Common Name--Butterflies and Moths
Lepidoptera is pronounced in English as "le-pi-DOP-ter-a".
The name is derived from Greek words for scale, "lepido", and
wing, "ptera", and refers to the scales covering the wings in
all butterflies and moths.
Some butterflies are called "skippers" because of their rapid
skipping from flower to flower. Some moths have been called
"millers" because their wings appear to be covered with dust,
as the clothes of a person who mills grain. Many common
names are used for different groups and species of Lepidoptera,
such as swallowtails, hairstreak butterflies, silk moths, and
owlets. Some Lepidoptera names refer to forms of the
caterpillars (for example, woolly bears, cutworms, hornworms,
More than 165,000 species of moths and butterflies have been
named in the world, and more than 11,400 occur in North
America. The butterflies include about 17,550 species in the
world and 754 species in North America. Of the North American
moths, more than half of the species are microlepidoptera,
which include many of the small sized moths. About 5,000
species are larger moths, or macrolepidoptera. More than
2,900 of the larger moths are members of the family Noctuidae,
which includes the cutworms and owlet moths.
Lepidoptera occur almost anywhere that plants grow, although
not all eat plants. Some species live on mountains at high
altitudes where temperatures are too cold to fly at night.
At high altitudes, both butterflies and moths often are
adapted to fly during the warmer daytime. Some species occur
only in tropical rain forests, prairies, bogs, and other
specialized habitats. Some caterpillars can live in water,
feeding on aquatic plants. Several species have become
adapted to living in houses of people.
Form and Function
Most Lepidoptera have a long and coiled proboscis for sucking
liquid food. A few primitive moths have mandibles for chewing
instead of a proboscis. Giant silk moths have a small
proboscis that does not suck liquids, and the adult never feeds.
The antennae in butterflies are knobbed or enlarged at the
ends, whereas in moths, they are thread-like or feathery.
Butterflies are usually brightly colored, whereas most moths
have black, brown and other dull colors. However, some moths
that fly during the day time resemble butterflies in having
The wings of moths span from less than one-tenth inch to
more than 12 inches. The largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra
butterfly (Ornithoptera alexandrae)of New Guinea, has a wingspan of 11 inches.
Most moths hold their wings tent-like over their bodies when
at rest. Females of some moths, like the cankerworms and
bagworms, do not have wings. The gypsy moth female has large
wings, but its large abdomen prevents it from flying.
Scales are flat and hollow hairs that cover the wings and
bodies of Lepidoptera. These scales are filled with substances,
which are known as pigments, that make many different colors.
In addition to the colors that are visible to humans, some
Lepidoptera have an ultraviolet color that is visible to the
insect but not to humans. Many scales of the same color can
be grouped together to form patterns on the wings. Lepidoptera
that fly during the day time use these color patterns for
In some Lepidoptera, scales have a form that reflects and
scatters the light like a rainbow or a soap bubble. In the
morpho butterfly, the color pigment of the wing is brown, which
can be seen when viewed at an angle. If the angle of view is
changed, a bright blue color is reflected and seen. This
reflection of light to form a color different from the pigment
is called iridescence. Iridescent colors are present in many
moths and butterflies, especially tropical species.
Photographs of morpho butterflies and other tropical species
can be found at Chuck's Butterfly Page.
The colors and patterns of wings also are important for
defense against predators. Some moths have spots on their
wings that appear to be eyes of an owl or other large animal.
If a moth with eye-spots is threatened by a bird, it can flash
its wings to scare away this predator. Some butterflies have
color patterns that resemble heads at the tips of their wings.
If the predator strikes at this false head, the butterfly is
able to escape more easily.
Many Lepidoptera use color and pattern as a disguise, or
camouflage, to blend in with the background. Some moths and
butterflies resemble dead leaves. Many moths, which rest
during the daytime, are disguised as twigs, tree bark, lichens,
or bird droppings.
The bodies of some butterflies are full of distasteful
chemicals that larvae obtain from plants. These butterflies
advertise their bad taste by having wings with warning colors.
The distasteful monarch butterfly has orange and black wings
to warn predators. Red, yellow, and white also are used as
warning colors. Some species do not have distasteful chemicals,
but they obtain protection by being an imitation, or mimic, of
a distasteful species. The viceroy butterfly does not have
distasteful chemicals, but it is protected from predation by
being a mimic of the monarch.
Caterpillars have chewing mouthparts and very short antennae.
They do not have compound eyes, but they usually have six
simple eyes on each side of their heads. Caterpillars usually
have three pair of legs on the thorax, four pairs near the
middle of their abdomens, and one pair at the end of their
abdomens. The five pairs of stump-like legs on the abdomen
are called prolegs because they are not segmented like the
true legs on the thorax. The ends of the prolegs have tiny
hooks to help in holding onto a surface.
Caterpillars are slow moving and are often exposed to predators.
The colors of many caterpillars blend with their backgrounds,
which makes the caterpillars difficult to see. Caterpillars
often have eye-spots, even some that appear to blink when the
caterpillar moves. Other caterpillars resemble twigs, pieces
of bark, and leaves that have been partly eaten. Some
geometer caterpillars cover their bodies with pieces of leaves
or flowers on which they are eating.
Caterpillars known as bagworms and casebearers live inside a
protective bag or case. The caterpillar makes this portable
house from silk and pieces of the plant on which it is feeding.
As the caterpillar grows, it continually adds more silk and
plant parts to the open end of its case.
Some caterpillars are protected by "stinging" hairs and spines.
These hairs and spines can break off or penetrate the skin to
cause a stinging sensation. Common stinging caterpillars in
North America include the saddleback caterpillar and related
slug caterpillars, puss caterpillar, and caterpillars of the
io moth and buck moth.
Lepidoptera have complete metamorphosis with egg, larva, pupa,
and adult. After hatching from the egg, the caterpillar may
feed for a few weeks or even a couple of years. Caterpillars
of butterflies usually molt their skin four times before
becoming a pupa. Caterpillars of moths have from three to
nine molts, but five molts is most common. Depending on the
species, the larval stage may last from a few weeks to a few
Mature caterpillars of some moths spin silken cocoons in which
to pupate. Caterpillars of many moths burrow into the ground
to pupate without a cocoon. A butterfly caterpillar does not
spin a cocoon or burrow into the ground, and its bare pupa is
called a chrysalis. The pupal stage can last for a few
weeks up to several months. Many species spend the winter as
Most butterflies and moths have short adult lives. Some
species do not feed; they only live long enough to mate and
lay eggs. Other species can live for several weeks, and even
pass the winter in the adult stage.
Form and Feeding Habits
Most adult Lepidoptera have a proboscis to suck nectar and
water. Lepidoptera also need salt in their diet. One way
they obtain salt is by sucking water from mud puddles. A few
moths feed on secretions from the eyes and noses of animals.
Some tropical moths have a proboscis that can pierce a fruit
to feed on the juice, and some can pierce the skin of an animal
to feed on blood. Many moths and butterflies feed on decaying
organic matter, such as dead animals and animal droppings.
Most caterpillars feed on different kinds of plants. Many
species prefer particular parts of plants--leaves, stems,
roots, flowers, fruit, or seeds. Some species will feed on
dead or decaying plants. Ferns, mosses, fungi, and algae are
also hosts for some Lepidoptera.
Caterpillars of some yucca moths feed on seeds of the yucca
plant. The females of these yucca moths have special
mouthparts for gathering pollen and pollinating the flower.
Without this pollination by the female moth, her offspring
would not have seeds on which to feed.
A few caterpillars feed on animal products. The family
Tineidae includes some species with caterpillars that can eat
hair, feathers, and even horns of animals. Clothes moths are
pests of wool clothing.
Several kinds of caterpillars are predaceous and feed on scale
insects and other Homoptera. Caterpillars of some butterflies
(family Lycaenidae) will feed on honeydew of Homoptera as well
as food passed by the mouths of tending ants. Some of these
caterpillars trick the ants into carrying them to their nest
in the ground. Once in the ant nest, the caterpillar eats the
Most caterpillars that are seen by people are those that feed
on the outer parts of the plants. Leaf mining caterpillars
feed inside leaves, leaving their feeding tracks, or mines, as
visible evidence of their presence. Some Lepidoptera make galls
on plants, and others live in galls made by other insects.
Many caterpillars are hidden because they feed in rolled leaves
or between leaves that are tied with silk. Some caterpillars
bore in stems and tree trunks and are seen rarely.
Insects are the main predators of Lepidoptera eggs and young
larvae. Birds are probably more important predators of older
and larger larvae. Caterpillars compose more than 70% of the
food of some birds. Many small mammals feed on caterpillars
and pupae, and bats eat many moths. Eggs and larvae often
are parasitized by Diptera (family Tachinidae) and Hymenoptera
(families Braconidae, Ichneumonidae, and others).
Caterpillars are often killed by diseases. The most common
diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses. In recent years,
bacteria and viruses have been made into insecticides to kill
Olympic Feats and Other Strange Facts
Moths were the first to invent a kind of velcro, which is used
to stick two surfaces together. Many moths have a patch of
hooked spines on the front wing that locks with a similar
patch on top of the third segment of the thorax. When at rest,
the moth locks the front wing and thorax together with this
There are almost twice as many species of butterflies in the
world as there are birds.
The monarch butterfly in North America migrates to two main
locations every fall to pass the winter. Monarchs that live
west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the California coast.
Monarchs living east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to mountains
in Mexico. Some monarchs fly as far as 1,500 miles. In the
spring the monarchs in Mexico return northward to find milkweed
plants on which to lay eggs. Only the offspring from the
over-wintering adults will eventually return to the northern
United States and Canada. More information on the monarch and
its migration can be found at
Project Monarch Butterfly
and Monarch Watch.
Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae use only four legs.
The first pair of legs are very small and brush-like.
Species of Exyra (family Noctuidae) live in and eat
carnivorous pitcher plants, which capture and digest other
The largest moths in the world are the Atlas moths, which
include species that have wings with the greatest surface
area of any insect. The great owlet, Thysania agrippina,
has the greatest wingspan among moths with narrow wings that
extend more than 12 inches.
Hearing organs are present on the front wings, abdomen, and
thorax in different moths. Some caterpillars can hear sound
with the hairs on their bodies.
The only insect that is not found in the wild is the silkworm,
Bombyx mori, which is kept in cultures by man for
production of silk.
The first chemical sex attractant ever identified was found in
Louis Pasteur was a major researcher on diseases of the
silkworm during the 19th century. He also invented vaccines
for human diseases and pasteurization, a process used to kill
harmful bacteria in milk and other products that is still used
A few primitive moths have chewing mouthparts instead of a
sucking proboscis. Moths in the family Micropterygidae use
their mandibles to feed on pollen of flowers and spores of
Some ghost moths (family Hepialidae) can whistle through their
Males of the lesser emperor moth, Eudia pavonia, can
detect the female's pheromone at a distance of more than six
The caterpillar of the polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus,
can eat 86,000 times its weight at birth in little less than
Some caterpillars can travel to new locations by "ballooning."
A silk thread is released by the caterpillar and picked up by
the wind, carrying the caterpillar with it.
The Mexican jumping bean is a seed that contains the caterpillar
of a moth in the family Tortricidae. When the bean is
disturbed, the caterpillar moves suddenly to cause the bean to
If a bagworm (Psychidae) is hungry, it can eat its own house,
a bag that includes dried bits of its host plant.
In 1954, J. L. Jorgensen fed female bagworms Acanthopsyche atra
to European robins. He found 30-40 eggs were alive and hatched
into larvae after passing through the digestive tract of the
bird. This gives evidence to one manner in which these moths are
dispersed from one area to another.
The Good and The Bad
Lepidoptera include many serious pests of crops and forests in
North America because of the feeding habits of the caterpillars.
Pests of forests include the gypsy moth, tussock moth, tent
caterpillar, spruce budworm, and others. Fruits are attacked
by the peach tree borer, Oriental fruit moth, codling moth, and
grape berry moth. Pests of field crops include the European
corn borer, corn earworm, pink bollworm, several species of
armyworms and cutworms, and many others. Photographs of many
pest species can be found in the
Kansas Department of Agriculture Photo Gallery .
Many moths and butterflies pollinate flowers, although they are
less important than bees in the pollination of crops. Some
flowers are pollinated mainly by sphinx moths, which have long
tongues for reaching the nectar. About 10 percent of the trees
in dry forests of Costa Rica are pollinated by sphinx moths.
Lepidoptera are good indicators of environmental quality. Many
species of Lepidoptera feed only on a single species of plant
in a habitat. A collection of moths and butterflies can
indicate which plants are present. A healthy habitat with
five hundred species of plants can have more than 1,500 species
of moths. Half of this number can be collected in a single
night with light traps that attract moths. The absence of
some species of Lepidoptera can indicate an unhealthy habitat
even though the host plant may be present.
Many kinds of caterpillars make silk with special glands near
their mouths. Silk that is used by people comes from the
silkworm, Bombyx mori. The silkworm has been raised
in captivity for more than 4,500 years. Originally silk worms
were raised in China, but they are raised now in several Asian
Lepidoptera have played an important role in human culture.
The beauty of butterflies and moths have made them favorite
subjects in paintings, glassware, and other art. Cocoons of
giant silk moths have been used as musical instruments.
American Indians in Arizona and California would gather cocoons,
remove the pupae, and insert pebbles to make cocoon rattles.
Butterfly gardens and houses have become popular attractions at
parks throughout the world. Many people are now planting
flowers to attract butterflies to their backyard gardens.
Selected Families of North American Lepidoptera
Micropterigidae (mandibulate moths)
Hepidalidae (ghost moths)
Prodoxidae (yucca moths)
Tineidae (clothes moths and others)
Gracillariidae (leaf blotch miners)
Oecophoridae (oecophorid moths)
Gelechiidae (gelechiid moths)
Yponomeutidae (ermine moths)
Cossidae (carpenter moths)
Tortricidae (tortricid moths)
Limacodidae (slug caterpillars)
Pterophoridae (plume moths)
Pyralidae (pyralid moths)
Crambidae (crambid moths)
Papilionidae (swallowtail butterflies)
Pieridae (white and sulphur butterflies)
Lycaenidae (hairstreaks, blues, and other butterflies)
Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies)
Danaidae (milkweed butterflies)
Geometridae (geometer moths, measuring worms)
Lasiocampidae (tent caterpillars and others)
Saturniidae (giant silkworm moths and royal moths)
Sphingidae (sphinx or hawk moths, hornworms)
Notodontidae (prominent moths)
Lymantriidae (tussock moths, gypsy moths)
Arctiidae (tiger moths, woolly bears)
Noctuidae (cutworms, owlet moths, and others)
For a complete list of Lepidoptera families, see
The Association of Tropical Lepidoptera Family
A long list of links to Web
Images of North American
Moth Species is available from Furman University.
has a free, downloadable tutorial about Florida
butterflies as well a numerous color photographs.
Borror, D.J., C.A. Triplehorn, and N.F. Johnson.
An Introduction to the Study of Insects. Chicago:
Saunders Publishing, 1989.
Emmel, Thomas C. Butterflies. New York:
Alfred Knoph, Publishers, 1975.
Sandved, Kjell B. and Jo Brewer. Butterflies.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Publishers, 1976.
Scoble, Malcolm J. The Lepidoptera. Oxford, England:
Oxford University Press.
For an extensive list of Lepidoptera Web sites, go to the Links Component of the module.
Dr. Ross E. Hutchins (Deceased)
Mississippi Entomological Museum
Skipper with proboscis extended
Clubbed antennae of skipper
Tent-like wings of resting looper moth
Scales in eye spot of io moth
A disguised leaf-like butterfly
Caterpillar standing on prolegs
Pandora sphinx with eyespots
Bagworms in cases of silk and plant parts
Saddleback caterpillar with stinging spines
Budworm egg magnified with scanning microscope
Cocoon cut open to show pupa and larval skin
Swallowtail butterflies at puddle
Yucca moth pollinating flower
Leaf mine caterpillar, egg laid at arrow
Chalcid wasp parasite of moth pupa
Roost of migrating monarchs
Dr. Ronn Altig
Mississippi State University
Department of Biological Sciences
Dr. Richard L. Brown
Mississippi State University
Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology
Collection of moths from Venezuela
Dr. Gerald T. Baker
Budworm egg magnified with scanning electron microscope