Factoids on Caterpillars, Moths and Butterflies

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Some facts, ideas and information about caterpillars and moths to make you an expert in their behavior.

These are useful should you really want to set up yourself as an Expert so that when you tell the Ted Forbes story, the group will respond with "Yes" when you say,

And Ted Forbes asked, "Do you know about caterpillars and butterflies," and I said: ____

Note: The group will generally answer, "Yes!"

when the correct answer would of course be, "NO!" Yes limits discovery.


Moths first appeared on earth between 100 and 190 million years ago, based on fossilized evidence. Butterflies appeared only about 40 million years ago, probably alongside flowering plants.

There are 142,000+ species of moths and about 20,000 species of butterflies.

Some caterpillars eat as much as 27,000 times their body weight to support their lives as flying insects.

Butterflies and moths start out as eggs. These hatch into caterpillars, which go through a pupa or metamorphosis stage and then evolve into the winged version. The cycle can take as little as 3 weeks in the tropics and many months in colder climes. Cold climate species can hibernate for as long as 9 months.

Wax moths lay their eggs in beehives. Some moths lay their eggs underwater.

Most caterpillars may have 12 eyes, but they are primitive and can do little more than sense light and dark. Some butterflies have thousands of eyes and can see color and even ultraviolet light.

Most but not all butterflies have two pairs of wings and only the winged version can create new eggs upon mating. Some female have no wings. They mate, end to end, facing in different directions. Mating can last from 20 minutes to several hours. And they may fly together while doing so!

A caterpillar has a head and 13 body segments. There are only three pairs of real legs and five pairs of sucker-like prolegs or false legs at the back, with hooks for grabbing. It breathes through small holes on the segments.

In the pupa, there is little movement and no feeding as its body is liquified and the materials in the cells are broken down and then completely reorganized. Because they cannot eat or drink, many pupae are waxy to reduce water loss.

Many caterpillars can produce silk, which they can use to avoid predators (by hanging from branches) and which they use for protection (a cocoon).

A few moths dig holes in the ground in which they hollow out and line with saliva and silk for their metamorphosis.

Caterpillars shed their skins. As the insect becomes too large for its body, the skin splits and the caterpillar crawls out wearing a new stretchy skin. This can happen several times before metamorphosis. Change is thus not unknown even to caterpillars!

The adult butterfly or moth does not grow, while the caterpillars increase in size many times. Goat moth caterpillars can take 3 or 4 years to mature!

Both butterflies and moths have smell, taste and touch as well as compound eyes for movement and color detection. Taste pads are on their feet and suck up fluid through their proboscis.

Moths have feathery antenna. Butterflies have the sensors on the end of a stalk. Moths generally have fuzzy bodies. Moths generally fly only at night, butterflies mostly in daylight. Both have 6 legs and 2 sets of wings. Butterflies fold up their wings when they are at rest; moths generally leave theirs unfolded.

The reason moths and other nocturnal insects circle your porch light is not because they crave the spotlight. Moths and insects use the moon to help them navigate in the dark. When an insect gets too close to a light, it does what nature tells it to do - it keeps its body aligned in relation to the light source. If the light source were the distant moon, the insect would fly straight. However, since the light is so close, the bug ends up flying in circles.

Butterflies will fight each other for control of a sunny spot! But they aren't tough enough to hurt each other.

Wings of both butterflies and moths are covered with scales that overlap like tiles on a roof. Some wings are almost clear because those moths have few scales.

The wings are hollow and fill with fluid to become stiff upon unfolding. Many will hang upside down to allow gravity to assist the stiffening process, which may take hours. The wing colors come on tiny scales that cover the surfaces.

The solitary Oak Leaf Miner has wings that span less than a quarter of an inch. The Two-Tailed Swallowtail Butterfly and Cecropia Moth have wingspans in excess of 6 inches and some tropical butterflies like the Queen Alexandra from New Guinea have spans of more than 11 inches.

The Monarch can fly at up to 20 miles per hour and can migrate more than 80 miles per day. Some Monarchs from Canada migrate to Mexico, a distance of more than 2000 miles.

The Tomato Hornworm Caterpillar becomes the Spinx Moth or Hawkmoth. These are named because they can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour! Other Sphinx moths like the Bumblebee and Hummingbird moths can hover to drink nectar from flowers.

The caterpillar of a Hawaiian Euphithecia moth catches flies. Large Blue caterpillars eat ant larvae.

They also have ears - many moths are adapted to hear the high-pitched sound of bat echolocation and can often avoid capture. The antenna of some moths are 5 times longer than their wings.

Many moths have tremendously sensitive antenna that can sense minute quantities of the sexual pheromone, in the parts per billion quantities. Like some people we know, certain caterpillars like the Flannel Moth Caterpillar or the Crystalline Limacodid, have bristles that dispense toxic chemicals. Others use camouflage as a way of protecting themselves.

Small scales called androconia are modified to connect to scent glands to release pheromones into the air. A male emperor moth can detect a female about 6 miles (11 km) away.

The Zebra caterpillar becomes poisonous by eating poisonous foods and has sharp spines, while the butterfly smells very bad. The Puss moth caterpillar spits acid on predators.

The big green adult Luna Moths lack a mouth and actually live only on the energy stored during their larval stage -- their sole focus of their adult lives is reproduction. The male can sense a female as far as 5 miles away.

Most butterflies and moths can eat - they have a tubelike projection called a proboscis that is used to suck up liquids. This remains rolled up, normally.

The hawkmoth from Madagascar has a proboscis over 12 inches long.

Vampire or Calpe moths from Southeast Asia can penetrate skin and suck blood.

One moth native to South America have a foot-long proboscis that it uses to sip nectar from deep-throated flowers while the Asian vampire moth pierces the skin and drinks the blood of animals. Some moths feed on nothing other than the eye fluids of cattle or deer.

Thanks to John Snyder at Furman University for the Moth and Caterpillar pictures!

© Performance Management Company, 1998 - 1999

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