Hesperiinae. This is a large group of small to medium sized skippers comprising of 21 genera and 33 species. Many of the commonest skippers of the island belong to this subfamily. Most of the larvae of these skippers feed on monocots such as grass, bamboo or palms.

Pyrginae. A small group of 8 species in 5 genera. The 'Flats' and 'Angles' are included in this subfamily. The 'Flats' hold their wings spread out while at rest or feeding while the 'Angles' hold their wings raised to varying degrees, but never closed. These skippers have the curious habit of resting on the under side of the leaves. They are all forest loving species. The larval food plants are dicots.

Danaidae | Satyridae | Amathusiidae | Nymphalidae | Acraeidea | Libytheidae | Riodinidae | Lycaenidae | Pieridae | Papilionidae | Hesperidae