ENT 425, General Entomology, Resource Library, Compendium lepidoptera

Classification & Distribution

  • complete development (egg, larva, pupa, adult)

Several classification systems have been proposed for dividing the Lepidoptera into suborders. Regardless of the system used, all of the larger and more economically significant families are members of a single suborder (Frenatae or Ditrysia).

Distribution: Common worldwide.

Worldwide Number of Families Number of Species

Life History & Ecology

Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) is the second largest order in the class Insecta. Nearly all lepidopteran larvae are called caterpillars. They have a well-developed head with chewing mouthparts. In addition to three pairs of legs on the thorax, they have two to eight pairs of fleshy abdominal prolegs that are structurally different from the thoracic legs. Most lepidopteran larvae are herbivores; some species eat foliage, some burrow into stems or roots, and some are leaf-miners.

Adults are distinctive for their large wings (relative to body size) which are covered with minute overlapping scales. Most entomologists believe that these scales are structurally related to the hair (setae) covering adult caddisflies. Lepidopteran wing scales often produce distinctive color patterns that play an important role in courtship and intraspecific recognition.

Although moths probably diverged from caddisflies in the early Triassic period, about 230 million years ago, adults in a few primitive families (e.g., Micropterygidae) still retain evidence of chewing mouthparts. In all other lepidopteran families, the mouthparts are vestigal or form a tubular proboscis that lies coiled like a watch spring beneath the head. This proboscis is derived from portions of the maxillae. It uncoils by hydrostatic pressure and acts as a siphon tube for sipping liquid nutrients, such as nectar, from flowers and other substrates.

From a taxonomic standpoint, the distinction between moths and butterflies is largely artificial — some moths are more similar to butterflies than to other moths. As a rule, butterflies are diurnal, brightly colored, and have knobs or hooks at the tip of the antennae. At rest, the wings are held vertically over the body. In contrast, most (but not all) moths are nocturnal. They are typically drab in appearance, and have thread-like, spindle-like, or comb-like antennae. At rest, their wings are held horizontally against the substrate, folded flat over the back, or curled around the body.

Physical Features



  • Eruciform (caterpillar-like)
  • Head capsule well-developed, with chewing mouthparts
  • Abdomen with up to 5 pairs of prolegs
  • Mouthparts form a coiled tube (proboscis) beneath the head
  • Antennal type:
    • Butterflies: knobbed or hooked at tip
    • Moths: thread-like, spindle-shaped, or comb-like
  • Front wings large, triangular; hind wings large, fan-shaped
  • Body and wings covered with small, overlapping scales

Economic Importance

Although many Lepidoptera are valued for their beauty, and a few are useful in commerce (e.g., the silkworm, Bombyx mori), the larvae of these insects are probably more destructive to agricultural crops and forest trees than any other group of insects.

Major Families

      • Nymphalidae (brushfooted butterflies) — front legs reduced in size. This is the largest butterfly family; it includes the fritillaries, admirals, emperors, and tortoiseshells.
      • Danaidae (milkweed butterflies) — adults are reddish-orange with black and white markings. Larvae feed on various species of milkweed. Includes the monarch (Danaus plexippus).
      • Pieridae (whites and sulfurs) — adults are predominantly white or yellow with black markings. The imported cabbageworm (Pieris rapae) is a pest throughout the world.
      • Papilionidae (swallowtails) — hind wings have a tail-like extension. The tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is a cosmopolitan species.
      • Lycaenidae (blues, coppers, and hairstreaks) — small butterflies with fluted hind wings. Some species are extinct or nearing extinction, others are very common.
      • Hesperiidae (skippers) — antennal club is hooked at the tip. The silverspotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus, is a common species.
      • Tineidae (clothes moths) — some larvae construct cases and feed on natural fibers. Pests include the webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and the casemaking clothes moth (Tinea pellionella).
      • Gelechiidae — one of the largest families of micro-lepidoptera. These larvae feed on plants or plant products. Pests include the Angoumois grain moth (Sitotroga cerealella) and the pink bollworm (Pectinophora gossypiella).
      • Sesiidae (clearwing moths) — diurnally active adults mimic wasps. Many pests of fruit and vegetable crops, including the peachtree borer (Synanthedon exitiosa) and squash vine borer (Melittia cucurbitae).
      • Tortricidae — fourth largest family of Lepidoptera. Larvae feed inside stems, leaves, and fruit. Contains many pest species, including the codling moth (Cydia pomonella) and the oriental fruit moth (Grapholita molesta).
      • Pyralidae (snout moths) — second largest family of Lepidoptera. Pests include the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis), the Indianmeal moth (Plodia interpunctella), and the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella).
      • Geometridae — third largest family of Lepidoptera. Larvae are often called inchworms or spanworms. Includes the winter moth (Operophtera brumata) and the fall cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria).
      • Lasiocampidae (lappet moths) — larvae feed on the leaves of trees and some spin large webs or tents on the foliage. Pests include the eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americana) and the forest tent caterpillar (M. disstria).
      • Saturniidae (giant silk moths) — large, colorful moths. Larvae feed on a wide range of trees and shrubs. Well-known species include the cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) and the luna moth (Actias luna).
      • Sphingidae (hawk moths) — medium to large adults with long proboscis for collecting nectar. Larvae are frequently called hornworms. Pests include the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and tomato hornworm (M. quinquemaculata).
      • Arctiidae (tiger moths) — distinctive adults, usually white with black, red, yellow, or orange markings. Many larvae are covered with long hairs (woollybears). Includes the fall webworm (Hyphantria cunea).
      • Lymantriidae (tussock moths) — larvae are characterized by tufts of hair along the body. Adults do not feed. Pests include the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) and the browntail moth (Euproctis chrysorrhoea).
      • Noctuidae (loopers, owlet moths, and underwings) — this is the largest family in the Lepidoptera. Larvae are leaf feeders and stem borers. Many species are pests, including the fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), the black cutworm (Agrotis ipsilon), and the cabbage looper (Trichoplusia ni).
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Bug Bytes

  • Some butterflies (family Lycaenidae) are considered «endangered species». The Xerces blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) was last collected in 1943 from sand dunes near San Francisco, CA. This butterfly’s name has been adopted by the Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of endangered species.
  • In flight, front and hind wings are linked together by a bristle (frenulum) or a membranous flap (jugum) so both wings move up and down in synchrony.
  • According to folklore, larvae of the banded woollybear, Pyrrharctia isabella, can forecast the severity of winter weather. A wide brown band means the winter will be harsh, a narrow brown band means the winter will be mild.
  • Adults of most Noctuidae and Arctiidae have «ears» in the thorax that help them detect and evade echo-locating bats. Some species of Arctiidae even produce high-pitched ticks that confuse the bats.

© 2020 by John R. Meyer
Last Updated: 23 January 2020


Caterpillars Mistaken for Gypsy Moth Caterpillars

Several types of caterpillars are commonly mistaken for gypsy moth caterpillars. Use these checklists and images for identification.

Gypsy moth caterpillar characteristics

Gypsy moth caterpillars:

  • Are hairy
  • Have distinctive rows of paired red and blue tubercles (bumps) along their backs when fully grown
  • Are big – when fully grown, about the size of your little finger
  • Do not move like an «inchworm,» with their middles rising up and their two ends coming close together
  • Hatch in early May and grow through the summer
  • Do not form tents of webbing in trees – or leave behind much webbing at all
  • Rarely feed on coniferous (evergreen) trees, except when in large populations and other food is scarce

Other caterpillars’ traits

Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly

Some rare and endangered butterfly caterpillars resemble gypsy moth caterpillars. However, to preserve butterfly populations, butterfly caterpillars should not be disturbed. If you have found a caterpillar and are uncertain of its species, leave it be.

Taylor checkerspot butterfly caterpillars:

  • Are black and hairy
  • Have a single row of yellow dots on their backs
  • Feed on plants within Garry oak meadows, but not on the trees
  • Are currently found only in a few locations on Denman Island and Buckley Bay
Note the black tufts of hair on the Taylor’s checkerspot caterpillar, and the single row of reddish-orange dots.

Silver-spotted Tiger Moth

Silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillars

  • Are large
  • Actively feed between the early spring and early June
  • Primarily feed on conifers (evergreens)
  • Do not have any spots
  • Have yellow hairs
  • Produce dense webs on trees
  • Often feed in groups
Note the yellowish tufts on the silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillars. Also, they do not have distinctive, coloured dots.

Tussock Moth

Tussock moth caterpillars

  • Are hairy, with pencil-like tufts on the head and tail and «tussocks», or bunches of hairs, on the back
  • Feed on Douglas-fir (Douglas-fir tussock moth) or both hardwood and evergreen trees (rusty tussock moth)
  • Produce webbing, but not tents, on the trees they feed on
Note the two long tufts on the Douglas-fir tussock moth caterpillar’s head, and the long bundles of hair on the body.

Tent Caterpillar (Western and Northern)

  • Usually feed in large groups
  • Build large white tents of webbing
  • Feed on the leaves of trees like Garry oak and alder, and fruit trees and ornamental shrubs
  • Have short hairs on their bodies
  • Have blue, orange or red spots

Note the masses of tent caterpillars gathered on a tent of webbing. Note also the shorter hairs on the body, and the white and yellow markings on the back.

Winter Moth

Winter moth caterpillars:

  • Are hairless and green
  • Are found hiding within rolled leaves
  • Feed on large, leafy trees like maple, oak and alder, and on fruit trees and ornamental shrubs
  • Suspend themselves from a single strand of webbing
Note that the winter moth is green and hairless.
  • See complete Field Guide to Forest Damage in BC(PDF)

What Can You Do?

If you find any of the gypsy moth life stages, please contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) as soon as possible and an inspector will investigate.

  • 250 363-3618
    (Vancouver Island)
  • 604 292-5700

Not sure if you have found a gypsy moth?

  • Review the gypsy moth life stages
  • Review the information here to help identify whether you have found a gypsy moth caterpillar, or another kind



noun, plural: characteristics
(1) A distinguishing quality, trait or feature of an individual, thing, disorder, etc.
(2) A distinctive mark, feature, attribute, or property of an individual or thing.
Being a feature or trait that helps identify an individual, thing, etc.
For instance, a living thing is considered alive when it shows the following general characteristics:

  • It is made up of cell(s).
  • It is capable of growth and development.
  • It obtains energy and utilizes it.
  • It can reproduce.
  • It responds to its environment.
  • It is capable of adapting to its environment.

Word origin: Greek charaktēristikós (to designate, characterize)

Related forms: characteristically (adverb)
Related terms:

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What is evolution?

In biology, evolution is the change in the characteristics of a species over several generations and relies on the process of natural selection.

  • The theory of evolution is based on the idea that all species are related and gradually change over time.
  • Evolution relies on there being genetic variation in a population which affects the physical characteristics (phenotype) of an organism.
  • Some of these characteristics may give the individual an advantage over other individuals which they can then pass on to their offspring.

What is natural selection?

  • Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution states that evolution happens by natural selection.
  • Individuals in a species show variation in physical characteristics. This variation is because of differences in their genes.
  • Individuals with characteristics best suited to their environment are more likely to survive, finding food, avoiding predators and resisting disease. These individuals are more likely to reproduce and pass their genes on to their children.
  • Individuals that are poorly adapted to their environment are less likely to survive and reproduce. Therefore their genes are less likely to be passed on to the next generation.
  • As a consequence those individuals most suited to their environment survive and, given enough time, the species will gradually evolve.

Natural selection in action: the Peppered moth

  • Before the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s, the peppered moth was most commonly a pale whitish colour with black spots.
  • This colouring enabled them to hide from potential predators on trees with pale-coloured bark, such as birch trees.
  • The rarer dark-coloured peppered moths were easily seen against the pale bark of trees and therefore more easily seen by predators.

A pale peppered moth on an oak tree.

Image credit: Shutterstock

  • As the Industrial Revolution reached its peak, the air in industrial areas became full of soot. This stained trees and buildings black.
  • As a result, the lighter moths became much easier to spot than the darker ones, making them vulnerable to being eaten by birds.
  • The darker moths were now camouflaged against the soot-stained trees and therefore less likely to be eaten.
  • Over time this change in the environment led to the darker moths becoming more common and the pale moths rarer.

A pale peppered moth on a dark tree.

Image credit: Shutterstock

What have genes got to do with it?

  • The mechanisms of evolution operate at the genomic level. Changes in DNA sequences affect the composition and expression of our genes, the basic units of inheritance.
  • To understand how different species have evolved we have to look at the DNA sequences in their genomes.
  • Our evolutionary history is written into our genome. The human genome looks the way it does because of all the genetic changes that affected our ancestors.
  • When DNA and genes in different species look very similar, this is usually taken as evidence of them sharing ancestors.
  • For example, humans and the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, share much of their DNA. 75 per cent of genes that cause diseases in humans are also found in the fruit fly.
  • DNA accumulates changes over time. Some of these changes can be beneficial, and provide a selective advantage for an organism.
  • Other changes may be harmful if they affect an important, everyday function. As a result some genes do not change much. They are said to be conserved.

Different types of evolution

Convergent evolution

  • When the same adaptations evolve independently, under similar selection pressures.
  • For example, flying insects, birds and bats have all evolved the ability to fly, but independently of each other.


  • When two species or groups of species have evolved alongside each other where one adapts to changes in the other.
  • For example, flowering plants and pollinating insects such as bees.

Adaptive radiation

  • When a species splits into a number of new forms when a change in the environment makes new resources available or creates new environmental challenges.
  • For example, finches on the Galapagos Islands have developed different shaped beaks to take advantage of the different kinds of food available on different islands.

Sketches of the heads of finches from the Galapagos Islands showing the differences in their beak shapes due to evolution.

Image credit: John Gould (14.Sep.1804 — 3.Feb.1881) — From «Voyage of the Beagle» ; also online through Biodiversity


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