The Characteristics of the Insect Order Lepidoptera

The insect order Lepidoptera is the second largest order of insects and consists of butterflies and moths.  There are 135 families that contain over 110,000 species. Found world-wide, butterflies and moths are some of the most beautiful representatives of the insect world.  Both moths and butterflies have large wings that come in a huge range of colors, shapes and patterns and are impressive to watch as they flutter along. 

The name lepidoptera comes from the Greek words lepido and ptera which translate to scale and wings.  The wings of butterflies and moths are made up of tiny scales that cover the entire surface of the wings on both sides.  These scales are what hold the colors and patterns on the wings of the butterfly or moth and can easily be rubbed off if handled. 

Defining characteristics of Lepidoptera are easy to recognize and are well known to many.  All butterflies and moths go through a complete metamorphosis and are some of the most well studied insects on the subject.  The larva, commonly called caterpillars, will make their own pupa which is usually referred to as either a chrysalis or a cocoon.  Caterpillars come in an array of shapes, sizes, colors, presence or absence of hair, and even defense mechanisms.  Like other insect larva, butterfly and moth caterpillars can be destructive on vegetation thanks to their voracious appetites and are regarded as pests for many commercial crops.  All butterflies and moths have four wings that flap in sync when in flight.  The mouth of these insects is a prehensile tube used for inserting into flowers to suck out nectar and juices.   

The differences between butterflies and moths are defined but are also blurred between the two as some butterflies resemble moths and vice versa.  The most distinguishing features that differentiate the two would be with the antennae as butterflies typically have thin antennae with a clubbed tip while moths, especially the males, will have antennae that resemble a feather.  Butterflies tend to have slender bodies while moths will have thick and short bodies that are also furry in appearance.  Most moths are active primarily at night where as butterflies are active during the day.  When moth caterpillars are ready to pupate, a cocoon of silk is constructed while butterfly caterpillars convert their skin into a hardened shell which becomes a chrysalis.  At rest, butterflies hold their wings closed while moths will have their wings spread across their body like a tent.  Again, these differences listed between moths and butterflies are very general guidelines for a large group of butterfly and moth species.  There are many other species that do not conform to these guidelines at all. 

Butterflies can be classified into 6 major families that are Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies), Danaidae (milkweed butterflies), Pieridae (white and sulfur butterflies), Papillionidae (swallowtail butterflies), Lycaenidae (blues, coppers, and hairstreak butterflies), and Hesperiidae (skippers).  The most recognizable butterfly, the Monarch, belongs to the family Danaidae as it feeds on milkweed plants during its larval stage. 

Moths can be classified into 12 major families.  Seven of these families (Tineidae, Gelechiidae, Sesiidae, Tortricidae, Pyralidae, Geometridae, Lasiocampidae) include some of the more destructive caterpillars such as grain moths, coddling moth, and squash and peach tree borers.  The remaining five families (Saturniidae, Sphingidae, Arctiidae, Lymantriidae, Noctuidae) also have destructive caterpillars but give rise to some of the most intricately patterned and larged-sized moths known.  Many of these moth species are just as striking as the most stunning species of butterflies.  The Luna moth and the Atlas moth both belong to the Saturniidae family which includes some of the most beautiful and largest moth species in the world. 

The insect order Lepidoptera is host to some of the most beautiful winged insects in the world.  Because of their bright and boldly patterned wings, butterflies and moths are more like pieces of art rather than just another insect flying around.