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Learn about butterflies and moths

Updated on August 13, 2013

Since butterflies and moths are some of the most colorful insects in the world they are fun to watch. Like all insects, they have a head, thorax, abdomen, two antennae, and six legs.

Moths and butterflies have four wings that are almost always covered by colored scales. In fact, their scientific name, Lepidoptera comes from two Latin words "lepido" meaning scale and "ptera" meaning wing.

Butterflies and moths live mostly on nectar from flowers and other sugary liquids. They eat through a long, tubular tongue called a proboscis.

When they’re not eating, their proboscis coils up under their head like a party blowout.


ACTIVITY - Eat like a butterfly

You’ll need an empty cup, a straw and a party blowout for each person. You’ll also need enough beverage for everyone in your group.

Hold the blowout so the curl is down, like the proboscis of a butterfly. Blow on it to make it uncurl. Try to keep it extended and move it so the end is inside the empty cup. When you can do this for several seconds, set the blowout aside, fill the cup with beverage and use the straw to drink your nectar.

The hummingbird moth looks a lot like a hummingbird.
The hummingbird moth looks a lot like a hummingbird. | Source

Even though butterflies and moths eat nectar, they’re not very good pollinators When a bee lands on a flower to gather nectar, the pollen from the flower sticks to the bee and is transferred from flower to flower. Pollen does not usually stick to the legs or tongue of most butterflies.

Some moth species are very good at pollinating flowers. One group of moths looks and acts very much like hummingbirds. In fact, their name, the "hummingbird moth" is an indication of how much they resemble hummingbirds. Moths have antennae and a curved proboscis while birds don’t.

What’s The Difference between a butterfly and a moth?

Although moths and butterflies are a lot alike, there are some differences. Once you know them, it’s easy to tell which is which.

Rounded clubs on the end
Thin and smooth
Thick and fuzzy
During the day
Active Period
During the night
Usually colorful
Usually drab or dull
Held closed when resting
Held open flat when resting
Pupal Stage

Butterfly and moth wings

Butterfly and moth wings are made of thin layers of chitin. This is the same material that makes up the outside of their body.

The wings are supported and nourished by veins. These are usually quite easy to see and are kind of like the fingers of your hands. They need to be strong enough to support the insect’s body in the air and flexible enough to move in flight.

Butterflies have strong muscles in their thorax. They use these muscles to flap their wings.

The wings are covered with tiny scales. The scales come in different colors and are what help us identify different moths and butterflies. Butterflies are cold blooded and depend on the sun to warm them. Dark colors absorb heat. This helps the butterflies warm up faster. Butterflies can’t fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees.

Wing Coloration

The color and pattern of moth and butterfly wings can serve several purposes. They can attract mates or help the insects survive.

Although no butterflies are poisonous enough to hurt people, some do have small amounts of poison that makes them bad tasting to birds and other predators. The monarch butterfly (top) is one that birds don’t like to eat.

Some other butterflies, like the comma butterfly (bottom) copy the colors and patterns of the monarch. This makes it less likely that they will be eaten.

Other butterflies and moths have colors that help them blend into the background. This makes them hard to see and helps them avoid being eaten.

This moth below has colors that blend in with the bark of trees. Usually birds will have trouble seeing them, but even if they are spotted, these moths have another trick they can use.


If camouflage doesn’t work, some moths, like the one on the right, can trick predators into thinking they are a bigger animal with eye spots on their wings.

Big as birds

We usually think of butterflies and moths as being small, but some can get pretty big. The Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly and the Atlas Moth both get so big they are sometimes mistaken for birds. Their wings can spread as much as a foot wide.

Butterflies and moths are found on every continent except Antarctica.

Scientists estimate that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 species of butterflies.

There are even more different kinds of moths. There are an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 species of moths.

Monarch Migration

Monarch butterflies are unique because they are the only butterflies that migrate south for the winter. Some of these world travelers will fly from southern Canada to Mexico.

During the migration it is common to see swarms of butterflies grouped together.

Most butterflies don’t live longer than a month or two, but monarchs can live for several months, allowing them to live long enough to make their yearly Mexican vacation.


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    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      Well done.

      An article about butterflies always gets my attention. Moths not so much although I have seen some most beautiful moths too. My yard has become much more of a haven for butterflies this year as I have many new plants that attract them and I am loving it. They fascinate me each time one comes into the year. The Monarch's migration too amazes

      Thanks for sharing. Angels are on the way to you this morning. ps