These are the most frequently asked questions about butterflies and moths – we’ve got your butterfly basics covered!
A butterfly is a type of insect. Insects are distinguished from all other animals by having an external skeleton (a hard outer covering), three main body parts (head, thorax and abdomen) and three pairs of jointed legs (all attached to the thorax). Butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, which means “scaled wings.”
Yes! They are important pollinators of flowering plants, much like bees. All life stages of a butterfly may serve as food for a wide range of other organisms including birds, lizards, spiders, small mammals and other insects. Butterflies also are very sensitive to changes in the environment, making them good indicators in assessing healthy or unhealthy conditions. As a result, they are widely used by ecologists to help evaluate the impacts of habitat loss, pesticides and climate change.
There are approximately 265,000 species of butterflies and moths. Only about 20,000 are butterflies.
Butterflies and moths are quite similar, but basic differences include:
- Most butterflies fly during the day. Most moths fly at night.
- Butterflies are often more colorful than moths – they attract mates with color (visible in daytime) and sleep at night. Night-flying moths attract mates by smell, while their colors camouflage them in daytime resting places.
- Most butterflies have club-shaped antennae. Moth antennae are feather-like or taper to a point.
- Male moth antennae can be more elaborate than female antennae. The increased surface area allows males to pick up scents (female pheromones) of potential mates from a longer distance. Male butterflies rely less on scent and more on vision in the search for mates.
- Moths have a thicker coating of scales than butterflies, giving them a furry appearance. Why? Moths fly at night and do not have the sun to warm their bodies for flight, as do butterflies. Instead, moths generate heat internally by vibrating their muscles and their heavy scales insulate them against heat loss.
In the wild, most butterflies live about 7 to 10 days, if not eaten first. In captivity, butterflies can survive for 2 to 3 weeks. Some species of butterflies modify their nectar diet to include rotten fruit, pollen and animal excrement, and can live as long as 3 to 6 months, or even longer. The modified diet provides the butterflies with valuable amino acids that can help prolong life spans.
There are four stages in the life cycle of a butterfly: the egg, larva or caterpillar, pupa or chrysalis and the adult.
Briefly, a butterfly starts as an egg. After about 4 to 5 days (some species take up to 3 weeks or longer), the egg hatches and a tiny larva (caterpillar) emerges. The larva starts to eat and will shed its skin 4 to 6 times as it gets bigger and bigger. After about 2 to 4 weeks, the larva will be full-grown and transform itself into a pupa/chrysalis. Inside the pupa, the caterpillar’s body breaks down into a kind of soup and is reorganized into the adult structures of the butterfly! This stage can take between 10 to 15 days. Finally, the adult butterfly emerges from the pupa. Adult butterflies will mate, the female will lay eggs and the life cycle starts over. The whole process is called metamorphosis, which means “change of form.”
Pupa and chrysalis have the same meaning: the transformation stage between the larva and the adult. While pupa can refer to this naked stage in either a butterfly or moth, chrysalis is strictly used for the butterfly pupa. A cocoon is the silk casing that a moth caterpillar spins around it before it turns into a pupa. When the larval stage of some butterfly species is fully grown, it spins a button of silk and attaches the hind-most prolegs to it and hangs upside down in the “J” position in order to pupate (some actually sit in an upright position). This is the larva’s final molt as it transforms to a chrysalis. Many butterfly pupae are cryptic and blend into their surroundings.
Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing is the largest butterfly in the world, with a wingspan up to 1 foot (30 cm). This tropical butterfly is from the rainforest in northern Papua New Guinea. The larvae eat the pipevine, a vine which contains poison; this makes the butterfly toxic to predators, which will get sick if they eat it. They quickly learn to leave these huge butterflies alone.
The Atlas Moth is found throughout the jungles of Southeast Asia, and particularly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The Atlas Moth adult has a wingspan of 1 foot (30 cm). This moth is so large that it is often mistaken for a small bird when it is flying! The Atlas Moth’s cocoon looks like a piece of fruit hanging from a tree. The Atlas does all its eating as a larva; the adult moth has no mouth and cannot eat.
This is often said to be the Pigmy Blue from the U.S. with a wingspan of about 0.62 of an inch (1.5 cm).
The Nepticulid moth, which is 0.1 inch long.
Almost all butterfly larvae eat plant material. Most eat leaves, but some eat seeds, stems, roots, fruits, seed pods or flowers. Larvae of the Harvester butterfly are carnivorous and feed on aphids. Some lycaenid caterpillars also eat ant larvae.
Most adult butterflies sip nectar from flowers through their proboscis that acts like a straw. Some species vary their nectar diet to include rotting fruit, pollen, animal excrement and carrion.
At night or during bad weather, butterflies will usually seek shelter by hanging from the undersides of leaves, or crawl into crevices in the bark of trees, between rocks or other objects, and sleep.
Yes. Some butterflies hibernate as adults, eggs, immature larvae or pupae in order to survive climate extremes, such as cold in the winter, or heat and drought in the summer. Butterflies can undergo a rest period called diapause, during which the vital functions are kept at the very minimum. No growth or development occurs in the egg, larva or pupae, and the adult butterfly just hangs motionless in a suitable place, waiting for better conditions to arrive. Sorbitol and glycerol exist in the blood of some butterflies and function as natural anti-freeze agents.