Moths: Butterflies’ Mysterious Cousins

right-wing-waving white ermine
Creative Commons License photo credit: e³°°°

Butterflies are probably the most popular insects ever! But what about moths? What’s their story? Why are they less popular than butterflies, considering the fact that there are nearly 250,000 species of them compared to only about 20,000 species of butterflies? This is one fact among a plethora of others that I’m sure you all would like to know about moths!

The question we get asked the most here at the CBC is what is the difference between butterflies and moths? It can be a little tricky to explain. They are two completely different types of insects. However, the characteristics that define them are not always so clear-cut.  For example, butterflies are diurnal, meaning that they fly during the day. Most moths are nocturnal, but some can be crepuscular (meaning they fly at dawn and dusk) and some are even diurnal. Butterflies and moths can both have thin antennae, but only moths have feathery antennae. Butterflies have thinner bodies with less hair while moths are chunky and hairy! Although, I have seen some stalky butterflies, and hairy ones too.  Butterflies tend to be bright and colorful, whereas moths are normally cryptic and drab. But what is thought to be the most beautiful lepidopteran in the world is actually, a moth. So sometimes, you need to take a second or third look to determine which one it is.

As different as they are, they are similar in many fundamental ways. They both have scales covering their wings, they feed on flower nectar with a proboscis, and they have complete metamorphosis that includes a larva, pupa, and adult stage. These life stages are given specific names. The larva of both are known as caterpillars and the pupa is called a chrysalis. Some moths build a silk covering around their chrysalis for protection. This is known as a cocoon, and despite what some people think, butterflies do not make cocoons.

Moths do get some recognition, unfortunately, it’s not all good. Several moths are serious pests in gardens, in forests, on farms, and even on clothes and in stored grains! If you have tomatoes, you may be familiar with the tomato hornworm.

Tobacco Hornworm (Manduca sexta) on Tomato
Tomato Hornworm
Creative Commons License photo credit: NatureFreak07

This is a huge and beautiful caterpillar but it has a very big appetite that most people don’t appreciate! It is a member of the Sphingidae, or sphinx moth family. These moths are often large and impressive, making them one of the most popular families. The caterpillars can be pesky, but can be deterred by planting marigolds around your tomato plants. The Gypsy Moth is another famous caterpillar that has caused a lot of problems. They originated in Europe and Asia but were introduced to the United States in the 1800s. Since their arrival, they have defoliated millions of acres of forest. Although they are better controlled now, they continue to be a major pest of hardwood trees. We all remember the smell of moth balls in our grandma’s closet. We can thank the common clothes moth for that wonderful smell! The caterpillars of these tiny moths are big fans of natural, proteinaceous fibers such as silk and wool. Luckily, they will not eat artificial fibers, so a lot of our clothes are safe now.

So, I know you’re thinking: “why should we like moths?” Look at all the trouble they cause! Well, like all other insects, the pests are a tiny minority and the rest make up for it in so many different ways! So, a couple of them eat silk, but where do you think we get that silk to begin with?? The silkworm (bombyx mori) is the world’s only domesticated insect. It is farmed for its silk and these little guys produce a ton of silk worth millions of dollars every year. They are not the only ones. There are several types of moths in the family Saturniidae (giant silk moths) that are used for their silk as well.

Hummingbird Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: mk*

What about pollination? Butterflies do well during the day, but there are so many night blooming flowers. Moths have those covered! Hawkmoths (a.k.a sphinx moths or hornworms) are lovely evening pollinators. They are excellent fliers and some, like the hummingbird moth, are able to hover next to flowers to get nectar. They are often mistaken for hummingbirds. They are awesome to watch! You can plant a moon garden in conjunction with your butterfly garden to attract moths like these. They are attracted to flowers with white blooms that open or are most fragrant in the evening.

One last thing to mention is the beauty of moths. Everyone raves about butterflies, but some moths rival and depending on who you ask, surpass the beauty of butterflies. There are several breathtaking species of sphinx moths such as the Oleander Hawk Moth. All sphinx moths are known for their distinctive wing shape, very thick bodies and amazing flight capabilities. The larvae have a horn at the end of their abdomens during their earlier stages – giving rise to the name hornworm.

Luna Moth
Luna Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

Saturniids, or giant silk moths, are perhaps the most well known moths. They are very large with butterfly-like wings that often have eyespots and brilliant colors. Perhaps the most well known is the Luna Moth. They are a beautiful light green color with graceful, flowing tails. Even more amazing is its relative the Madagascan moon moth or Comet Moth. Some other common saturniids that can be found around here include the Cecropia, Polyphemus and Io moths. Unfortunately, these beautiful giants only live for a couple of days as adult moths. They emerge as adults with no mouth parts, so they do not feed. They live off of food stored from their caterpillar stage until they find a mate and then they die. We do display a species of giant silk moth here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Atlas Moth from Southeast Asia. This is actually the largest moth species in the world and it is amazing!

Finally, there is the Uraniidae, the family that includes the world’s most beautiful lepidopteran, according to some. This family contains several beautiful and colorful moths but the most famous is the Madagascan Sunset Moth. They were originally grouped together with swallowtail butterflies until 50 years after its discovery. I’m not sure if it’s the prettiest, but it is certainly a sight to see!

Whether they’re large and colorful or small and cryptic, I think moths are fascinating and beautiful insects that are just as important as any other beneficial insect. Next time you see one resting during the day, take a closer look. You may be surprised to see the intricate shapes and patterns that make up its “drab” camouflage. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Where Have All the Bugs Gone?

It’s that time of year again. The days have gotten shorter and the temperature is slowly dropping. You may have been too busy to notice, but sometime between the shopping and cooking you probably have thought to yourself: I haven’t had to swat away any mosquitoes, or I haven’t been dive-bombed by clumsy June bugs. Where have all the bugs gone? Did they die? Are they hibernating? Well, the answer isn’t quite that simple. Over the last millions of years, insects have learned to employ all sorts of strategies to ride out the winter. While we are putting on thick socks and sweaters, the bugs are right there with us. They are everywhere, right under our noses, literally!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

If you’re an insect, you basically have two choices; you can stay or you can leave. An overwhelming amount of insects choose to stay put and deal with the frigid temperatures. One of the best ways to deal with the cold is to suspend your growth and remain as an egg, larva (or nymph), or a pupa. The adults of these insects do die off in the winter, but they are very busy until then. In the late summer and early spring, praying mantidsall around are laying their egg cases in preparation for the winter. They will lay hundreds of eggs, glued together, attached to a stick or leaf, and cover them with a thick layer of foam. After constructing her last egg case, the mother of many will pass away. Through the winter, the egg case will remain safe until it feels the warmth of spring. Then hundreds of tiny mantids will hatch and start the life-cycle over again.

If you are like the June bug, you will spend the winter as a fat grub, lazily feeding on roots all winter deep underground, where it is much warmer. When spring arrives, they form a pupa and emerge as adults in early summer, giving rise to the name June bug. Similarly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs will remain under the water’s surface where temperatures stay warm enough to sustain them. This is often under a thick layer of ice! There are plenty of mosquito larvae down there to feed them through the long months. Right now in Texas, swallowtail butterflies are forming a chrysalis. The life stage that usually lasts about 2 weeks, will last for 3 months or more. Many of our visitors have a hard time thinking of a chrysalis as a living thing. It doesn’t resemble anything alive at all. When they see them wiggle in response to touch, they are always amazed. The thing that they don’t realize is that aside from not being able to see, they know exactly what’s going on. They can feel the days getting shorter, and the temperature dropping. They won’t make a move to emerge until spring comes!

If an insect is stuck as an adult, the most vulnerable life stage, it gets a little trickier! As long as they can keep their body temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they will make it. In Texas, this is not a problem, but in the north, they sometimes have to use drastic measures. These insects often find shelter in hollowed out trees, in leaf litter, and under rocks or dead logs.

If this cannot keep the freezing temperatures away they can do something pretty interesting. They can lower the water content in their bodies and replace it with a substance called glycerol. This chemical has several practical uses, but most importantly it lowers the freezing point in their bodies, acting as antifreeze! This is what can make an insect that appears frozen and dead to magically come back to life when thawed. That’s pretty impressive! This, along with going into a hibernation-like state called diapause keeps them alive. One insect that uses this method is the mourning cloak butterfly. This beautiful butterfly is the first to come out of hiding and appear in the spring.

Now if you’re a social insect, you pretty much have it made. Honeybees can store several pounds of honey for food. They don’t even need to leave the hive which is kept warm by the body heat of all the bees. Ant colonies spend all year building up a food supply and stay very deep below the ground. Even some insects that are not social will seek out others to pile on top of for warmth, like ladybugs.

bugs 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jef Poskanzer

Butterfly in HDR
Creative Commons License photo credit: chefranden

There are some insects that have opted to take a yearly vacation to sunny Mexico, which would definitely be my choice! The monarch, perhaps the most well known insect in North America makes this amazing journey every year. It’s a mind boggling to think that millions of butterflies fly up to 3000 miles to a few sites that they have never been to or seen before, how do they know how to get there? It is a mystery that keeps us all enchanted by the amazing insect. If you’d like to learn more about the monarch butterfly and their journey, visit the monarch watch website.

Since we live in an area with very mild winters, there are some bugs that we still see all year, including a lot of butterflies. There are a few local monarchs that don’t feel the need to migrate south. Every year we get several calls from people who have spotted a monarch and want to know what will happen to it or if they should help it. The answer we give them is to just let it be, the temperature will probably not drop low enough to kill it and if it does freeze, the butterfly will find shelter. They know how to deal with the cold! So you may enjoy this little break from the bugs buzzing all around us. As for myself, I can’t wait until the spring when all of the bugs are back, happily doing their jobs to keep the world turning! Plus I hate cold weather!

Go buggy! Learn more about insects:
The Sphinx Moth: It’s a Work of Art
Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt: learn how to pin a butterfly
Do butterflies breed? Your butterfly questions answered

Giant Atlas Moths fluttering into the Butterfly Center soon

atlas moth secret cloaking device revealed
Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Well, it’s that time of year again… we have started to get Attacus atlas, aka Atlas moths, YEAH!!!!  This is always an exciting time for me because I get to tell everyone who keeps asking me that they are finally here!  Last week, I received 60 atlas moth cocoons from Malaysia and the Philippines.  Unlike the butterflies we receive on a regular basis that all emerge within a few weeks, the atlas moths should be emerging over a few months, so we should have them for a while. 

The Atlas moth belongs to the family of giant silk moths, Saturniidae. They are considered to be the largest moths in the world in terms of wing surface area.  These impressive moths can only be found naturally in Southeast Asia, where they are very common. Their name comes from either the Titan of Greek mythology or from the striking pattern on their wings, which resembles a map.  If you look at the tips of the forewings they resemble a snakes head, which makes for great predator protection.

The females are significantly larger than the males, especially their abdomen because she has to lay a bunch of eggs, which are already developed and ready to be fertilized.  The males have larger, bushier antennae, in order to detect female pheromones. 

 The females
are larger and have bigger abdomens

 The males are smaller and have longer antennae

 

Each moth starts it’s life as a beautiful, emerald-colored caterpillar. The larvae feed on a wide variety of food plants, and may even wander from one to another.  As it gets bigger it developes a more waxy, light-white-ish green coloration.  It then spins a silken cocoon to protect itself and pupates inside (This is different from butterflies who develop inside a chrysalis, not a cocoon).  The adults, as in other Saturniids, have no mouth parts whatsoever, so they cannot feed. They survive off of fat reserves they build up as caterpillars.

Moth
Polyphemus Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: Andreanna

Moths fly at night, so you may see these large moths resting on trees in the Butterfly Center during the day, paying no attention to the butterflies fluttering all around them.  I try really hard each time a moth emerges to place it in a very obvious place so people can see them.  Many people think they are fake because they sit so still, but now you know they are not!

Some other moths that belong in the Saturniidae family that you can find around here include the cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), and the luna moth (Actias luna).  These moths aren’t as big as the atlas moth, but they are big when compared to other moths and butterflies in Texas. 

luna
Luna Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: Aunt Owwee


I hope you get a chance to stop off and see our wonderful giants and keep a look out for the native moths, they are a wonder to see too!