Butterflies and Moths

All butterflies and moths develop in the same way: life begins as an egg; the larvae, called caterpillars, hatches form the egg and grows to full size; the insect pupates; and the adult emerges from the pupa. Every species has its own unique egg and caterpillar, its own set of larval host plants, and its own time frame for development. Butterfly eggs come in a variety of colors and shapes, and are laid singly, in stacks, or in clumps, depending on the species. A few butterflies and moths go from egg to adult in just a few weeks, many take a month or so, while some may take two or more years.

The larva is typically cylindrical, with a well-developed head capsule, three pairs of thoracic legs, and five pairs of fleshy, unsegmented prolegs, one pair each on abdominal segments. Prolegs usually bear tiny hooks called crochets which aid them in clinging to various surfaces while moving about.

Caterpillars grow in stages known as instars and periodically shed their skin. Some early instar swallowtail caterpillars resemble bird droppings. This gives them a measure of protection from predators. When a caterpillar is fully developed and sheds its skin for the last time, the pupa is revealed. In butterflies, the pupa is often called chrysalis. Within the pupa shell the cells of the caterpillar dissolve and the creature rearranges its protoplasm into an entirely new shape with wings.3

What makes a butterfly leave its chrysalis? The emergence (eclosion) of the adult butterfly from its chrysalis is triggered by genetics and hormones in combination with environmental cues. Warmth is an important cue for species that have spent the winter as pupae. Increased humidity in a desert environment, where rainfall indicates the likely availability of food plants, is another cue. In a stable environment, eclosion may simply occur when metamorphosis is complete.

The Great Mormon (Papilio memnon) can survive by mimicry as it can mimic other species.

When eclosion is triggered, a hormonal burst occurs, the butterfly starts to squirm, and the pupal cuticle splits open. Muscular activities begin that allow the adult to quickly emerge. When the adult emerges, a green, reddish, or brownish liquid imeconium> spills out. This liquid contains wastes and cells from leftover parts of the caterpillar, such as the five pairs of discarded prolegs.

[Photo of Monarch caterpillar ]

Monarch caterpillar

30% Off First Contact Lens Order + Free Shipping Use code: 30NEW ( mfg. restrictions may apply)

Butterflies and moths, as adults, feed almost entirely on nectar which they collect from flowers with the long tubular mouthparts that they keep coiled like watch-springs beneath their heads. To collect the nectar they need, however, they must be able to fly very efficiently and to spend much of their lives on the wing. Their big wings can also be used as banners of identity, enabling an individual butterfly to recognize potential mates and rivals. The wing patterns are created by lines of microscopic scales which cover a butterfly's wing in overlapping rows like tiles on a roof. Each is a flattened outgrowth of a single cell and is no bigger than a tenth of a millimeter across. And each carries one particular color. In some, this is created by a chemical pigment. In others, the color comes from a microscopic structure of tiny surfaces which refract light and in some cases produce an iridescence. Wing scales are the unique possession of butterflies and moths and give the whole group its name -- Lepidoptera, scale wings.

[Photo of Tortoiseshell butterfly, Aglais urticae]

Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Aglais urticae

The order Lepidoptera is in a third place tie with Diptera (flies) for sheer number of species. There are approximately 265,000 species of butterflies and moths on the planet. About 20,000 are butterflies.

To protect themselves from predators, butterflies that are active during the day, tend to perch with their wings closed above their backs, so that the brilliance is concealed. On the other hand, moths are for the most part nocturnal, so the wing scales of moths are used to create camouflage. Many moths keep their wings open across their backs as they rest through the daylight hours, invisible against the bark or on the underside of leaves.2 The most consistent visible difference between butterflies and moths is in the structure of the antennae. Butterflies have thickened "knobs" at the end of each antenna, while the antennae of moths are threadlike or fernlike, without a thickened tip.

Many butterflies and moths spend winter as pupae. Some butterflies, notably the Mourning Cloak, spend the winter as adults.

[Photo of Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele]

Great Spangled Fritillary
Speyeria cybele


Many butterflies that spend the summer in the north cannot survive northern winters. Each year, as the weather becomes warmer, butterflies from Mexico fly north to repopulate these regions. Species that move northward each year include Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, Gulf Fritillary, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, Monarch, Fiery Skipper, and Sachem. Monarchs are the most well-known of migratory butterflies.4

Migratory species produce at least several generations per year. During migration, butterflies can fly in a constant direction at about 30 miles per hour all day long. Exactly how butterflies maintain a constant direction is uncertain.

[Photo of Peacock Butterfly, Inachis io]

Peacock Butterfly
Inachis io

Do Any Butterflies and Moths Make Sounds?

Many Sphynx caterpillars squeak, and various Skipper (Hesperiidae) larvae make grating noises by scraping their jaws across a leaf surface. Some pupae make grating noises by wiggling their abdominal segments together. Adults of the Death's Head Sphynx Moth make a high-pitched vibration by forcing air out of their mouth; and some other moths and butterflies click their wings when in flight. In Australia, the males of the Whistling Moth, Hecatesia, make a whistling sound during courtship, with a hollow structure on the wings.1

Endangered Butterflies

The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), the world's largest butterfly, is now so rare in the wild that it is an endangered species. Loss of habitat has been a major factor in its decline. But this beautiful butterfly has also been highly prized by collectors for many years and over-collecting of individuals has contributed to its scarcity. It is now protected from being collected and traded under international laws by CITES. The largest true swallowtail in the Americas, the Jamaican Giant Swallowtail (Papilio homerus) was listed by CITES in 1987.

In the United States, butterflies may be protected by listing with a federal agency or by an individual state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lists over 20 species, including:

  • Karner Blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis)
  • Oregon Silverspot (Speyeria zelene hippolyta)
  • Schaus Swallowtail (Heraclides aristodemus ponceanus)

The North American Butterfly Association (NABA) is the largest nonprofit butterfly organization in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Its aim is to help with conservation of butterfly species in conjunction with other organizations, in particular Florida's Miami Blue, Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association.

[Photo of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio glaucas]

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Papilio glaucas

The Importance of Butterflies

Butterflies are early warning indicators of the deterioration of the environment and significant actors on the ecological stage, serving as food for other animals and as pollinators of many plants. Urban development, herbicide use, pesticide use, and too little or too much rainfall have led to the loss of habitat.

On the bright side, butterflies and moths have recently been found in places they have never been found before, mostly due to public awareness and subsequent conservation efforts such as the highway wildflower programs, mowing, prescribed burning, thinning and natural pest control practices. gardening is a form of land management because it provides habitat for all kinds of wildlife.7

Although while in the caterpillar stage they feed upon vegetation, most species live upon weeds of various kinds, and those that live upon the leaves of trees rarely occur in such numbers as to do damage. The most notable exceptions are the Cabbage White, Pink Bollworm, Corn Earworm, Tobacco Budworm, armyworms and cutworms. It is important to remember that there are fewer pests than beneficial species.

[Photo of Black Swallowtail, Papilio glaucas]

Black Swallowtail
Papilio glaucas

The benefits conferring by butterflies are only little known and appreciated. Very many flowers depend upon butterflies for carrying and bringing pollen. The Black Swallowtail is especially useful in this respect. It is one of the most important pollen carrier among the butterflies. Food plants include caraway, celery and wild carrots.

The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in North America. It is a southern species and its caterpillars attack the citrus trees. It also feeds upon prickly ash and lombardy poplar.6


Butterfly and Moth Species of Medical Importance

Among the more of 100 lepidopteran families, 14 include species which as larvae cause health-related problems. Twelve of these families are moths and two are butterflies. They represent more than 100 species worldwide. Some of these species feed on animal wounds and various body secretions, including tears, saliva and nasal secretions. Rhagastis olivacca in Thailand feeds while hovering around the eyes of horses, mules, and humans.

Caterpillars which cause dermatitis on contact with animal or human skin are protected with specialized hairs and spines. In some cases these structures cause simple mechanical injury when they penetrate the skin. In other cases, they have associated poison glands which secrete toxic substances that cause various degrees of inflammation and swelling at the contact site. Among the 11 species of flannel moths, the southern flannel moth is the most commonly encountered by humans. The dense, fine, silky hairs vary in color from tan to charcoal gray. It occurs primarily in the southeastern and south-central United States and feeds on various trees and shrubs.

The puss caterpillar causes the most painful and severe reactions. reactions typically include burning sensations, followed by numbness, nausea and vomiting. Reddened blotches or mottling develop at the contact site, often associated with glistening appearance as the cell fluids are released at the skin surface. Stings on the neck can be particularly severe.

Six species causing skin reactions occur in North America. The most commonly encountered is the saddleback caterpillar (Sibine stimulea) which causes skin lesions that are much less severe than that of a puss caterpillar. The saddleback caterpillar is found on oaks, elms, dogwoods, corn, asters, blueberries, grapes and a number of fruit trees (apple, pear and plum).

[Photo of a tent caterpillar]

Tent Caterpillar

Tent caterpillar moths are widespread and common, most often noticed by "tents" spun by groups of larvae, often in apple, hawthorn, and cherry trees. The adults do not feed. Tent caterpillars are slender and hairy. In many species they are social, living together in silken tents and feeding on the foliage of trees. Tent caterpillar moths rarely reach epidemic populations, although heavy defoliation would result when outbreaks occur.

Types of Butterflies and Moths

The following list of types of moths and butterflies is far from complete and is provided for reference purpose only:

  • Family Eriocraniidae (eriocraniid moths)
  • Family Hepialidae (ghost moths and swifts)
  • Family Micropterygidae (mandibulate moths)
  • Family Apatelodidae (apatelodod moths)
  • Family Bombycidae (lappet moths and silkworm moths)
  • Family Lasiocampidae (tent caterpillar moths and tent caterpillars)
  • Family Saturniidae (giant silkworm moths and royal moths)
  • Family Drepanidae (drepanids and hook-tip moths)
  • Family Thyatiridae (thyatirid moths)
  • Family Geometridae (cankerworms, geometers, and measuringworms)
  • Family Hesperiidae (skippers)
  • Family Megathymidae (giant skippers)
  • Family Mimallonidae (sack-bearers)
  • Family Agaristidae (forester moths)
  • Family Arctiidae (footman moths and tiger moths)
  • Family Ctenuchidae (ctenuchas, scape moths, and wasp moths)
  • Family Dioptidae (oakworms)
  • Family Liparidae (tussock moths)
  • Family Manidiidae (manidiid moths)
  • Family Noctuidae (cutworms, dagger moths, noctuid moths, owlet moths, and underwings)
  • Family Nolidae (nolid moths)
  • Family Notodontidae (prominent moths)
  • Family Pericopidae (pericopid moths)
  • Superfamily Papilionoidea (butterflies)
  • Family Danaidae (milkweed butterflies)
  • Family Heliconiidae (heliconians)
  • Family Libytheidae (snout butterflies)
  • Family Lycaenidae (blues, coppers, coppers, hairstreaks, and blues (butterflies), gossamer-winged butterflies, hairstreaks, and harvesters)
  • Family Nymphalidae (admirals, anglewings, brush-footed butterflies, checker-spots, crescent-spots, fritillaries, mourningclocks, and purples)
  • Family Papilionidae (swallowtail butterflies)
  • Family Parnassiidae (parnissians)
  • Family Pieridae (orange-tips, sulphurs, whites, and whites and sulphurs)
  • Family Riodinidae (metalmarks)
  • Family Satyridae (satyrs, wood nymphs, and wood nymphs and satyrs (butterflies))
  • Family Sphingidae (hawk moths, hornworms, and sphinx moths)
  • Family Epiplemidae (epiplemid moths)
  • Family Carposinidae (carposinid moths)
  • Family Douglasiidae (leaf miners)
  • Family Elachistidae (grass leafminer moths and grass miners)
  • Family Heliozelidae (leaf miners and shield bearers)
  • Family Blastobasidae (blastobasid moths)
  • Family Cosmopterygidae (cosmopterigid moths and leafminer moths)
  • Family Epermeniidae (epermeniid moths)
  • Family Ethmiidae (ethmiid moths)
  • Family Gelechiidae (gelechiid moths)
  • Family Momphidae (momphid moths)
  • Family Oecophoridae (oecophorid moths)
  • Family Stenomidae (stenomid moths)
  • Family Walshiidae (walshiid moths)
  • Family Incurvariidae (fairy moths, incurvarid moths, and yucca moths)
  • Family Nepticulidae (leaf miners and nepticulid moths
  • )
  • Family Alucitidae (many-plume moths)
  • Family Pterophoridae (plume moths)
  • Family Pyralidae (grass moths and snout moths)
  • Family Thyrididae (window-winged moths)
  • Family Acrolophidae (burrowing webworms)
  • Family Coleophoridae (casebearer moths and casebearers)
  • Family Gracilariidae (leaf blotch miners)
  • Family Oinophilidae (oinophilid moths)
  • Family Opostegidae (opostegid moths)
  • Family Tineidae (clothes moths)
  • Family Tischeriidae (lyonetiid moths)
  • Family Cossidae (carpenter moths, carpenter worm moths, and leopard moths)
  • Family Olethreutidae (codling moths and oriental fruit moths)
  • Family Phaloniidae (webworms)
  • Family Tortricidae (leaf rollers and leaf tyers)
  • Family Glyphipterygidae (glyphipterygid moths)
  • Family Heliodinidae (heliodinid moths)
  • Family Plutellidae (diamondback moths)
  • Family Scythridae (scythrid moths)
  • Family Sesiidae (clear-winged moths)
  • Family Yponomeutidae (ermine moths)
  • Family Dalceridae (dalcerid moths)
  • Family Epipyropidae (planthopper parasites)
  • Family Limacodidae (saddleback caterpillars, slug caterpillar moths, and slug caterpillars)
  • Family Megalopygidae (flannel moths)
  • Family Pyromorphidae (smoky moths)


  1. 1001 Questions Answered about the Insects
  2. Life in the Undergrowth. David Attenborough
  3. A World Of Butterflies Kjell Sandved, Brian Cassie
  4. Butterflies through Binoculars. Jeffrey Glassberg
  5. Caterpillars in the field and garden: a field guide to the butterfly ... By Thomas J. Allen, James P. Brock, Jeffrey Glassberg
  6. The Nature-study review, Volume 13 By American Nature Study Society
  7. Arkansas butterflies and moths By Lori A. Spencer, Robert Michael Pyle, Don R. Simons
  8. Hazel Davies, Carol A. Butler. Do Butterflies Bite?: Fascinating Answers to Questions About Butterflies and Moths

Home Contact RSS
©2003-2017 GoPetsAmerica.com