Moth Facts for Kids: Moth Pest Information for Students


Did you know? Male silk moths can detect female moths up to several miles away.

  • A Mexican «Jumping» Bean jumps because a moth larva living inside the bean squirms when it gets warm.
  • The female moth lays between 60 and 300 eggs
  • There are about 13,000 species of moths in North America and about 165,000 species in the world.
  • Silk comes from the cocoons of the true Silk Moth. More than 25,000 cocoons must be unraveled to make a single pound of silk thread
  • Some kinds of moths can stay active in freezing weather because their bodies contain a natural anti-freeze that keeps sharp ice crystals from breaking their cells.

Most moths are nocturnal but seem to be attracted to light (for example, a porch light or a fire). One reason is that because moths are nocturnal , they navigate, or find their way around by using the moon as a point of reference. Moths can become confused by any other light source and they basically get «lost». As a result, they typically stay where they are, making it look like they are attracted to the light.

Are you a school teacher looking for more materials to share with your kids? Find more facts about and information on moth pest control at the official NPMA website.

Indian Meal Moth Facts for Kids

The Indianmeal moth was given its name after an insect scientist found it feeding on corn meal, also known as Indianmeal. They typically live from two to six months.

  • Size: 5/8″
  • Shape: Elongated, oval
  • Color: Copper reddish
  • Legs: 6
  • Wings: Yes
  • Antenna: Yes
  • Common Name: Indian meal moth
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidotera
  • Family: Pyralidae
  • Species: Plodia interpuctella

Indianmeal moths feed on dried fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, chocolate, candies, bird seed, dog food, powdered milk, dried red peppers and candy.


Attracted to the light, these bugs are found in bright places where food is stored like restaurants and grocery stores.


Moths infest foods and can contaminate food products by leaving skin and waste behind.


  • Store food in sealed containers.
  • Discard infested foods in outdoor trash bins.
  • Clean infested cupboards thoroughly with a vacuum and soap and water.

Didn’t find the facts you were looking for on PestWorld for Kids? Get additional Indian meal moth information at the official NPMA website.

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All about moths

Moths are insect closely related to butterflies. Both belong to the order Lepidoptera. The differences between butterflies and moths is more than just taxonomy. Scientists have identified some 200,000 species of moths world wide and suspect there may be as many as five times that amount.

Moth Description

Moths often have feather like antennae with no club at the end. When perched, their wings lay flat. Moths tend to have thick hairy bodies and more earth tone coloured wings. Moths are usually active at night and rest during the day in a preferred wooded habitat.

Moths have very long proboscis, or tongues, which they use to suck nectar or other fluids. These proboscis are very tightly coiled not in use, like a hosepipe. When in use, the proboscis are uncoiled to their full length and in some species, that length is remarkably long. The Hummingbird Moth has a tongue that is actually longer than its whole body. The Darwin’s Hawk moth of Madagascar has a proboscis nearly 13 inches long, evolved, no doubt, to enable feeding on deep throated orchids which grow in that region.

Not all Moths have long tongues. In some, the proboscis is very short, an adaptation which enables easy and effective piercing of fruit.

In some, there is no feeding mechanism at all. There are adults of some species that do not take in any food. Their brief lives as an adult are spent reproducing and they are able to acquire all of the energy needed for this from the fat stored in the body by the caterpillar.

A moths antennae, palps, legs and many other parts of the body are studded with sense receptors that are used to smell. The sense of smell is used for finding food (usually flower nectar) and for finding mates (the female smelling the males pheromones). Pheromones can be dispersed through the tibia segment of the leg, scales on the wings or from the abdomen. Pheromones released by females can be detected by the males from as much as 8 kilometres away.

Moth Camouflage

Camouflage is a great defence in avoiding detection by a hungry predator. Some moths look just like lichen, others look exactly like the bark of trees native to their habitat. It has even been noticed that in city areas where smoke pollution is strong, some moths have actually developed a darker colouration than the same species that live in less polluted areas.

Another effective form of camouflage is colouration which can confuse a predator into either striking at a none vital part of the moths body or into missing it all together. The lines and spots on these moths would make aiming in on it difficult, especially when it is moving.

Another form of defence is where the moth takes on the appearance of a larger/or more threatening creature. This amazing ability is called ‘mimicry’. This form of defence ranges from caterpillars with tails that look like a large venomous snakes head, to moths and butterflies whose markings make them appear to be large birds.

Moth Vision

Moths (like many other adult insects) have compound eyes and simple eyes. These eyes are made up of many hexagonal lens/corneas which focus light from each part of the insects field of view onto a rhabdome (the equivalent of our retina). An optic nerve then carries this information to the insects brain. They see very differently from us. they can see ultraviolet rays (which are invisible to us).

The vision of Moths changes radically in their different stages of life.

Moth caterpillars can barely see at all. They have simple eyes (ocelli) which can only differentiate dark from light. They cannot form an image. They are composed of photoreceptors (light-sensitive cells) and pigments. Most caterpillars have a semi-circular ring of six ocelli on each side of the head.

Moth Senses

A caterpillars ‘fuzz’ gives it its sense of touch. Caterpillars sense touch using long hairs (called tactile setae) that grow through holes all over their hard exoskeleton. These hairs are attached to nerve cells and relay information about the touch to the insects brain.

Setae (sensory hairs) on the insects entire body (including the antennae) can feel the environment. They also give the insect information about the wind while it is flying.

Moth Navigation

Moths navigate by two methods. They use the moon and stars when available and geomagnetic clues when light sources are obscured.

Moth Behaviour

Moths heat up their flight muscles by vibrating their wings, since they do not have the radiant energy of the sun (being nocturnal) at their disposal to serve that purpose.

Other interesting facts about Moths

Night-blooming flowers usually depend on moths (or bats) for pollination, and artificial lighting can draw moths away from the flowers, affecting the plants ability to reproduce. A way to prevent this is to put a cloth or netting around the lamp. Another way is using a coloured light bulb (preferably red). This will take the moths attention away from the light while still providing light to see by.

Despite being framed for eating clothing, most moth adults do not eat at all. Most like the Luna, Polyphemus, Atlas, Prometheus, Cercropia and other large moths do not have mouths. When they do eat, moths will drink nectar. Only one species of moth eat wool. The adults do not eat but the larvae will eat through wool clothing.

The study of Moths (and Butterflies) is known as ‘lepidoptery’, and biologists that specialise in either are called ‘lepidopterists’. As a pastime, watching Moths (and Butterflies) is known as ‘mothing’ and ‘butterflying’.

Moths, and particularly their caterpillars, are a major agricultural pest in many parts of the world. The caterpillar of the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) causes severe damage to forests in the northeast United States, where it is an invasive species. In temperate climates, the codling moth causes extensive damage, especially to fruit farms. In tropical and subtropical climates, the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) is perhaps the most serious pest of brassicaceous crops (the mustard family or cabbage family).

Butterflies and moths hear sounds through their wings.

Thousands of tiny scales and hairs cover moths wings, not powder.

Butterflies and moths both have an organ called the Johnston’s organ which is at the base of a butterfly or moths antennae. This organ are responsible for maintaining the butterflys sense of balance and orientation, especially during flight.

A Cecropia moth has the ability to smell his mate up to 7 miles away with his feathery antennae.

The Sphinx Hawk moth is the fastest moth in the world, capable of reaching speeds over 30 miles per hour.

All About Moths And Best Ways To Get Rid Of Them

Moths are particularly mysterious creatures. Soft and fuzzy looking, often associated with night time (even though they are just as frequently out during the day), it can be hard to believe they can do so much damage until you have seen it first hand.

But the first time you pull out what used to be your favorite sweater and see frayed holes where seamless style used to be, you too will be chomping at the bit to find the best anti-moth remedy.

In this article, learn more about moths and the best ways available to get rid of them once and for all.

Moths Amongst Us: A Brief Overview

Contrary to popular belief, moths aren’t actually the “dark cousins” to butterflies. They don’t live in your cupboards just to wait for that perfect moment to fly out and freak you out.

Some moths are quite colorful, and can vary in size from less than an inch to six inches or bigger. With 160,000 species cataloged to date, there is still much scientists and pest control experts are learning about moths as a species.

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The good news is, apparently moths are delicious. Birds, bats, rodents and reptiles all enjoy moths in their caterpillar or adult winged form. In fact, for many bird and bat species, moths are a critical food source during rearing of young.

And while you probably won’t enjoy hearing this, in many countries (Africa in particular), caterpillars and moths make good eating for people too. Apparently they are full of protein and nutrients as well as vital minerals like potassium, zinc and calcium.

The Moth Lifecycle

Moths have a lifecycle quite similar to other winged insects. The main difference is, other insects aren’t quite so keen to reproduce in your pantry.

Here is a basic timeline for the moth lifecycle:

– Female moths will mate and lay up to 400 tiny eggs at a time, ideally near a source of food.

– The eggs will incubate for up to eight days and then hatch.

– The tiny emerging larvae then begin to eat whatever they find (flour, cereal and animal-based fabrics are particular favorites depending on the species).

– After about 14 days of continuous eating, the now-larger larvae spin tiny cocoons for themselves in dark corners or even inside food containers or clothing.

– Two weeks later, the adult moths hatch.

– At this point, the cycle begins all over again, and can happen up to six times in the average year.

With this rate of rapid maturation and reproduction, if you have ever felt like your home is literally infested with moths, chances are good it actually is. This is also why learning how to get rid of moths for good is a necessity, since they certainly won’t leave on their own!

Make Your Space Permanently Moth-Averse

Many people who consult professional pest experts are leery of odorous and possibly toxic remedies like mothballs. After all, what good is a moth-free wool suit if it smells too awful to wear it?

Luckily, today’s modern pest control experts know exactly how to get rid of moths for good. But typically, the use of chemical helps such as fumigation or traps is used only after these basic strategies have not yielded the desired results.

There are two kinds of moths: moths that like food and moths that like fabric. The food moths will live in your pantry and the fabric moths will hide in your closet.

So the first step is to figure out what type of moths you have. This is usually easy to do just by noticing where you see moths regularly inside your space. Once you’ve figured out what your moths like to eat, it is time to clean house, literally.

– Clear out your pantry until only bare shelves and flooring remains.

– Throw out any food items that show signs of infestation.

– Thoroughly clean the bare pantry, paying particular attention to crevices where moths may be cocooned.

– Use brooms and vacuum suction to clear out hard-to-reach corners.

– Sanitize with your preferred cleaning products.

– Store remaining food items inside insect-proof containers.

– Clear out your closet until only the rack and flooring remains.

– Examine all clothing for signs of damage.

– Wash or dry clean all items in water at least 120°F (48.88°C).

– Make sure all items get washed or dry cleaned, even those made of plant fibers, since pupae may cocoon inside them and hatch to re-infest your clothing.

– Vacuum and sweep to ensure even cracks and corners are clear of cocoons.

– Sanitize with your preferred cleaning products.

– Before adding any new item to your closet (especially vintage or resale items) always wash or dry clean it first.

Repeat these steps as needed or at least once annually to ensure moths do not return.

Professional Pest Control to the Rescue!

Moths can be remarkably persistent. They can also be very hard to spot in larvae or pupae form, meaning your best efforts may fail to completely eradicate them from your space.

But even the most tenacious moths are no match for today’s pest control pros.

These treatment options can be used alone or together to rid your space of moths for good:

Pheromone traps. These traps lure moths who think they are meeting a mate.

Fumigation. Gas penetrates anywhere larvae or pupae are located, also killing adult moths as it works.

Insect growth regulators. These products interrupt the moth life cycle to ensure no immature moth is able to reach maturity and reproduce.

Once your home has been treated, you will want to regularly follow the basic cleaning steps outlined here (see earlier section) for the type of moth (food or fabric). Also be sure to contact your pest control expert if the moths attempt a comeback!

Non Toxic Spray

This non-toxic spray kills larvae, eggs, and adult insects by breaking down their exoskeleton. It is safe to spray around the home and works only on the insects. Feel good about spraying indoors around pets, plants and children.
All Natural Non Toxic Insect Killer Spray by Killer Green

The 12 Months of the Year

A year is divided into 12 months in the modern-day Gregorian calendar. The months are either 28, 29, 30, or 31 days long.

Calendar with 12 months.

Each month has either 28, 30, or 31 days during a common year, which has 365 days. During leap years, which occur nearly every 4 years, we add an extra (intercalary) day, Leap Day, on 29 February, making leap years 366 days long.

This is to keep our current calendar aligned with the solar year and astronomical seasons marked by equinoxes and solstices.

The 12 Months

The Gregorian calendar consists of the following 12 months:

Tracking the Moon’s Orbit

The months originated as a way to mark time and break up the year into shorter periods based on the Moon’s orbit around Earth. The word month is even derived from the word Moon.

As far as we know, months were first used in Mesopotamia sometime between the years 500 BCE and 400 BCE to measure the natural period related to the lunar month, or synodic month, which is the time it takes for the Moon to go through all the Moon phases.

How Many Have 28, 29, 30, or 31 Days?

The Gregorian calendar has 4 months that are 30 days long and 7 months that are 31 days long. February is the only month that is 28 days long in common years and 29 days long in leap years.

From 10 to 12 Months

Our current Gregorian calendar and its predecessor, the Julian calendar, both have 12 months. However, the month names we use today are derived from the Roman calendar, which initially had only 10 months, with the calendar year starting in March (Martius).

The Romans named some of the months after their position in the calendar year: September means the 7th month, October the 8th, November the 9th, and December the 10th month. However, when January and February were eventually added and the beginning of the calendar year was moved to January, the position of these months no longer corresponded with the original meaning of their names. Today, we still call the 9th month of the year September, the 7th month.

The Islamic calendar, the Hebrew calendar, and the Hindu calendar also use months to divide up the year. Although the Gregorian calendar is the most commonly used calendar today, other calendars are still used in many parts of the world to calculate certain holidays and annual feasts.

Old Names of Months

Months in the ancient Roman calendar include:

  • Mercedonius — an occasional month after February that would be used to realign the Roman calendar. Today we use Leap Day for this alignment.
  • Quintilis — renamed July in honor of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE.
  • Sextilis — renamed August in honor of Roman Emperor Augustus in 8 BCE.

All about butterflies and moths

“Butterflies are not insects . . . They are self-propelled flowers,” writes Robert A. Heinlein in his book, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Graceful, beautiful, non-threatening heralds of spring and summer that they are—who doesn’t admire them? We’d see that moths are all these things, too, if only they’d step out of the shadows where they mark time during long sunlit days. Day or night, these insects represent nature in its most peaceful expression. Learn all about butterflies and moths and the fascinating lives they lead.


Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera. Moths don’t get the attention that butterflies do, but they comprise the vast majority. Butterflies are known to experts by their suborder, Rhopalocera, and moths by an unofficial name, Heterocera. Skippers are a family, Hesperiidae, of butterflies. Lepidopterans are known to be ancient, but a fossilized moth’s wing found in Germany in 2018 reveals they’re even older than scientists realized. The oldest one found so far, it dates back 200 million years to the early Jurassic Period.

“Lepidoptera” (Lep-uh-DOP-ter-uh) comes from the Greek libido, meaning scale, and ptera, meaning wings. “Moth” comes from Middle English mothe, which in turn came from Old English moththe. “Butterfly” dates prior to the 8th century and was originally a combination of the Old English words butere (butter) and fleoge (fly), but how did it come to get that name? No one knows for sure.

Butterflies aren’t “flies,” after all. Still, they do fly, so maybe that part of their name is fitting. But how did “butter” find its way there? A prevailing theory is that a particular group of butterflies called sulphurs (in particular, the Y ellow Brimstone Butterfly) were once called “butter-colored flies,” which eventually grew to include all butterflies. Another is that butterflies were thought to steal buttermilk and earned their name that way.

Number of species, distribution

Lepidoptera is a large order, second only to beetles in the number of species that have so far been described by entomologists. Lepidopterans inhabit all continents of the world, except Antarctica. There are about 17,500 species of butterflies and 160,000 species of moths. The continental United States has around 750 species of butterflies and 11,000 species of moths.

Butterflies are beneficial

From the perspective of farmers, some gardeners, arborists, and other affected parties, Lepidopterans, mostly moths, are destructive because their caterpillars destroy crops. On the other hand, they also feed on weedy plants we’re glad to be rid of, and they’re pollinators. They’re also an important food source for numerous wildlife.

Butterflies range in size from 0.5 to 0.8 inches (13–20 mm), which is the wingspan of the Western Pygmy Blue, Brephidium exilis, found in the southern US and elsewhere, up to the 12 inches (30 cm) of a rare Papua New Guinea rainforest species called Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, Ornithoptera alexandrae.

Western Pygmy Blue Butterfly, Brephidium exilis, world’s smallest butterfly. (Katja Schulz / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Atlas Moth, Attacus atlas, sitting on an adult’s hand. (© Rogatnykh / Shutterstock)

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Moths in the Nepticulidae family are even smaller than the smallest butterflies, by quite a bit, with a wingspan of only 0.1 inches (0.3 mm)—shorter than a grain of rice. The biggest moth is the beautiful Atlas Moth, Attacus atlas, of Southeast Asia. It has a wingspan of 9.8 to11.8 inches (24–30 cm)—the same as the American Robin bird.

To the unpracticed eye, butterflies, skippers, and moths may seem much alike. And they are. But they also differ externally in ways that make each group identifiable from the other two. Here’s a chart to help you.

Differences between butterfly, skipper, moth

True butterfly Skipper Moth
Larger Smaller Smaller
Antennae thin, with club-shaped tips Antennae thin, with clubbed and hooked tips Antennae feathery or comb-shaped, or filamentous and unclubbed
Usually brightly colored Usually dull orange, tan, gold, or brown Usually drab: brown, gray, black, white, or combination; often a camouflage pattern
Active in daytime Active in daytime Active at night
At rest, wings usually held upright and together At rest, forewings upright and together and hindwings held horizontally At rest, wings held flat out to the sides or folded atop the body
Body smooth, slender Body stout Body plump, hairy, or funny-looking

(Note: To make wording less repetitive, from here on “butterfly” will be used as an umbrella term that includes skippers and moths, since they are all more alike than different. Notable differences will be pointed out.)

Physical Characteristics

Butterflies, like all insects, have three main body parts—head, thorax, and abdomen. They have two large compound eyes, three pairs of legs, and two pairs of wings.

The head, thorax (including the wings and legs), and abdomen have scattered hairs, as well as a thick covering of scales pigmented with such compounds as melanins and flavones that produce orange, yellow, and black shades. Scales on the wings have a microstructure that reflects blues and purples, as well as white. The top (dorsal) and bottom (ventral) sides of the wings are often very different from each other but may be equally beautiful.

Essex Skipper, Thymelicus lineola, in a typical skipper position. (© Khort Esther Tatiana / Shutterstock)

True butterflies are often brightly colored, sometimes even in brilliant metallic tones. Skippers are drabber, usually wearing dull-orange, tan, gold, or brown colors. Most moths are drabber still—brown, gray, black, white, or a combination—often with a camouflage pattern to help hide them from predators in the daytime.

Males and females can be hard to distinguish from each other. But, generally, females are larger, with a fatter abdomen. And, the color and pattern of wings can differ.

The head has a brain, two compound eyes, two simple eyes, two antennae, a proboscis and other mouthparts, palps, the beginning of the digestive system, and nerve ganglia leading to the rest of the body.

Butterflies have two kinds of eyes: compound and simple.

The compound eyes, one on each side of the head, are large and oval. They aren’t moveable, but a nearly 360-degree field of view easily compensates. They’re composed of thousands of individual lenses, called ommatidium, each of which sees its own tiny portion of an entire picture, which the brain interprets. Their vision isn’t particularly acute, because it’s fixed, but it’s especially adapted for the detection of movement. There’s no sneaking up on these guys; they see you approaching, even if they don’t immediately fly away.

Butterflies have color vision and use it for finding flowers. They see polarized (reflected) light, as well as ultraviolet, which is a high-frequency spectrum that produces colors and patterns invisible to humans. Females of some species also seem able to distinguish plants by the shape of their leaves.

Adult butterflies and (almost all) adult moths have two simple eyes, called ocelli—one is located just above each compound eye. They’re tiny (often hidden from view), with a single lens that can detect only light and dark, unable to form an image. All caterpillars lack compound eyes and have only simple eyes.

Microscopic view of the head of a moth in the Pyralidae family, showing its compound eye composed of many lenses, and proboscis. ( / Wiki; PD)

The antennae extend out from between the eyes. They can be moved independently of each other and into many positions. They’re segmented and covered by thousands of either hair-like or scale-like sensors for detecting pheromones (Monarchs have more than 16,000 of them!) The tips of the antennae can also taste the chemical qualities of soil or other matter. At the base of each is the Johnston’s organ, a collection of nerve cells that sense orientation and balance during flight, and, it’s thought, may detect magnetic fields. True butterflies have antennae with club-shaped tips. Those of skippers have a club that’s hooked at the tip. Most moths have antennae that are slender and tapering, but some are feathery or comb-like.

Male Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus . (Megan McCarty / Wiki; cc by 3.0)

The mouthparts of adult butterflies are designed for siphoning liquids. What’s noticeable is the curious tongue, or “proboscis” (pro-BOSS-sis), which is tube-shaped and functions as a straw. Kept tightly coiled when not in use, it’s rolled out when sipping nectar from flowers. Its length varies, depending on the species. Studies show that the depth of a flower’s nectar tube determines what kind of butterfly or moth feeds from it. Projecting out on each side of the proboscis is a labial palp. Covered with scales and sensory hairs, they’re used fo tasting food sources. They may also help to shield the proboscis from injury.

Caterpillars have mandibles (jaws) for eating leaves and other plant parts. They disappear during pupation, or nearly so, which limits adults to a liquid diet. A few moth species, as adults, have no mouthparts and don’t eat.

Butterfly external anatomy. (L Shyamal / Wiki; cc by-sa 2.5)

The thorax is the middle part of the butterfly’s body. Attached to it are six jointed legs, three per side, and two pairs of wings. Each leg has a foot with taste sensors and a claw at the end for clinging. In some families, the front pair of legs is nonfunctional and kept folded.

The wings are thin, delicate, and covered by millions of overlapping scales. Touch them and they’ll easily rub off into a powdery “dust,” exposing an underlying transparent membrane. In some species, the body also has scales.

The wings couldn’t function without a network of stiff veins to give them structural support, and they’re surprisingly strong. They can hold up over hundreds of miles, growing ever more torn and tattered before they finally fail. The Painted Lady Butterfly, Vanessa cardui, reportedly can migrate over 600 miles before stopping to rest, its wings still functional! At least one species of moth, a cutworm moth, travels 99 miles nonstop (159 km) over water.

Butterflies can beat their wings at eight to 12 times per second, depending on the species, and fly up to 37 miles per hour (60 km/h), which skippers do. As for flying altitude, look up. Way up! Some butterflies fly at 10,000 feet (3 km)!

Butterfly internal anatomy. (Bugboy52.40 / Wikimedia; cc by-sa 3.0)


The abdomen is the longest part of the body. It contains the circulatory, respiratory, and excretory systems, as well as the tail end of the nervous and digestive systems, which originated in the head. And, the sex organs.

Circulatory system

A butterfly’s “blood,” like that of all insects, is called hemolymph. It’s a fluid that contains nutrients, salts, hormones, and metabolic wastes, but not oxygen. And, it isn’t red, because it lacks the iron-rich hemoglobin that gives color to our blood. Also, unlike our’s, is its “heart,” which is a long tube called the dorsal vessel, which extends from the abdomen through the thorax to the head.

The dorsal vessel pumps hemolymph forward (one-way valves prevent it from flowing backward), where it floods the head, legs, and wings. From there, the fluid simply flows backwards throughout the thorax and into the abdomen, bathing all the organs along the way. Nothing constrains it, there are no vessels or veins. This is called an “open circulatory” system.

Respiratory system

Butterflies breathe passively through a process called rhythmic tracheal compression. Movement of the body causes tiny pores, called spiracles, which are located along the sides of the abdomen and thorax, to draw air in and move carbon dioxide out.


Butterflies have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.

Sight : Adults have large compound eyes that deliver a good impression of what’s around them, but their vision is blurrier than that of a human. They also have simple eyes that detect only light and dark. Caterpillars have only simple eyes on each side of their head.

Hearing : Butterflies don’t have ears, but they do have a structure called the chordotonal membrane (think of it as something like the cochlea in a human’s ear) that detects sound waves. Moths, which are nocturnal, are especially attuned to the high-frequency echolocation of bats hunting for insects at night.

Smell : A butterfly’s legs and feet are loaded with olfactory organs, but their antennae are the masters at smell detection, containing as many as 1,370,000 olfactory scales, hairs, and pits. Some male moths that have feathery hairs on their antennae can smell the potent pheromones of females 3 to 4 miles away (5 to 6 km).

Taste : Both adults and caterpillars have sensory organs located on their antennae and feet that can taste foods and distinguish between what to eat and not to eat. Also, some females taste plants with their feet to determine if they’re suitable for laying their eggs.

Touch : Butterflies sense touch through t actile setae . These are hairs attached to nerve cells .


Communication is mostly through pheromones. A very few butterflies and moths make sounds. For instance, male Cracker Butterflies, Hamadryas spp., indigenous to South America, make clicking noises with their wings during territorial disputes. The male Asian Corn Borer Moth, Ostrinia furnacalis, an Asian species, emits an ultrasonic “chirp” during courtship, by rubbing his wings against his thorax. Highly territorial males of some species communicate with intruders by chasing them away.


For butterflies, daytime hours are spent looking for mates, mating, depositing eggs, finding food, and periodically resting. Most moths do all that at night and rest in the daytime.

Butterflies are cold-blooded, meaning they lack the internal mechanisms for generating heat and, therefore, are the same temperature of their surroundings. Their body core functions in colder temperatures, unless it’s freezing, but they must have heat to warm their muscles for flight. They solve this problem by basking in the sun to absorb its warming rays, their wings outstretched. If the day isn’t quite warm enough, they shiver to help generate body heat. If it’s just too cold, cloudy, or rainy, they won’t fly at all. They also hunker down when it’s too windy.

Moths, mostly nocturnal, solve the problem of warming up in a couple of ways. They can shiver, but they also wear a coat—in the sense that they have a thicker layering of scales than butterflies (this gives them a furry appearance).

Resting behavior

When butterflies rest, their metabolic rate slows down and they relax, but they don’t sleep. They hang from the undersides of leaves to rest, shelter from rain, and hide from foraging birds. Or, they may tuck themselves, day or night, into such sheltered places as crevices in rock piles, in woodpiles, behind loose tree bark, or a tiny crack between a door and its frame.

Can you spot the moth? 1 (Judygva – Wiki; cc by 2.0)

Moths are so well hidden by their camouflage colors that they may cling to a tree trunk or lie on the surface of a leaf in full sight. Wherever they are in the daytime, most will be hard to see. Butterflies and moths can rouse themselves immediately and fly away if disturbed.

Butterflies don’t urinate or defecate. A bit of red liquid, called meconium , is expelled from their anus when they emerge as adults, but that’s metabolic waste left over from their metamorphosis.

Moths and porch lights


Life cycle

Butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis, which means that each generation develops through four life stages: From egg to larva to pupa to adult.

Mating and eggs

Males and females find each other through pheromones, wing coloration, and with a very few, sound. They may perform courtship displays of simple to elaborate flying maneuvers before coupling, end to end, on the ground or in the air. Mating can last from minutes or, like the Monarchs, up to hours. Depending on the species, fertilized females may carry less than a hundred eggs up to more than a thousand. Eggs may be deposited singly or, like Gypsy Moths, in masses of thousands.

Black Swallowtail Butterflies mating. (John Flannery / Flickr; cc by-sa 3.0)

Butterfly caterpillars, or larvae, hatch from eggs laid on a “host” plant (some moths deposit their eggs on the ground near plants). Whatever the mother chooses will be one her young will eat—some moths are less picky, but most larvae will starve to death rather than eat from the wrong plant. (For this reason, it isn’t a kindness to relocate a caterpillar, except to the same kind of plant.) How does the mother determine the right one? She tastes it with sensory organs on her feet. What if she can’t locate one? Then, she’ll hold her eggs until she does.

Host plants vary widely. For example, Monarchs use milkweed plants exclusively, even though they’re very bitter. Black Swallowtails like the foliage of parsley and carrot plants. The Mourning Cloak Butterfly and Polyphemus Moth eat the leaves of mulberry, willow, birch, oak, and other trees. The Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth eats, yes, Virginia Creeper leaves.
Photos of a larva hatching


Larvae are slow-moving and have long, segmented bodies. They have a brain, chewing mouthparts, antennae, and other internal organs, but no eyes. Instead, they have three pairs of ocelli on their head. Spiracles, through which oxygen enters and carbon dioxide is expelled, run along the sides of their body. Most larvae have legs; the number varies with the species, but typically it’s three pairs of true legs and five pairs of prolegs. The true legs have joints and are located on the thorax; they’ll later become the adult’s long legs .

The prolegs are temporary. Fleshy and stubby, they’re located along the abdomen and near the rear end. Used for grasping stems and leaves, and to help the larva move, they disappear during metamorphosis.

Swallowtail larva, Papilio machaon, showing detail of prolegs. (Didier Descouens / Wiki; cc by 3.0)

The sole mission of larvae is to eat and grow big, and there’s a lot of variety to what they eat. They’re herbivores, with one exception, those of the Harvester Butterfly, which eat woolly aphids. Usually, they begin by devouring their eggshell, which has vital nutrients. Following that, they start in on the leaves and sometimes the flowers or other parts of their host plant—usually a flowering variety or a conifer’s cones, fruits, or seeds. Mosses, ferns, liverworts, and other kinds of flora are eaten by a few. Flour moths, Ephestia spp., eat grains. The larvae of clothes moths eat the natural fibers of clothing.

Larvae eat almost constantly for around two weeks to a month. They grow astonishingly fast, faster than any other animal in the world. For example, the Tobacco Hornworm, which will become a Carolina Sphinx Moth, Manduca sexta, grows 10,000 times bigger within about 20 days.

Usually, there are only a few eggs per plant, as their mother won’t put them all in one basket, as the saying goes. This is to ensure that a plant will be enough food for the larvae placed there. And, it increases the odds that other offspring will survive if a particular plant’s larvae are destroyed by predators.

Kinda cute, but painful to touch. The Saddleback Caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, is a moth that’s native to eastern North America. (Katja Schulz / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Regardless, many larvae won’t make it to the next stage of their lives. As Daniel H. Janzen, professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Caterpillars are food for almost every carnivore. That means birds, mammals, spiders, beetles. Everybody eats caterpillars. So it’s a sort of hamburger in the world.”

Larvae defense strategies

Although their life is fraught with danger, they have some defense mechanisms. Some have color patterns near their back end that look like eyes—meant to stare and scare—to ward off timid predators. Some are colored to match their host plant. Others have spiny bristles or hairs that irritate anything that brushes against them (including a human’s skin). The jaunty-looking moth caterpillar above (Sibine stimulea) has barbed hairs that secrete a venom when touched. Some species spit acidic juices or, like Black Swallowtail Butterflies, discharge an offensive odor. There are even larvae in SA that have venom glands. Some, like the Monarch, are protected from predators because the plants they eat make them distasteful or even toxic.


The skin of larvae can stretch to accommodate some of their growth, but it has its limitations. When the time comes, it’ll be shed (molted), with the larva crawling out headfirst wearing a new skin. They molt as many as four or five times, depending on the species, and there is a name for each larval stage: instar. When larvae first hatch they are tiny caterpillars referred to as “first instar.” After they shed their skin for the first time they become a “second instar,” and so on.) Their skin may change in appearance from one molt to the next.

When a brain chemical called juvenile hormone is at a certain level, larvae undergo their final molt and eject the contents of their digestive tract. At that point, most leave their host plant and look for a suitable, safe spot to enter the next stage of their lives, pupation.

True butterfly larvae secure themselves with a silken girdle, in an upside-down position, to something like a twig, leaf, or fencepost to pupate. Their outer skin hardens to form a chamber from which the larva within detaches itself. It’s now called a chrysalis (KRIS-uh-lus). After a rest, it gets to work: Its caterpillar body mostly liquifies into what some scientists call a “nutrient soup” of pre-programmed cells that had lain dormant. Now activated, they begin to form the different parts of an adult’s body—eyes, wings, legs, etc. Skippers go through this process after wrapping themselves in silk or in leaves stitched together with silk to form a cocoon.

Most moth larvae go underground to pupate. Some lay naked on the ground and their outer skin hardens. Others spin a silk cocoon and may include other matter into it, such as grass, twigs, and leaves. Sphinx moths sometimes crawl into rock crevices to pupate. Moths that have found their way indoors, such as clothes moths, look or a crack to crawl into.

Adult stage

Metamorphosis, which is both magical and wonderful, usually takes about ten days to two weeks. The new adult, called an imago (em-AH-go), is a pathetic sight at first. Its abdomen is large, full of fluid. The wings are all wet and crumpled up, looking utterly useless. Actually, they are. But, the imago has a solution for that little problem—literally. It begins to pump body fluids from its abdomen out into its wings. Little-by-little, the abdomen gets smaller while the wings unfurl and take on shape, strengthened and plumped by the fluid. The butterfly turns its wings to the sun to grab its heat and to dry, and it flaps them to build muscle. These are life or death moments for the imago. If anything—even a twig or leaf—prevents its wings from taking proper form, they’ll be useless, leading the poor butterfly to death by starvation or predators.

Time lapse of a Viceroy Butterfly (not a Monarch, although very similar in appearance). (© Kathy Keifer /Shutterstock)

Finally, when its body is ready and the time is right—and with its mind on food and finding a mate—it takes to the sky, as though it has done it a hundred times before. No apparent wobbling, no crashing into a tree, nor a nosedive into the birdbath.


Most species will live a few days or a few weeks as adults, with the average being around two weeks. Some live for several months. A notable example is the Monarch, which emerges in July or August of one year, moves south to central Mexico, and then migrates north again the following spring to lay eggs before dying. Monarch life cycle pictorial

Food sources

Most adult butterflies drink nectar, but a few species feed on sap, fermenting juices of rotting fruit, bird droppings, or dung. Some supplement their diet by visiting mud puddles to drink up the nutrients and salts in wet soil. A few moth species don’t eat at all as adults.

Depending on the species, larvae eat nearly all parts of a plant—usually a flowering variety or a conifer’s cones, fruits, or seeds. Some, like flour moths, Ephestia spp., eat grains and can become pests. Mosses, ferns, liverworts, and other kinds of flora are eaten by a few. Attract more butterflies with native nectar plants


Butterflies and moths live nearly everywhere—gardens, fields, roadsides, wetlands, forest edges, mountain tops, canyons, even deserts.

Predators and defense strategies of adults

Eyespots of a Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus. (Judy Gallagher / Flickr; cc by 2.0)

Butterflies are prey for spiders, wasps, birds and other wildlife. Most of the brightly colored ones are distasteful to predators. It’s thought their coloration has evolved as a successful visual warning not to touch them, because it seems to work. They have a nasty taste that comes from the juices of certain host plants eaten by them during their caterpillar stage. The Monarch is one example: Their larvae feed on milkweed, the juice of which is bitter and mildly toxic, and both larvae and adults are avoided by knowledgeable predators. Black Swallowtail Butterfly and Wood Tiger Moth larvae are among those that emit a repulsive odor. Some moths have patterns or eyespots on their wings meant to confuse or intimidate predators. Most have camouflage patterns that simply hide them in plain sight on the background they’re clinging to.

1 Side view, in the center of the photo, hanging head down. Look for its large, round, reddish-brown eye.
* Top photo: Public domain

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