Butterflies and Moths

Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Hesperiidae, Lycaenidae, Nymphalidae, Papilionidae, Pieridae, Riodinidae, Prodoxidae, Pyralidae, Pyraustidae, Pterophoridae, Scythrididae, Heliodinidae

Description

Butterflies and moths are flying insects that play a minor role in pollination. Like all insects, moths and butterflies have three pairs of legs, antennae, and three body segments called a head, thorax and abdomen. Size and coloration are highly variable and dependent on species. Some species mimic the physical features of larger animals to ward off potential predators. An example of this is seen in the luna moth image below. Note the eye spots located on the back of its wings.

Quick Facts

  • Similarly to bees and ants, wasps are social insects in the order Hymenoptera.
  • Certain species of wasps visit flowers for nectar and can facilitate cross-pollination by transferring pollen between plants.
  • In addition to their role as pollinators, some predatory and parasitic wasps act as natural enemies of insect pests.
tiger swallowtail

Tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) foraging. Nectar is extracted from the flower with a straw-like mouth part, called a proboscis.
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

Butterflies and moths are minor pollinators. Butterflies and moths make up the second most diverse insect order (Lepidoptera) and are valued for their aesthetic appearance. They serve as indicators of environmental health; their recent decline is a direct result of human activity.

swallowtail butterflies

Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio sp.) puddling to collect moisture, salts, and nutrients.
Ronald F. Billings, Texas A&M Forest Service , Bugwood.org.

luna moth

Luna moth (Actias luna).
Tom Coleman, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

adult monarch butterflies

Adult Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) roosting on eucalyptus
William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International, Bugwood.org

Description continued

When feeding, a straw-like feeding apparatus (called a proboscis) extends into the flower to extract nectar. Between feeding periods, the proboscis is retracted in a coiled resting position near the insect’s head. Butterflies and moths tend to remain at the flower edges when foraging, limiting their contact with pollen. Unlike bees who deliberately collect pollen when foraging, butterflies and moths are minor pollinators. However, there are some exceptions to this. For example, yucca plants are pollinated by yucca moths (Tegeticula sp.). Female yucca moths collect a sticky ball of pollen, lay their eggs on a different flower, and then deposit the pollen on the stigma of the nursery flower. This is an example of “active pollination” since it involves deliberate cross-pollination by a pollinator. This ensures that food will be available for yucca moth caterpillars when they emerge.

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) pollinate milkweed and feed on milkweed as caterpillars. This is a unique relationship because the adult butterflies and larvae use the same host plant. As Monarch caterpillars feed, milkweed toxin accumulates and remains through the rest of its life, making adult butterflies toxic and foul tasting to many would-be predators.

 

Life History and Habits

  • All butterflies and moths undergo complete metamorphosis, meaning they have four life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Caterpillars are the larval stage of moths and butterflies. This life stage is characterized by voracious feeding behaviors.
  • Butterfly caterpillars form a chrysalis during the pupal stage. Moth caterpillars form a cocoon.
  • Like many bird species, monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) migrate annually. Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in Mexico; those west of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in California.
  • Roosting behavior is observed in some insects as an anti-predation strategy. Monarch butterflies are one example of an insect that roosts.

Conservation

A recent study from 2021 indicates that moth biodiversity is in decline. The most severe declines observed in the Northern Hemisphere occur in regions with dense human populations and intensive agricultural practices. Furthermore, a long-term study over two decades (1999-2018) has shown significant decreases in butterfly abundance and diversity in protected habitats in Illinois. These declines are attributed to habitat loss, agricultural expansion, urbanization, climate change, and competition with nonnative species. In addition to their role as pollinators, butterflies and moths provide an important ecological role as consumers and prey.

To help conserve these precious insects, consider planting native flowers in your home garden. This helps mitigate some of the impacts of habitat loss from pollution and urbanization. Adopting a Monarch friendly mowing schedule can also be helpful, as can reducing pesticide and herbicide use on lawns and gardens. Finally, support local efforts that help pollinators and let others know about this important environmental issue!

cecropia moth

Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia)
Edward L. Manigault, Clemson University Donated Collection, Bugwood.org

References

Green Dallas. 2016. Butterflies and Moths – Beautiful Pollinators. Green Dallas. Available greendallas.net/2016/06/20/butterflies-and-moths

Moisset, B. (n.d.). Yucca Moths (Tegeticula sp.). (USDA): United States Department of Agriculture. Available www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/

Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Butterflies in the United States. Smithsonian Institution. Available www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/butterflyus

Wagner, D. L., R. Fox, D. M. Salcido, and L. A. Dyer. 2021. A window to the world of global insect declines: Moth biodiversity trends are complex and hetergeneous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 118. Available www.pnas.org/doi/