1. Life-table data for 14 species of Lepidoptera are analysed by the k-factor technique of Varley & Gradwell (1960). Two factors are shown to be of particular importance in determining fluctuations in abundance from one generation to the next. These key factors are predators and the failure of females to lay their full complement of eggs.
2. Data from 24 studies are reviewed to identify any density-dependent factors that would be capable of regulating the populations about an equilibrium density. In eight studies no density-dependent relationships could be identified, and in a further 13 the only density dependence demonstrated was due to intraspecific competition for resources. It is argued that competition is incapable of regulating populations at low density. In the other three studies, natural enemies are thought to be acting in a density-dependent manner, but their ability to regulate the populations is questioned.
3. The frequency of over-population and of extinction is reviewed and both appear to occur frequently in Lepidoptera. This, coupled with the failure of most studies to demonstrate the existence of density-dependent processes capable of regulating populations, leads the author to reject the model of regulation about an equilibrium density in favour of a model of population limitation by a ceiling set by resources.
4. Fluctuations in resource availability may be important in determining variations in the abundance of many Lepidoptera, but at present too few ecologists have quantified the carrying capacity of habitats occupied by the species they study to generalize about this.