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!

Your Friend: The Roach

A family out for a bite to eat.

A family out for a bite to eat.

Often dogs are credited as “man’s best friend,” but I beg to differ.  I offer you instead the humble roach. 

The usually and immediate reaction to the word “roach” (or the actual specimen) is disgust and panic.  I will fully admit that I don’t love them in our garage and that they give me the creeps when they skitter across the driveway, but I DO enjoy not being waste high in detritus.

Cockroaches are nature’s decomposers and are essential for returning nutrients to the soil.  They take one man’s trash – namely, yours - and turn it into little ecological treasures.

Additionally, roaches make tasty treats for reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, other insects, and several mammals.  Not surprisingly, humans don’t love them (but have been known to eat them, though not frequently).  This is not because humans don’t like to eat bugs, but rather because of the particular taste of roaches which is similar to ammonia.  If you ever do decide to partake, know that they have three times as much protein as chicken.

Roaches are also good pollinators.  In fact, the first pollinators were beetles, not bees.  They are also the most frequently used speciments in the study of insect behavior, anatomy and physiology.

So in review, if you DON’T like being waste high in debris, but you DO like growing plants and eating, you must love the roach.

Hummingbirds of the Night

A few nights ago I saw what I thought was a hummingbird – out way past its bedtime – whirring around the fragrant, long-tubed blooms of the Rangoon creeper in my back yard.  As I watched, several more of these curfew-breakers appeared, working the flowers all up and down the fence.  I soon realized that these were not in fact hummingbirds, but were their nocturnal analogs:  hawk moths or sphinx moths.

Pandorus Sphinx Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: August Norman
 Pandorus sphinx

Talk about convergence!  If they hadn’t been flying at night – and there are some day-flying sphinx moths, by the way – I would have been hard put to tell they weren’t ruby-throated hummers (the most common hummingbird species in our area).  The sphinx moth in question (probably the five-spotted hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata) is about the same size and shape as a ruby-throat, with a bullet-shaped, streamlined body, and has exactly the same behavior.  The powerful wings of both hummers and sphinx moths beat so swiftly (up to 50 or so beats per second) that they are just a blur in flight.  Both can hover up, down, back and forth, helicopter-like.  Instead of a hummingbird’s long bill, sphinx moths have a long tongue or proboscis, kept rolled up when not in use and extended when reaching for nectar at the base of a long-tubed flower. 

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Both hummers and sphinx moths are important pollinators, and certain plants have evolved flowers that are specifically “designed” to attract these powerful fliers with their long beaks or tongues.  Such flowers typically have abundant nectar at the base of elongated floral tubes (the bottom part of the petals grows together to form a hollow tube).  But while hummingbird flowers are usually brightly colored (especially red) and often do not have any scent (since hummingbirds can’t smell), moth-pollinated flowers are typically white or pale-colored, and often emit a strong, sweet scent as the sun goes down.   

The family of sphinx moths, the Sphingidae, is a large one, with about 1200 species world-wide (most are tropical).  There are about 60 species of sphinx moths in North America, several of which occur locally.  Some of the most common species in our area are the Five-spotted sphinx, the Carolina sphinx, the Rustic sphinx, the Pink-spotted hawkmoth, White-lined sphinx, Tersa sphinx, Vine sphinx, and Pandorus sphinx

Another spectacular species, which occasionally ranges up from the tropics into our area, is the Giant sphinx.  This very large moth (over six inches across) is notable as the pollinator of the rare ghost orchid of Florida’s swamps, Dendrophylax lindenii.  Made famous in the book “The Orchid Thief” on which the movie “Adaptation” was based, this orchid has an extremely long, thin floral tube and depends on the giant sphinx moth to transfer pollen from one bloom to another in order to reproduce.  Take a look at the specimen of the giant sphinx from our collection.  Uncoiled, its tongue is almost nine inches long, almost twice as long as its body! 

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

This moth is the New World equivalent of the renowned “Darwin’s moth.”  As the story goes, when in Madagascar, Charles Darwin saw the orchid Angraecum sesquipidale (rather similar to the ghost orchid).  He postulated that there must be a moth with a tongue of equal length to the orchid’s 11 inch nectar spur that would serve as its pollinator.  Sure enough, 41 years later (long after Darwin’s death), such a moth was discovered and its common name acknowledges his prescience.

tomato hornworm
Creative Commons License  photo credit: naturegirl 78
Tomato hornworm
(Manduca quinquemaculata)

Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” because most of them have a distinctive horn that sticks up at the end of their abdomen.  If you are a gardener you may have encountered large, green hornworms devouring the foliage of your tomato plants; these turn into the five-spotted hawkmoth I saw visiting my Rangoon creeper.  Another hornworm frequently seen in the garden (if you grow pentas or star-flower) is the caterpillar of the Tersa sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  This caterpillar turns from green to brown as it grows, and has a pair of dramatic eyespots on its thorax.  People sometimes confuse it with the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail. While hornworms can eat a lot of foliage, I confess that in my garden they are welcome to it – I like the adult moths too much to consider destroying their destructive “baby” stage…  Besides, I think the caterpillars themselves are rather handsome! 

If you find a hornworm and want to rear it, be sure to provide it with a couple of inches of loose soil when it gets large enough to pupate.  Most sphinx moths pupate in the soil, and do not spin cocoons around the brown pupa.  Some sphinx pupae have the tongue pulled away from the body, resembling the handle on a pitcher or Greek vase!  Don’t disturb the caterpillar/pupa for several days after it burrows down or you may disrupt the pupation process. 

Whether or not you get into the caterpillars, it is always a thrill to see an adult sphinx moth in action.  To attract these nocturnal hummingbirds to your garden, consider planting some of the following.  As an added benefit, you’ll enjoy the wonderful fragrance on evenings when these plants are in flower.

Mirabilis
Creative Commons License  photo credit: sigusr0
Four O’clock (note long tube)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida)

Jimsonweed or Datura (Daturaspp.)

Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica)

Moon flower (Ipomea alba)

Four O’clocks (Mirabilis spp.)

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)