Story Behind the Science
Moths, butterflies and skippers belong to the scientific order Lepidoptera. This order is crucial to supporting plant life, as these insects act as key pollinators and prey for many animals. The full lifespan of most moths and butterflies – including the egg, larval, pupal and adult stages – is approximately one year.
Moth and butterfly larvae are commonly referred to as caterpillars, most of which are green or brown in color. Some species are poisonous, having toxic hairs or vibrant colors that are meant to discourage predators from trying to eat them. Both moths and butterflies have tiny scales on their wings, and the scales shed over time. These scales give the insect its unique colors and patterns. Contrary to popular belief, if a person rubs the dusty powder from a butterfly or moth’s wings, the insect can still fly.
Moths and butterflies go through a growth and transformation process called metamorphosis. They start as eggs that hatch into a larval stage, in which they’re known as caterpillars. Then they eat till they’re ready to evolve. At this time, they make a cocoon (for moths) or chrysalis (for butterflies) and soon emerge as a winged adult.
Though Lepidoptera biodiversity is somewhat threatened by climate change and habitat loss, some species of moths are known to be major pests in agricultural production. Some caterpillars feed on crop plants, stored foods like grain, wool or fur. Because these caterpillars and adult moths are pests, millions of dollars are invested in controlling them and preventing the negative impact they have on the agriculture industry.
One specific example of moth pest is the gypsy moth, which originally evolved in Europe and Asia. These moths feed on over 500 types of trees, including many shade, fruit and ornamental tree species. Its most common food sources include oak and aspen trees. The gypsy moth has spread throughout a large portion of North America after being introduced in Boston, Mass., in 1869. Gypsy moths were imported to North America in an effort to develop a disease-resistant silk moth. As a result, these moths have caused approximately $764 million in damages to the U.S. timber industry in a single year.
In an attempt to control the spread of gypsy moths, egg masses can be manually removed from trees and shrubs. Aerial spraying of insecticides is a common practice for eliminating isolated populations of these moths as well.
Did You Know?
- One of the easiest ways to differentiate a butterfly from a moth is by observing the antenna. Butterflies typically have antennae with a long shaft and a bulb at the end, whereas moths’ antennae are usually feathery.Learn More »
- Most moths are nocturnal, meaning they are more active at night. Butterflies, on the other hand, are diurnal, so they are most active during the day.Learn More »
- Moth Week is globally recognized as the last full week of July. This week encourages “mothing” through educating people on moths and their great biodiversity. Learn More »
- The lifespan of an adult moth or butterfly is usually only one or two weeks. (This does not include the larval or pupal stages.)Learn More »
- Some adult moths, like the Luna moth, cannot eat because they don’t have mouths. After emerging from its cocoon, this moth’s main purpose is to mate and lay eggs.Learn More »
- Lepidoptera literally means “scale wings.” The word lepido translates to “scale,” and ptera to “wings.”Learn More »
|Compare & Contrast||Moths||Butterflies|
|How many species?||More than 110,000||28,000|
|Where do they occur?||Moths can be found all around the world, and they usually stay close to the plants they feed on.||Butterflies can be found all around the world, and they usually stay close to the plants they feed on.|
|What do they eat?||Larvae may eat all parts of herbaceous plants, fruit, seeds or animal products like fur and beeswax. Adult moths drink flower nectar, juice from rotting fruit, standing water, mud, tree sap and animal dung.||Larvae eat leaves and flowers of plants. Adult butterflies drink flower nectar, juice from rotting fruit, standing water, mud, tree sap and animal dung.|
|Do they have predators?||Birds, bats, spiders, wasps, some flies and other insects||Birds, bats, spiders, wasps, some flies and other insects|