Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths: Lepidoptera

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Adults come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Their bodies are long and slender or plump and are either brightly or drably colored. The smallest species are leaf-miner moths with wingspans measuring 0.17 inches (4.5 millimeters). The largest moth is from the American tropics with a wingspan of up to 11.02 inches (280 millimeters). The smallest known butterfly species are Micropsyche ariana from Afghanistan and the Western pygmy blue of the United States. Both have wingspans of 0.39 to 0.75 inches (10 to 19 millimeters). The largest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra's birdwing of New Guinea. Females are larger than males and have wingspans measuring up to just over 7 inches (129 millimeters).

Most adults have a long coiled tubelike tongue called the proboscis (pruh-BAH-suhs). The proboscis is used for sucking up fluids. It is sometimes longer than the body and is coiled up and stored under the head when not in use. In some moths the proboscis is strong enough to pierce the skin of fruit. Some moths do not have a proboscis, and a few species have jaws. The mouthparts usually include a pair of fingerlike structures covered with scales called palps. The antennae (an-TEH-nee), or sense organs, of moths are long and threadlike or feathery. Those of butterflies are long, slender, and swollen at the tips. Skippers also have long slender antennae, but the tips are hooked. All adults have a pair of large compound eyes, or eyes with multiple lenses, and some also have a pair of simple eyes, or eyes with one lens.

Nearly all lepidopterans (leh-pe-DOP-teh-runs) have four wings, but a few species, especially the females, are wingless. The wings are usually large when compared to the size of the body and are densely covered with tiny flat hair-like structures called scales. Thousands of scales are arranged on the wings like overlapping shingles on a roof and give lepidopterans their colors and patterns. The wings are similar in size and texture, but the forewing colors of many moths are usually bolder than the hind wings. The wing veins, which can only be seen when the scales are removed, vary in pattern. Smaller moths have only a few veins in each wing. The leading edge of the forewing is reinforced with several veins to give it strength.

The forewings and hind wings work together while the insect is in flight. In ghost moths there is a flap near the base of the forewing that overlaps and connects with the base of the hind wing. In most other moths, the portion of the hind wings closest to the body, called the base, has a cluster of hairs that fits into a special structure on the base of the forewing. Butterflies, nearly all skippers, and a few moths have hind wings with a stiff flap near the base that overlaps the base of the forewing.

The soft, ten-segmented abdomen is covered with scales and lacks any long projections on the tip.

The larvae (LAR-vee) or young, usually known as caterpillars, do not resemble the adults at all. Their bodies are long, soft, and fleshy. The nearly round head is distinct, hard, and has powerful jaws. The antennae are small and not easily seen. Two silk glands are located inside the lower lip. The silk comes out through a single opening on the lip. The six true legs are located on the thorax, or midsection. Each leg is five-segmented and usually tipped with a single claw. The underside of the abdomen has a series of paired false legs called prolegs, which are fleshy structures usually tipped with a series of hooks. These hooks allow caterpillars to grip leaves, twigs, and other objects. The surfaces of their wrinkled bodies are smooth or covered with scales, fleshy bumps, spines, or tufts of hair. These coverings sometimes help to protect the caterpillars from potential predators (PREH-duh-ters), or animals that hunt them for food. The needlelike spines are sometimes hollow, attached to poison glands, and capable of delivering burning stings. The hairs of some species are especially irritating to people if they get into the eyes, nose, or mouth.

The features of the adult are clearly visible in the pupae (PYU-pee), or the life stage between larva and adult. The legs and wings are tightly fastened to the body along their entire lengths. The pupae of moths are usually brownish and smooth. The pupa of a butterfly is called a chrysalis (KRIH-suh-lihs). Chrysalises come in a variety of colors and are sometimes distinctly sculptured. The pupae are sometimes wrapped in a silk cocoon, especially in some moths. The chrysalises of many butterflies are attached to branches and the undersides of leaves. They have a small cluster of hooks located on the very tip of the abdomen that they use to grab a buttonlike pad of silk spun by the caterpillar. Swallowtail butterflies also secure their chrysalises with an additional strand of silk like a belt wrapped around the body. Many moths do not use any silk at all and pupate, or change into pupae, in the ground or under tree bark.


Lepidopterans are found on all continents except Antarctica. Most species are found in the tropics. There are about 160,000 species of butterflies and moths worldwide, the vast majority of which are moths. Of the 12,000 species of Lepidoptera known in the United States and Canada, only 760 are butterflies.


All the life stages of lepidopterans are found in a wide variety of habitats on land, usually on or near caterpillar food plants or adult nectar sources. Some moth caterpillars live on aquatic plants in ponds and streams. Some caterpillars of butterflies known as blues live inside ant nests.

Adults are also widespread. They are found resting on foliage, tree trunks, or visiting flowers or patches of moisture. Some species gather in large groups on shrubs, trees, or near cave entrances.


Nearly all lepidopterans feed on flowering plants, but a few species prefer algae (AL-jee), or tiny plantlike organisms, growing underwater, funguses, mosses, or pine trees and their relatives. Most larvae will eat the tissues of just one or a few closely related plant species, but a few will feed on many kinds of plants. Most species feed on the outside of plants. Depending on the species they devour leaves, flowers, seeds, or buds. A few species of moth larvae roll up leaves to create a shelter to feed inside in safety. Some moth species bore into plants, eating wood inside tree trunks or softer tissues inside vine stems. A few moth and butterfly species are predators and attack flies, aphids, and scale insects. Butterfly larvae living inside ant nests eat the eggs, larvae, and pupae of their hosts. Other moth species steal insects from insect-eating pitcher plants or from spider webs. The caterpillars of clothes moths eat cloth, wool, fur, and feathers, while those of Indian mealmoths prefer dried fruit and stored grains. Still others scavenge the waste of birds and mammals.

Most adults drink nectar, fruit juices, and plant sap and will sometimes supplement their diets with pollen. Some will also take up mineral-rich fluids from mud, dead animals, and both liquid and solid animal waste. A few prefer fluids such as tears around the eyes of animals. An Asian moth, Calpe eustrigiata, prefers to feed on blood and uses its proboscis to pierce the skin of animals. The few species with chewing mouthparts eat pollen. Those adults without mouthparts must rely on the food they ate as caterpillars for energy.


Butterflies and moths have to be warm (77 to 79°F or 25 to 26°C) in order to fly. They depend on the temperature of their environment to maintain their body temperature. Butterflies living in cooler climates use their wings to warm their bodies. They bask in the sun so their wings get maximum exposure to the warm light. In hotter climates butterflies can overheat, so they are usually active only during the cooler parts of the day, early morning, late afternoon, or early evening. During the heat of the day they rest in the shade.

Some larger thick-bodied moths, such as hawk moths, can generate their own heat to a limited degree by vibrating their wings. The heat generated by the flight muscles warms the thorax, but the abdomen does not need to be kept so warm. To avoid overheating some moths rely on hairy scales, internal air sacs, and other structures to separate the thorax and abdomen and keep the abdomen cooler.

Butterflies, skippers, and moths usually get together only to mate. However, some species do gather in large groups to find a more comfortable climate. Only about 200 species of butterflies and moths regularly migrate long distances, returning to the areas where they breed. The Jersey tiger moth escapes the summer heat by gathering in large numbers in cooler, wetter habitats. Monarchs in North America migrate by the thousands or millions each year to the coast of California or the volcanic mountains of southern Mexico to escape cold winters. In spring they fly east from coastal California, or north from Mexico, laying their eggs on milkweeds as they go. Individuals seldom make the entire return trip. Instead, this is accomplished by their offspring. It takes three to five generations of monarchs each year to repopulate the continent. The last generation in late summer or early fall is the one that migrates to warmer climates.

Caterpillars display a wide range of defensive behaviors to avoid being eaten by birds and other animals. For example, bag-worms build a protective case of silk and cover it with twigs, leaf fragments, and sand. Others have colors and textures that help them blend in with surrounding twigs, leaves, and flowers. When startled, some species whip back and forth, rear up to expose large fake eye spots, vomit bright-colored fluids, or pretend to be dead and drop to the ground.

Both adults and larvae of some species have bright colors or distinctive patterns that warn predators of their bad taste. Other caterpillars are covered with irritating hairs or stinging spines. Giant leopard moths from the eastern United States are boldly marked insects with large black spots on a white background. When threatened they release a foul-smelling yellow fluid from special glands in their thorax. Mimics also have bright colors to fool experienced predators into thinking that they taste bad or are otherwise harmful. For example, some larvae mimic snakes in both appearance and behavior. Many day-active moths have slender black and yellow bodies with clear wings and resemble stinging bees and wasps. Bright warning colors are of little use to some night-flying moths, so they produce high-pitched sounds as part of their defense system that warns bats of their bad taste.

Male butterflies locate mates either by establishing and defending territories or by actively flying about the environment in search of females. They rely mostly on eyesight to find a mate but will also release pheromones (FEH-re-moans), or chemical scents that attract females. After locating a female the male will chase her until she drops to the ground. Depending on the species, before they mate he will move his antennae, flap his wings, and release pheromones from brushy tufts of hairs located on the thorax, wings, legs, or abdomen.

Most lepidopterans must mate to produce offspring, but some European bagworm moths reproduce by parthenogenesis (PAR-thuh-no-JEH-nuh-sihs), where caterpillars hatch and develop from unfertilized eggs. In moths, females release pheromones from their abdominal glands to attract males. The feathery antennae of some male moths are so sensitive that they can locate a female over a distance of several miles (kilometers). Courtship is usually very brief.

The life cycle of lepidopterans includes four very distinct stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult. Females may lay their eggs singly or in batches inside plant tissues, glue them to all kinds of objects, or simply drop them from the air. In cooler regions the eggs may overwinter, or last through the winter, and will not hatch until the following spring or summer. The larvae molt, or shed their exoskeletons, or hard outer coatings, five or six times before reaching the pupal stage. Depending on the species, temperature, and the availability and quality of food, the time between egg and adult may take anywhere from fifteen days to two years. Mature larvae search for a suitable site to pupate.

Adults often emerge from their pupae right after rains. This way they can mate and lay their eggs at the same time plants are developing new leaves, providing the caterpillars with plenty to eat. Moths secrete a fluid to dissolve a hole in the cocoon or use sharp structures on their head to cut their way through the silk. Most adults live for a few days or weeks, but some species, such as migrating monarchs, live several months. Some species, such as mourning cloaks and several species of North American anglewings, overwinter as adults and fly in early February and March.


Butterflies have appeared in ancient Egyptian and Chinese carvings, on Aztec pottery, and in countless paintings, sculptures, jewelry, textiles, glass, drawings, and poetry. They have been used to symbolize joy, sorrow, eternal life, or the frailty of life. In some parts of the world butterflies and moths are thought to represent the soul. In fact, psyche, the word for butterflies and moths in Greek, means "soul."

Many lepidopterans are directly beneficial to humans. The best known example is the silkworm. They are raised commercially on farms so that silk from their cocoons can be harvested to manufacture textiles. Other lepidopterans are useful, too. Flower-visiting adults are important pollinators of flowers, while some caterpillars eat pest insects, such as aphids and scale insects, and others parasitize plant hoppers. The eggs of some moths are used to raise large numbers of a parasitoid wasp Trichogramma, which is then released to control the caterpillars of another moth species that is a pest of crops. The larvae of a South American moth are used in South Africa and Australia to control cactus, which is considered a weed outside of its normal range in the New World. In many parts of the world, caterpillars, rich in protein, are considered a part of a balanced human diet.

Yet the feeding habits of many caterpillars have led humans to consider them major pests. Leaf-rollers, webworms, leaf miners, cutworms, armyworms, underground grass grubs, vine borers, carpenterworms, gypsy moth caterpillars, tent caterpillars and their relatives attack crops, garden plants, and forests managed for timber. Still others destroy clothing and stored foods.


The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists 303 species of lepidopterans, 176 of which are listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable. Critically Endangered means facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild; Endangered means facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild, and Vulnerable means facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service also lists twenty-five of these species, mostly butterflies, as Endangered, or in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range. Giant birdwing butterflies and other species are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


Thousands of caterpillars are raised each year to sell as pupae to butterfly houses in Europe and the United States. Raising birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera and Troides) in Papua New Guinea not only helps the local economy, but it also encourages people to protect butterfly habitats. The survival of the world's largest butterfly, Ornithoptera alexandrae, may depend on the efforts of farmers who encourage the growth of the caterpillar's food plants.

Butterflies are familiar animals that attract considerable attention. Unlike most insects, they are admired and appreciated by the general public. Because of this, many species have been given protection by local, state, national, and international agencies. Butterfly collecting is often thought to be the most serious threat to their populations, but this is simply not true. As with all species, it is the destruction of their habitats that makes them vulnerable to extinction.


Physical characteristics: Mature caterpillars measure 1.5 inches (40 millimeters) and are grayish with brown marks on the thorax. They have a short horn near the tip of the abdomen. They spin a white or yellow cocoon for pupation. The color of the cocoon is determined by heredity and diet. The cocoon is made from one continuous silk thread that measures 1,000 to 3,000 feet (300 to 900 meters) long. The whitish adults are heavy bodied, rounded, and furry. Adult wingspan is 1.5 to 2.5 inches (40 to 60 millimeters). The forewings are hooked at their tips.

Geographic range: This species is originally from the north of China, the north of India, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They are now raised commercially in Europe and North and South America.

Habitat: The silkworm is the world's only completely domesticated insect. No populations are found in the wild. They are raised on farms near fields of mulberry trees.

Diet: Caterpillars feed only on mulberry leaves. The adults have no mouthparts and do not feed.

Behavior and reproduction: The adults cannot fly. The domesticated larvae can survive only with human assistance.

Females lay 200 to 500 lemon-yellow eggs that eventually turn black. The eggs hatch in spring. The larvae molt four times in four to six weeks before spinning a cocoon. The mature caterpillar spends up to three or more days to spin an entire cocoon. Adults emerge in about three weeks, mate, and die in about five days. There is usually only one generation per year.

Silkworms and people: Silkworms were first domesticated in China. They are now raised for educational purposes in classrooms as well as to harvest their silk. The silk is obtained by boiling the cocoons in water to kill the pupa and unraveling the thread. Dead pupae are sometimes used as cockroach bait, fish food, or as fertilizer for mulberry trees.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Adult wingspan is 0.64 to 0.8 inches (16 to 20 millimeters) across. The upper side of the forewing is bright blue with large black spots. The underside of the forewing is grayish with large black spots and a bluish or greenish area near the base. The head of the larva is small and hidden. The legs are also hidden, and the body is covered with short hairs.

Geographic range: This species is found from western Europe to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and China.

Habitat: Large blues are found in dry, rugged, open grasslands where their host ants, Myrmica sabuleti, live. In the north, the ants prefer warm, south-facing slopes covered in short grass.

Diet: Younger larvae eat pollen and seeds of wild thyme and oregano, while the older caterpillars prefer ant eggs and larvae.

Behavior and reproduction: Females lay their eggs singly on flowers of thyme or oregano. Caterpillars feed on plants for about three weeks and then drop to the ground. From special glands they produce fluids that are attractive to ants. The ants pick up the caterpillars and carry them back to their nests. There the caterpillars prey on ant eggs and larvae. Pupation takes place in the nest. Adults emerge the following summer and live for about three or four weeks. They are active from June through August.

Large blues and people: Scientists study their relationships with ants to understand how different kinds of animals come to depend on each other. These studies provide useful information for the conservation of other species of blues whose caterpillars also depend on ants for their development.

Conservation status: This species is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as Near Threatened, or likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future. Their populations have declined or disappeared in northern Europe. They have been reestablished in England and are still common in Siberia and the Far East. Their populations are threatened by the expansion of agricultural areas. ∎


Physical characteristics: Adult males are light to dark brown with irregular black markings. Their wingspan measures 1 to 1.5 inches (25.4 to 38.0 millimeters). They have wider feathery antennae. Females are all white with irregular black lines on the wings. Their wingspan is 2.24 to 2.68 inches (56 to 67 millimeters), and they have narrower feathery antennae. Mature larvae are 1.48 to 2.40 inches (37 to 60 millimeters) long. Their bodies are gray with a row of hair tufts down their backs. They have five pairs of blue spots followed by six pairs of red spots. The brown pupae are 0.76 to 1.0 inches (19 to 25 millimeters) long and have small circlets of hairs.

Geographic range: Gypsy moths are found throughout most of Eurasia. They have become established in northeastern North America.

Habitat: Gypsy moths live in forests and fields, as well as in towns and cities. The caterpillars are found on their food plants.

Diet: The larvae eat more than five hundred different kinds of trees and shrubs, including pines, oaks, poplars, willows, and birches. The moths do not feed.

Behavior and reproduction: Males fly in late afternoon or at night in search of females. The females have wings but do not fly. However, females of Japanese populations are capable of flying.

Females attract males with pheromones during the summer. After mating they lay batches of one hundred to one thousand eggs on virtually any surface, including automobiles and lawn and picnic furniture. Eggs laid on moveable objects are often accidentally transported long distances. The eggs overwinter and hatch in spring. The caterpillars require 20 to 60 days before they can pupate. During this period male caterpillars molt five times, while females molt six. The life cycle, from egg to adult, takes about 20 to 60 days. The pupal stage lasts about 14 to 17 days.

Gypsy moths and people: The gypsy moth is an important forest pest in Europe, Asia, and the northeastern United States. There are laws in the United States and other countries designed to isolate known populations and prevent their spread into new areas.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Both males and females have shiny blue wings that change color slightly depending on the angle of light. The upper sides of the male's wings are mostly bright blue. Female's wings are duller, with brown edges and white spots surrounding blue. The undersides of the wings of both males and females are brown with bronze eyespots. Their wingspans measure up to 6 inches (150 millimeters) across. The larvae are reddish brown with bright patches of lime green and reddish brown with white tufts of hair on the back.

Geographic range: This species is found in South America, from the Guianas to Brazil and Bolivia.

Habitat: This species lives in wet humid forests.

Diet: Adults suck juices from rotting fruit, while the larvae feed on the leaves of Erythroxylum pilchrum.

Behavior and reproduction: Adults fly through the forest in a series of blue flashes as their wings open and close. They are perfectly camouflaged when at rest with their wings closed. The males are very territorial and use their bright blue wings to scare off other males. The larvae feed at night. When threatened they release a strong smell from a gland that opens between their front legs.

Nothing is known of their reproductive behavior.

Blue morphos and people: The surface sculpturing of each scale on the morpho wings create the shimmering blue color that brightens or fades depending on the direction of the light. This quality has suggested security measures for use in paper money and credit cards to prevent them from being copied illegally.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: Adults are small and slender, with a wingspan of 0.62 to 0.79 inches (16 to 20 millimeters). Each forewing is yellowish brown toward the base and reddish brown toward the tip. The hind wings are dull white and almost clear. The mature larvae measure 0.36 to 0.60 inches (9 to 15 millimeters). They have a yellow-brown head and shield over the front of the thorax. The rest of the body is dull white to pinkish.

Geographic range: Indian mealmoths are found on all continents except Antarctica.

Habitat: Indian mealmoths live outside and are attracted to lights at night but are usually seen in cupboards and pantries in homes. They also infest supermarkets and feed stores. The larvae are found in stored foods or pupating between shelves and walls or where walls and ceilings meet.

Diet: The larvae eat all kinds of stored foods, including pastas, cereals, dry pet food, and dried fruit.

Behavior and reproduction: Adults fly at night and are attracted to televisions and other sources of light in the home. The larvae tunnel into food and ruin it with their waste and trails of silk webbing.

The female lays eggs just three to four days after emerging from the pupa. The speed of larval development depends on temperature, humidity, and food quality and ranges from thirteen to 288 days. Multiple overlapping generations are found in homes and warehouses.

Indian mealmoths and people: The caterpillars infest stored foods in homes, supermarkets, and warehouses and are considered pests.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: The atlas moth is one of the largest moths with a wingspan of 8 inches (200 millimeters). Their plump bodies are very hairy. Each wing is reddish brown and has a single triangle-shaped spot that does not have any scales and is clear. The tips of the forewings are curved. The antennae of the males are larger and more feathery than the females. The caterpillars are bluish green with shades of pink. They pupate in cocoons made up of broken strands of silk.

Geographic range: This species is found in the tropical regions of Asia, India, and southeast Asia.

Habitat: Atlas moths live in habitats from the lowlands to upper mountain forests.

Diet: The larvae feed on many kinds of trees, including Jamaican cherry, soursop, cinnamon, rambutan, guava, and citrus. The moths lack developed mouthparts and do not feed.

Behavior and reproduction: Atlas moths are attracted to lights at night. Females attract males with pheromones. Males can detect the faintest traces of these pheromones from as far as three miles (4.8 kilometers) away.

Females lay a few to several hundred eggs on the undersides of leaves and die soon afterward. The eggs hatch in about two weeks, depending on temperature. The pupal stage lasts about one month.

Atlas moths and people: The caterpillars are raised commercially, and the adults are sold as specimens to collectors. Their silk cocoons are used to make coin purses in Taiwan.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. ∎


Physical characteristics: These moths have a skull-like pattern on the thorax. They are large and heavily built insects, with a wingspan of 4.4 to 4.8 inches (110 to 120 millimeters). Their long forewings are dark, while the hind wings are yellow with black lines near the edges. The hairy proboscis is short and thick. The abdomen has yellow and black bands. Mature larvae measure 4.8 to 5.2 inches (120 to 130 millimeters) long. Their bodies are yellow, green, or brown with a large horn toward the rear. The pupa is shiny, reddish brown, and measures 3.0 to 3.2 inches (75.7 to 80.0 millimeters).

Geographic range: They are found throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert but occasionally migrate north to the Mediterranean Sea as well as central and northern Europe.

Habitat: The death's head hawk moth lives in dry and sunny locations, especially open shrubby habitats with plenty of plants in the nightshade family. This includes agricultural areas where potatoes are grown.

Diet: The larvae eat plants in the nightshade family and are particularly fond of potato. The adults use their short proboscis to feed on honey, rotting fruit, and tree sap.

Behavior and reproduction: The caterpillars are sluggish and usually move only when looking for a fresh leaf to eat. When threatened they click their jaws together and will sometimes bite. Adults are active just after sundown to midnight. Their days are spent resting on tree trunks, walls, or leaves on the ground. They are attracted to lights and sometimes to flowers. These moths often invade beehives to steal honey and defend themselves by smelling like a bee, raising their wings, and running and hopping about. When attacked, they force air out of their proboscis, making a squeaking noise. They also release a moldy smell from special hairs associated with glands on their abdomen.

Females lay eggs singly underneath old leaves of the caterpillar's food plant. They pupate inside a flimsy cocoon in a cavity dug deep in the soil.

Death's head hawk moths and people: This moth is considered to be an evil creature because of the skull pattern on the thorax and the loud squeaking sound that it makes when disturbed. It once was considered a symbol of war, pestilence, and death. It was featured on the cover of the book and appeared in the film The Silence of the Lambs.

Conservation status: This species is not considered endangered or threatened. However, it is less common today as a result of the use of pesticides. ∎



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Butterflies, Skippers, and Moths: Lepidoptera

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