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Shoreline Spotlight: The difference between butterflies and moths

By Staff | Jun 12, 2019
Alope sphinx moth caterpillar. RIGHT: Peacock butterfly. PHOTO PROVIDED
Peacock butterfly. PHOTO PROVIDED
Monarch butterflies. PHOTO PROVIDED

My wife found some caterpillars devouring her Necklace Pod plant. She took some photos and went online and identified it as a Genista Broom Moth caterpillar. Her first question was, butterfly or moth? That got me thinking, what is the difference between butterflies and moths? Butterflies and moths are closely related, but with several general differences. Butterflies tend to have thin antenna with balls on their ends, moths are a broader classification and their varied antenna shapes tend to lack the ball end. Butterflies tend to form an exposed pupa, or chrysalis, while moths tend to spin a cocoon. And butterflies tend to be colorful and rely on toxicity for protection from predation, while moths tend to use camouflage. Butterflies tend to be out in the day and use color to attract mates while moths tend to use pheromones. Moths tend to rest with their wings out by their sides or folded in and tend to be fuzzy. OK, that is a long list of differences, but they tend to be softened by my overuse of the word “tend”. There are Papilionoidea, or True Butterflies, that tend to follow the rules and Hedylidae, or Butterfly Moths which have traits from both.

We tend (there is that word again) to think of butterflies as glorious, dazzling denizens of the day and moths as shadowy creatures of the night that are drawn to and trapped by the porch light. Butterflies generally have the looks, and they seem to have better PR. But moths and butterflies have more in common than they differ. They go through metamorphosis and, importantly, they pollinate plants. Their relationship with plants is a complicated, almost codependent, cycle of destruction and rebirth. Caterpillars will devour a specific host plant, including the stems, then the resulting moth or butterfly will pollinate another host plant and help it reproduce. Butterflies are the pollination day shift and moths take the night shift. Some night blooming flowers target these nocturnal pollinators and would not survive without them. Our famous and rare native ghost orchids are dependent on a nocturnal sphinx moth, which has special adaptations to allow it to access the flower’s nectar.

Although my wife was interested in determining if the caterpillar was from a moth or butterfly, she was more interested in determining if it was native or invasive. The Genista Broom Moth is a common native and can be found from here to Nova Scotia. Her native Necklace Pod is looking pretty rough, but my wife understands butterfly gardening. We call it butterfly gardening, but we also tend to feed moths and bees, so maybe we should call it a pollinators paradise. Creating a pollinators paradise takes a more restrictive definition of what you consider a pest, chewed up leaves are a prize when accessorized with a few butterflies and other pollinators. Choose native host plants and minimize or avoid harsh insecticides, because one thing butterflies and moths have in common is that they are all vital pollinators, and, of course, insects.

June Murphy award

The Marine Resources Task Force or, MRTF, is a volunteer advisory committee for the Town Council. MRTF next meeting is June 16 at 4:30 p.m. in Council chambers. The public is encouraged to attend and comment. MRTF recognizes someone who has been witnesses performing acts of good environmental stewardship every month. This month’s Murphy award goes to Kathy and Al Durrett for their purchase and installation of water cleaning mini reefs. Thanks to the Durretts for recognizing that water quality is everyone’s concerns and that good water quality is good for us and is good for business, and for incurring the effort and expense for helping improve our water quality.