Butterflies & Moths: Interesting Facts

  • Common expressions used containing butterflies and moths:
    • Drawn like a moth to a flame
    • As fragile as a butterfly
  • The largest butterfly species in the world is a "Birdwing" butterfly from the Solomon Islands, whose wings span twelve inches.

The color on the wings of a butterfly is created by a layer of scales on the wing, similar to the scales on a fish. This is the "dust" that comes off as you touch the wing. On many butterflies the color is only an illusion. The color we perceive is created by refraction of the light as it reflects off the surface of the scale.

Silk, that marvelous fabric of fine neckties, scarves, and blouses, comes from the cocoons of the true Silk Moth - Bombyx mori. The larva spins its cocoon using a single strand of silk that is about 1,500 feet long. More than 25,000 cocoons must be unraveled to make a single pound of silk thread.

  • Male silk moths can detect ("smell") the chemicals of the females from several miles away. They can detect only a few hundred molecules of the sex pheromone in as much as 25 quintillion molecules of air.
  • Some moth species are active in freezing weather, as their bodies contain a natural "anti-freeze" that warms up their body enough to become mobile.
  • Mexican "Jumping" Beans jump because of a moth larva living inside each one.
  • Butterflies are the designated "state insect" in 7 states:
    • Monarch - Alabama, Illinois, and Vermont
    • California Dogface Butterfly - California
    • Tiger Swallowtail - Georgia, Ohio, Virginia, Wyoming
    • Spicebush Swallowtail - Mississippi
    • Baltimore Checkerspot - Maryland
    • Oregon Swallowtail - Oregon
    • Colorado Hairstreak - Colorado
    • Giant Swallowtail - Florida
  • Butterflies and Moths are not helpless. They often defend themselves with poisons that are stored in their bodies:
    • Butterflies in South America in groups called Glassy-wings and Heliconians are toxic. They contain chemicals in their bodies called alkaloids or cardiac glycosides, contained in the plants eaten by their larvae and accumulated in their bodies for defense later.

  • Poisons in the body of a single Monarch Butterfly are sufficient to kill a small lizard, and cause severe vomiting in a large bird.
  • Many moths exude poisonous fluids from their necks when alarmed. These fluids contain quinones, cyanide, acrylylcholines, alkaloids, and other chemicals obtained from the plants their larvae eat. Tropic "tiger" moths are particularly noted for this.

  • Puss Moth caterpillars contain highly toxic poisons, and crushing a single caterpillar in your hand may cause temporary, but severe, paralysis in the arm.
  • Many caterpillars have spiny hairs called "urticating" hairs, that contain mild to extremely irritating toxins. If brushed against the skin they immediately cause a long-lasting, possibly severe stinging sensation.

  • More than 200 species of butterflies are known to migrate in huge numbers, the best known being our common Monarch. Some individual Monarchs have been shown to have flown over 2000 miles as they move from North to South in the late summer. Painted Lady Butterflies are found all over the world, and may migrate over 3000 miles from Africa to England.
  • The "Vampire Moth" of Southeast Asia is a blood feeder. It can insert its tongue through human skin, and may sip on our blood for up to 60 minutes.
  • Another Asian moth feeds on the tears of animals, obtaining nutrients such as salt, proteins, white blood cells, and other materials. They have been observed feeding on deer, pigs, antelope, horses, buffalo, and elephants. One researcher even coaxed them to drink from his eyes, proving it is a possibility.

  • The death of over 500 young and fetal horses on Kentucky farms in spring of 2001 has been linked to the ingestion of cyanide, apparently from Black Cherry trees on the farms. A possible way that the horses ingested the cyanide was from eating the fecal droppings of tent caterpillars that were feeding on the trees. The caterpillars themselves are immune to the cyanide, but they pass it into their fecal droppings and excrete it.
  • Caterpillar fecal droppings may also attract parasitic wasps, that seek out the caterpillars and lay their eggs on them. Some species of leaf-rolling caterpillars have evolved the ability to "fire" each fecal pellet up to 2 feet away from themselves, possibly as a means for keeping such parasites further from them.

  • Wooly Bear caterpillars of the Isabella Moth normally feed on lupines. However, if the caterpillar has been unfortunate enough to have been parasitized by fly larvae, they instinctively switch to eating poisonous hemlock. While the poison in these plants does not kill the fly larva, it does, for some reason, enable the caterpillar to survive the parasite, and grow to be an adult moth.
  • Caterpillars may have over 4000 separate muscles. Humans have only 792.