There are approximately 160,000 species of moth.
Moths live in a wide variety of different habitats. They are highly adaptable to their surroundings and can be found in habitats all over the world, except in polar regions.
Most species live only one year. A few live to two or three years, and some only live for a few months. Most species spend the winter as eggs or pupae, a few winter as caterpillars. Only a handful survive the winter as adults, most adults die when the first hard frosts come.
Moths come in a spectacular range of sizes, shapes and colors.
The smallest moth in the world is the Stigmella maya, and the forewing measures just 1.2 millimetres. It is found in Yucatan in Mexico.
The largest moth in the world is the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas), with wingspan of up to 30 cm (12 inches) and a surface area of 400 square centimeters (62 square inches). It is found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia.
Like all insects, they have a three-part body (head, thorax and abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one pair of antennae.
Moths have wings that are covered with tiny scales. Each scale has a color, and together they give these insects their amazing wing patterns. Color patterns vary a lot, but they are usually either camouflaged or bright with warning colors.
Some moths are notorious for their ability to impersonate other animals. To avoid being eaten, some moths have evolved to look like less palatable insects, such as wasps, tarantulas and the praying mantis. Some moths even mimic bird droppings.
The Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus) is considered one of the most impressive and appealing-looking lepidopterans. Famous worldwide, it is featured in most coffee table books on Lepidoptera and is much sought after by collectors.
Most species of moth are nocturnal, but there are also crepuscular and diurnal species.
Most moths caterpillars eat the leaves and flowers of plants. Some moth caterpillars eat fruit, or seeds, and a few eat animal foods like beeswax or fur. A very few species of caterpillars are carnivores, eating aphids or other soft-bodied insects. Adults mostly drink nectar or sap. They sometimes feed on mud to get minerals, or on animal dung to get protein that they need.
A truly bizarre group of moths, Calyptra, can actually suck blood! The common name of many of these species, vampire moth, refers to the habit that they have of drinking blood from vertebrates. According to a recent study, some of them (C. thalictri) are even capable of drinking human blood through skin.
Moths are not attracted to light. They navigate by light, operating under the assumption that the main source of light is far, far away – i.e. the moon. If, say, a moth keeps the moon always on its left-hand side, it will fly in a vaguely straight line for a fair while. (It’s obviously more complicated than that, but the principle is the same.) But if the light is a porch light, keeping that on its left-hand side will make the moth fly in circles (and we won’t see it), in outward spirals (and we won’t see it), or in inward spirals (and we will see it as flying “toward the light”).
This has worked out pretty well for them for 190,000,000 years, but in the past 50-75 years man-made
lights have made things occasionally confusing for them. Before that, the only thing that would confuse them would be rare small fires. (If a moth is in the middle of a forest fire, navigation is the least of its problems.) And, again, even there many of the confused moths would not be harmed, but would merely orbit in circles or outward spirals until the fire died out.
Moths usualy use chemical senses to find each other in the dark. Some male moths can smell a single female from 11 kilometers (7 miles) away.
Moths change four times during their lives in a process which is called metamorphosis.
Egg – A moth starts its life as an egg, often laid on a leaf.
Larva – The larva (caterpillar) hatches from an egg and eats leaves or flowers almost constantly. The
caterpillar molts (loses its old skin) many times as it grows. The caterpillar will increase up to
several thousand times in size before pupating.
Pupa – The pupa looks a bit like a sleeping bag. It is a truly amazing stage of the life cycle. The
outer case is hard and it stays still, but inside the caterpillar is changing its body into a moth. The pupa may be attached to a leaf or twig or be buried underground. Sometimes there is a silk cocoon
around the pupa to protect it.
Adult – A beautiful, flying adult emerges. This adult will continue the cycle.
Many birds rely on moth caterpillars for food, especially for feeding their chicks. Night-flying moths are a vital food source for bats. Moths and caterpillars are also eaten by many other animals, including other insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards and small mammals (such as hedgehogs).
Some species of moths are major agricultural pests. Their caterpillars eat crop plants. Some get in stored food like grain, or eat wool and fur.
Night-blooming flowers usually depend on moths or bats for pollination.
Silk is produced by several insects, but generally only the silk of moth caterpillars has been used for textile manufacturing.
Some species of moth do not have mouth in the adult stage. They have short lifespan and their only purpose is to reproduce and lay eggs.
Moths evolved long before butterflies, fossils having been found that may be 190 million years old.
Although the rules for distinguishing moths from butterflies are not well established, one very good guiding principle is that butterflies have thin antennae and have small balls or clubs at the end of
their antennae. Moth antennae can be quite varied in appearance, but in particular lack the club end.
Also butterflies hold their wings up and down over their backs, while moths usually hold them folded
A 2004 survey by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization found that 90 percent of people in some African countries eat moth and butterfly caterpillars.
The old saying “like a moth to a flame” describes someone with an unswerving yet self-destructive attraction.