By Mary Free, Extension Master Gardener, June 2022
Some of the most widely recognized insects in the world belong to the order Lepidoptera–butterflies and moths. They appeal to us aesthetically and we use them as symbols of beauty and inspiration. But foremost, lepidopterans are a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. They are important pollinators. They are a food source for a wide variety of wildlife, especially birds. Some caterpillars produce silk that clothe us; others feed on the animal fibers in our clothes. They can be a mere annoyance in the garden to serious pests of various agricultural crops and defoliators of wide swathes of woodland. And, like other wildlife, many species are in decline. Habitat loss and fragmentation, climate change, and the use of pesticides all contribute to their dwindling numbers.
Learn more about butterflies and moths and how you can garden to support them.
NOTE: Hyperlinks to sub-sections coming SOON!
- Egg & Caterpillar Stage
- Pupa Stage
- Adult Stage
- Body Parts – Adults
- Body Parts – Caterpillars
- How to Distinguish Moths from Butterflies
- Activity – Day, Twilight, Night
- Temperature Control
- Types of Flowers that Attract Butterflies
- Types of Flowers that Attract Moths
- Native Nectar Plants (natives vs. cultivars)
- A Succession of Blooms (using annuals; planting densely & in groups of three or more)
- Host Plants
- Plant Selection (what to look for when purchasing plants)
Nectar and Host Plants for Selected Mid-Atlantic Butterflies and Moths
Creating a Monarch Waystation
Activities: Lepidopteran Word Puzzles and Coloring Pages
In North America (north of Mexico), there are about 12,800 recognized lepidopteran species. About 722 species are butterflies in the superfamily Papilionoidea. The remaining species are moths, which are separated into 29 superfamilies.
The Papilionoidea contains (arguably) six families. During the day, we observe their members, with their clubbed antennae and bright colors, floating or flitting about and perching on nectar flowers to feed. We may even happen upon some caterpillars hidden in the leaves. Their behavior (how they fly or perch) and characteristics (size and shape, coloring and markings) as well as the plants that they frequent provide clues to their identity.
- Hesperiidae: Skippers are an intermediate form between butterflies and moths and were once a separate superfamily. Small to medium-sized adults are various shades of brown, gray, and orange with hooked antennae, proportionately larger and often hairy bodies, and rapid, erratic, skipping flight. When perching, grass skippers often hold their wings in a “jet-fighter” position while spread-wing skippers hold out their wings flat to the sides. Caterpillars, which are spindle-shaped with narrow “neck” and enlarged head, eat at night and rest in the shelter of folded leaves during the day.
- Lycaenidae: Gossamer Wings–small, delicate butterflies–are divided into four subgroups: Blues with iridescent blue dorsal wings (in the males); Coppers with iridescent flecked copper coloring; Hairstreaks with usually slender hindwing tails; and the Harvester with orange coloring and a sometimes purplish iridescence. Ventral wing patterns are often spotted or streaked and sometimes have eyespots. These butterflies can be rapid or erratic fliers. When resting, they hold their wings upright over their backs. Their antennae are usually banded and males have reduced forelegs. Caterpillars are slug-like. Ants tend the caterpillars of the blues and hairstreaks and milk the honey-dew that the caterpillars produce. The harvester caterpillar is carnivorous, feeding exclusively on woolly aphids.
- Nymphalidae: Brushfoots are a large, diverse family of usually medium-sized butterflies with bottlebrush-like, vestigial forelegs, leaving only four functioning legs on which to walk. Wings usually display some shade of orange and are often held half open when perching. Caterpillars tend to be spiny. Main groups include: Hackberry butterflies, Milkweed butterflies, Longwings, Snouts, Admirals and Kin, True Brushfoots, and Nymphs and Satyrs. About seventy-five species of brushfoots inhabit eastern North America.
- Papilionidae: Swallowtail adults are large and usually brightly colored with elongated hindwing tails (except for the alpine parnassians) and they sail or flutter through the air. Some caterpillars have prominent eyespots; all have an osmeterium, a forked organ hidden behind the head, which in the face of threats can be raised and emit an odor. Eleven species are found in the East.
- Pieridae: Whites and Sulphurs describe the usual wing colors of these medium-sized, conspicuous butterflies that flutter around in open, sunny places. The mostly green, long, cylindrical caterpillars feed on crucifers (whites) or legumes (sulphurs).
- Riodinidae: Metalmarks, once considered a subfamily of the Lycaenidae, are now mostly treated as a separate family. They are the smallest butterflies. Their more angular wings display subtle hues of brown, gray, and rust usually with checkered patterns, spots, and metallic markings. They rest on the undersides of leaves with their wings flat out. Males have reduced forelegs.
Left to right [Row 1]: Hesperiidae (grass skipper, spread-wing skipper); Lycaenidae (blue, copper, hairstreak); [Row 2]: Nymphalidae (True Brushfoots: lady/red admiral, buckeye, checkerspot, crescent, fritillary; [Row 3]: Milkweed: monarch); Papilionidae (swallowtail); Pieridae (white, sulphur); Riodinidae (metalmark).
There are over 12,000 moth species in North America, yet we are more likely to see a butterfly feeding on nectar flowers than we are a moth. Since most restrict their activities to the night (nocturnal), they are difficult to observe, much less identify. If you come across a daytime (diurnal) species feeding on nectar, or a nocturnal species resting in a shady spot, or a caterpillar munching the day away on its host plant, then you may find keys to its identity in the descriptions of some of the main families below. Remember that you can differentiate adult moths from butterflies by their antennae, which are thread-like or feathery.
- Erebidae: The mostly nocturnal, small to medium-sized moths in this family (under which the Arctiidae and Lymantriidae are now subfamilies) comprise tiger, lichen, wasp, and tussock moths including two serious pests: spongy moth and the fall webworm. Adults fold their wings roof-like over their abdomens when resting. Tiger moths often sport bright colors and bold geometric patterns (aposematic coloration and markings) signaling that they are distasteful to predators. Wasp moths are mimics. Many female tussock moths are flightless. Caterpillars are often densely hairy (e.g., woolybears).
- Geometridae: This second largest family is commonly called inchworms, spanworms, or loopers for their elongated caterpillars that have only two pairs of prolegs at the hind end, which cause them to move forward in a looping fashion. Small to medium-sized adult moths often have slender bodies and broad forewings, which they hold open flat against the substrate when resting. Some display camouflage colors (white, beige, gray, green) and patterns (wavy lines that extend across the open wings). Diurnal species have more colorful wings. In some species, females have atrophied wings and are flightless.
- Noctuidae: The largest (and most controversial as far as classification) moth family includes owlets, cutworms, armyworms, fruitworms, and underwing moths. “One in every four lepidopterans in North America is an owlet” (Wagner 2005). Most adults are medium in size and dull in color. Owlets often feed on nectar, but some feed on sap, rotting fruit, and dung. The mostly green or brown caterpillars are smooth and plump.
- Saturniidae: Commonly called saturniids or giant silkworm moths, this family includes the largest and perhaps most stunning moths. Wings are often brightly colored with eyespots and the largest in North America (Hyalophora cecropia) spans up to seven inches. Caterpillars are often decorated with spiny tubercles and the largest can grow to almost four inches long. There are twenty-eight species in the East.
- Sphingidae: These commonly called sphinx or hawk moths are strong, agile, fast fliers. They are mostly diurnal or crepuscular (active during dawn or dusk) and may be seen hovering as they feed on nectar. They are generally large with a robust body; tapered abdomen; long, narrow wings; and often a long proboscis (up to fourteen inches long in some species). “Sphingids possess the most acute color vision of any animals” (Wagner 2005). Caterpillars are called hornworms because they usually bear a mid-dorsal spine or horn on their hind end. They are large (more than six inches long for Cocytius antaeus) and some late instars may have impressive eyespots. There are about seventy species in the East, mostly in southern Florida and Texas.
Left to right [Row 1]: Erebidae (spongy moth and caterpillar, wooly or yellow bear); Geometridae (spanworm, large lace-border moth, tulip-tree beauty moth); Noctuidae (fruitworm); [Row2] Saturniidae (io moth and caterpillar, luna moth, polyphemus moth); Sphingidae (hummingbird clearwing moth, white-lined sphinx moth, tobacco hornworm).
Note: Click on images to see enlarged photos, captions, and photo attributions.
On a mobile phone, click on the information symbol (circle with a letter ℹ︎ symbol).
- BugGuide. Department of Entomology. © 2003-2022 Iowa State University. [accessed June 11, 2022].
- Brock JP. Kaufman K. 2006. Kaufman Field Guide To Butterflies Of North America. ISBN-10: 0-618-76826-2.
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies. 1995. ISBN: 0-394-51914-0.
- Wagner DL. 2005. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0-691-12144-4.