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July 09, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Butterflies and Moths belong to the insect order called Lepidoptera.  The name is derived from two Greek words: "lepis" meaning scale and "ptera" meaning wing, for these insects have scale-covered wings. I have learned that there are far more species of moths in the world than there are butterflies. From a child's point of view it seems to be all about butterflies: they stand out with their incredible beauty and grace. Children are immediately drawn to them -- colorful Pied Pipers with wings. But as far as Lepidopterans go, it's the moths that rule.

How are moths different from butterflies?    Here are a few major features.  Moth antennae are feathery, butterfly antennae are club-like: thin lines with bulbous tips.  Moth bodies tend to be chunkier than butterfly bodies.  And while at rest, moths sit with their wings spread flat or folded over their backs.  Butterflies rest with their wings together raised vertically over their bodies.

The diversity of moths is astounding.  I am only beginning to discover the incredible variety of moth shapes.  That such a wide variety of forms developed among this group of insects is quite amazing.  We know that animal adaptations arise for the benefit of survival, but, for a novice like me, I like to imagine that moths are shape-shifters just for the fun of it.

The smallest moths I have seen look like smudges or droppings of bird scat on a leaf.  Tiny moths like these (about 1/4" or less) are aptly called "Bird Dropping Moths".  I don't know how many species and genera of bird dropping moths there are in the U.S., but here are two of them. I'm not enlarging the images much in order to convey the full "bird dropping" effect. Someone at provided the ID for the white one on the right; it's an Antaeotricha species, possibly Schlaegeri's Fruitworm Moth:

This next tiny moth belongs to the family of Crambid Snout Moths. I chased this one's zig-zaggy flight for the longest time. It finally came to rest and, as if it were having fun with me, I found it "hiding" -- hanging upside down from this wispy stem.  Crambine snout-mothCrambine snout-mothPt. Reyes, California

I first learned about the Geometrid family of moths last summer.  I see them in mixed woods here all the time and they rest with their wings spread open, as if to show off what appears to be their perfect symmetry.  I thought they were called Geometrids because of that -- but it turns out that's not the reason.  The name comes from two Greek words "geo" meaning earth and  "metron" meaning measure.  So Geometrid refers to the larvae or caterpillars of these species which, as they move, appear to "measure the earth" -- we call them "inch worms".  Here are three beautiful Geometrids:

Pale Beauty MothPale Beauty Mothresting on fern leaves
Lincoln, MA

Hemlock LooperHemlock LooperCrawford Notch, NH

Lesser Maple Spanworm mothLesser Maple Spanworm mothGreat Meadow NWLR Concord, MA









And finally here is a moth from the Sphingidae family which contains many species that are quite amazing in appearance.  This one belongs to the Hemaris genus.  They are called Hummingbird Moths because, like hummingbirds, they can hold their place in flight while they feed.  

Hummingbird ClearwingHummingbird ClearwingHemaris thysbe
Great Meadow NWLR Concord, MA

I've broken my photographs of Lepidoptera into two albums: one for butterflies and skippers and one for moths. That's where you'll find more images of hummingbird moths and, of course, their kin. 



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