Moths are much more interesting than you may think. They can be gorgeous, colorful, massive, and important pollinators. They can also be huge pests, harming agriculture and forestry. It would take many lifetimes to learn everything there is to know about moths, especially because there are 10 times as many moths species than butterfly species in the world.
Moths Versus Butterflies: What’s the Difference?
Both moths and butterflies belong to the insect order Lepidoptera. This is one of the main orders of pollinators. The other important pollinator orders are Hymenoptera (bees and ants), Coleoptera (beetles), and Diptera (flies). Lepidopteran insects go through a larval stage (commonly known as a caterpillar), a pupal stage (known as a chrysalis or cocoon), and an adult stage (known as a moth or butterfly). They have four wings and live across the world.
Moths differ from butterflies in a few ways. Most people think moths are nocturnal and brown and butterflies are diurnal and colorful. While this is generally true, it isn’t a tried-and-true method of moth identification. There are some stunningly beautiful moth species that fly during the day!
A more concrete difference between the two is that moth wings have scales on them that will rub off on your fingers while butterflies’ hindwings and forewings don’t. If you brush a lepidoptera wing and see glittery scales on your finger, you can be sure you have a moth.
When moth caterpillars pupate, they create cocoons out of silk-like substances. Butterfly caterpillars create hard chrysalises instead. When resting, butterflies tend to fold their wings up and moths fold them flat over their abdomen.
Impacts of Moths on Plants
Moths are crucial pollinators across the world. They visit more types of plants than many types of bees and butterflies. Moths often provide essential pollination to flowers that open at night. The conservation of plant species across the world must consider the conservation of moths.
In agriculture, however, moths are generally seen as pests. The larval stages of moths cause immense crop damage to important crops such as apples, corn, wheat, sorghum, and more. Being such a huge group of flying insects, it should be no surprise that some species are beneficial to ecosystems while others are devastating to agriculture.
Threats to Moths (and Butterflies)
Moth populations are increasingly threatened across the world. The use of herbicides and pesticides, which are often developed primarily to kill moths, have precisely that effect. Pesticides intended for agricultural fields inevitably end up in the surrounding ecosystems. This pesticide runoff harms natural moth and butterfly populations. Additionally, land-use change from natural areas to agriculture or development has negative impacts on lepidoptera populations.
In fact, almost 20 percent of the 800 species of butterflies (whose conservation is similar to moths) are threatened with extinction in the U.S.
Types of Moths and Species of Moths
There are over 160,000 different species of moths in the world! The list below covers 40 noteworthy ones divided into five categories; beautiful moths, agricultural nuisance moths, moths of cultural and economic importance, edible moths, and invasive moths.
While an entomologist could make the case that every moth is beautiful in its own way, some are clearly more attractive than others. As you will see, moths can be just as striking as their butterfly counterparts. Moths are not only brown, as you may think.
White-lined Sphinx Moth – Hyles lineata, Sphingidae
This sphinx moth is an incredible North American pollinator. Some years, populations of Hyles lineata will boom in one area and be non-existent in another. Scientists haven’t figured out exactly what causes this strange, seemingly random boom-and-bust population cycle across its range. The wingspan of this moth is up to three inches, making it one of the bigger North American moths.
Hummingbird Hawk-moth – Macroglossum stellatarum, Sphingidae
The hummingbird hawk-moth is the Eurasian counterpart to the white-lined sphinx moth. They are strikingly similar in appearance to hummingbirds. Interestingly, hummingbirds don’t exist in the old world. This may be one reason why Europeans initially thought hummingbirds were bugs! Hummingbird hawk-moths are seen as good omens. Interestingly, a small swarm of them was seen flying over the English Channel during D-Day in 1944.
Luna Moth – Actias luna, Saturniidae
The Luna moth is surely one of the most spectacular creatures on Earth. With a wingspan that can reach up to seven inches, this massive flyer occupies the eastern half of North America. The larvae of the luna moth consume deciduous tree leaves. The caterpillar can be almost four inches long just before it goes into chrysalis. The chrysalis can remain dormant throughout the winter, emerging in the spring.
Io Moth – Automeris io, Saturniidae
The Io Moth, like the luna moth, is found in the eastern half of North America. The male io moths are yellow, blue, and pink, whereas the females are reddish-brown. The caterpillars of io moths are wild-looking, with tons of branched, spiky structures sticking out from their bodies. As with all species in Saturniidae, these moths don’t have mouth parts as adults. They never feed once they take flight.
Garden Tiger Moth – Arctia caja, Erebidae
The Garden Tiger Moth lives in cold climates all throughout the northern hemisphere, just take a look at their genus name ‘Arctia.’ These generalist moths will live anywhere in the northern hemisphere that is cold enough and is wooded or grassy. The striking patterns on this moth’s wings warm predators that they are poisonous. The caterpillars tend to eat plants that contain toxins, which allows them to accumulate poisons in their bodies.
Atlas Moth – Attacus atlas, Saturniidae
The Atlas moth is a monster, with some adults sporting a wingspan of nearly 10 inches across. This wingspan makes them one of the largest moths alive today. These impressive flyers live in forests and shrublands in southeast Asia. While beautiful, these adult moths only live a few weeks once they emerge from their cocoons.
Giant Leopard Moth – Hypercompe scribonia, Arctiinae
A black and white gem, the giant leopard moth lives in eastern North America. The giant leopard moth is remarkable for its 24-hour mating period. The caterpillars of this moth are extremely ‘hairy’ in appearance, with hundreds of black bristles. The wingspan of the giant leopard moth is about two inches across.
Polyphemus Moth – Antheraea polyphemus, Saturniidae
Yet another Saturniidae on this list, the Polyphemus moth has some incredible colors. Its wings wear pink, blue, yellow, brown, red, and gray. Polyphemus was the one-eyed son of Poseidon in Greek mythology. The polyphemus moth has large eyes on its wings to suit its namesake. This moth occurs throughout the United States in non-desert regions.
Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda, Saturniidae
Brilliantly colored, this bright pink and yellow moth looks more like a sorbet than an insect. Unlike the other Saturniidae moths on this list, the rosy maple moth is small, at under two inches across. The larvae of this moth can defoliate entire maple trees, which are their host plant. Since both maples and this moth are beautiful, it’s a tough choice to choose one over the other!
Cinnabar Moth – Tyria jacobaeae, Erebidae
The cinnabar moth is native to parts of Europe and Asia. However, it has been introduced across the world to control weed ragwort. Ragwort is in the same family as goldenrod, which contains toxic compounds. The cinnabar moth only flies during the daytime, where it’s bright-red wings alert predators to their toxicity.
Hercules Moth – Coscinocera hercules, Saturniidae
The Hercules moth is aptly named because it has the largest surface area of any insect in the world. A Hercules moth world span a large, 11-inch dinner plate. The cocoon of this moth is interesting, as it is a double-walled structure. This moth lives in Papua New Guinea and tropical northern Australia.
Comet Moth – Argema mittrei, Saturniidae
The comet moth lives in the rainforests of Madagascar. It has unusual cocoons with many holes. While scientists postulate that the comet moth evolved these holes to allow water to pass through the cocoon during the frequent rains in Madagascar. The comet moth also has uncommon tails on the ends of its wings. These tails may interfere with the echolocation of bats, causing bats to attach the tails of the moth rather than their bodies. As with most Madagascar rainforest species, the comet moth is facing severe destruction of its native habitat.
Madagascan Sunset Moth – Chrysiridia rhipheus, Uraniidae
The Madagascan sunset moth takes the cake for the most colorful moth having all colors of the rainbow in its wings. Or does it? Surprisingly, the ‘colors’ seen on the sunset moth are actually the reflection of light onto special structures in the moth’s wing scales. This refraction is similar to the blue that birds exhibit. Birds can’t actually create the pigment blue, they create structures in their feathers that reflect blue when viewed. The Madagascan Sunset moth lives on Madagascar and is highly prized by Lepidoptera collectors.
Oleander Hawk Moth – Daphnis nerii, Sphingidae
The oleander hawk moth lives year-round in Africa, the Middle East, and tropical Asia. In summer, parts of the population migrate up to Europe. The larval stage of this moth has intense, false eyes. It has been introduced in places like Hawaii to control populations of invasive oleander plants. Interestingly, it may also pollinate a critically endangered Hawaiian plant, even though the insect isn’t native to Hawaii. The only native pollinator to this Hawaiian plant is extinct.
Snowberry Clearwing Moth – Hemaris diffinis, Shingidae
You may be confused by this moth! It resembles a bumblebee much more than a moth. A native of the eastern United States and Canada, this moth has clear wings, which is unusual among Lepidoptera. This diurnal moth is a delight in evolutionary convergence.
Agricultural Nuisance Moths
While plenty of moths are unbelievably gorgeous, others are considered agricultural pests, and with good reason. Some moth larvae can destroy entire crops of corn, fruit, or tomatoes. Unfortunately for insects worldwide, agricultural pests, such as the moths below, have caused farmers to use tons of pesticides. These pesticides don’t only kill the moth species targeted. They usually kill most of the insects nearby.
Codling Moth – Cydia pomonella, Tortrichidae
The codling moth is the most destructive agricultural moth in North America. The larvae of the codling moth don’t simply feed on leaves; they must burrow into fruits such as pears, apples, or other high-value crops. Once inside these fruits, the caterpillars munch away until the fruit is unsellable. This moth originated in Asia but has since spread to all continents except Antarctica.
Tomato Hornworm – Maduca quinquemaculata, Shingidae
The tomato hornworm is a pest on all crops within the Solanaceae plant family. This family includes eggplant, tomato, tobacco, potato, and peppers. This moth is a part of the hawkmoth group, which means it is relatively large with a long proboscis. It lives in North America, whereas the tobacco hornworm is a similar pest that does damage in southern latitudes.
Cabbage Moth – Mamesta brassicae, Noctuidae
The cabbage moth is a major pest for all brassicas. Did you know that cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, and broccoli are all technically the same plant species? Well, the cabbage moth likes to eat them all. This generalist moth species lives almost everywhere in the north. It doesn’t feast solely on brassicas, either. It will eat tomato plants, potatoes, and other important crops. The cabbage moth is one formidable pest for farmers, indeed.
Diamondback Moth – Plutella xylostella, Plutellidae
Originally from Europe, this pest has spread to just about anywhere that cabbage is grown. The diamondback moth will feast on any crop within the Brassicaceae plant family. In addition to the plants listed under the cabbage moth, this family includes cauliflower, collard greens, kale, turnips, and radishes. The diamondback moth is only a problem when there are massive amounts of caterpillars, as they are rather small moths.
Dried Fruit Moth – Cadra calidella, Pyralidae
The dried fruit moth is a sneaky pest. It mostly affects crops during storage. This moth larvae will eat nuts and dried fruit after harvest. As an added blow, the moth has had an easy time moving around the world because it is often in shipments of these dried fruits and nuts. The dried fruit moth mainly a problem for Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries.
Pink Bollworm – Pectinophora gossypiella, Gelechiidae
The pink bollworm is a serious pest to cotton growers. This insect will severely damage cotton crops by burrowing into cotton balls. The damage these larvae cause to plant tissue gives fungus and other insects areas to infect. Until recently, farmers have used insecticides and Bt cotton to control this worm. However, the widespread use of this genetic engineering and chemical technology has created resistance within some populations of pink bollworms. This resistance could pose serious challenges to the future of the cotton industry.
European Corn Borer – Ostrinia nubilalis, Crambidae
You guessed it. The European corn borer is a major pest of corn crops in Europe and the eastern United States. Similar to the story of the pink bollworm, farmers have largely controlled this pest with Bt corn.
Fall Armyworm – Spodoptera frugiperda, Noctuidae
A modern mover, this pest is rapidly expanding its global range. Before 2016, the fall armyworm was unknown in Africa. Since then, it has spread to more than two dozen countries, where it threatens corn crops for millions of subsistence farmers. It has also spread throughout India in the last few years and was first detected in Australia in 2020. It has also recently spread throughout China. Affecting most cereal crops, including wheat, corn, millet, and other grains, the impact this tiny moth could have on our global food supply is massive.
Indianmeal Moth – Plodia interpunctella, Pyralidae
The Indianmeal moth is a common consumer of stored goods. Chances are, you’ve probably encountered one of these in your life. They are the most likely worms to be searching out food in your cupboards.
African Sugarcane Borer – Eldana saccharina, Pyralidae
The African sugarcane borer is a problem for sugar growers in sub-Saharan Africa. Recently, this moth has also attacked grain crops, such as wheat and sorghum. This resilient insect can withstand the burning of crop fields.
Corn Earworm – Helicoverpa zea, Noctuidae
The corn earworm is one of the top pests of North American crops. The economic costs in the United States associated with this seemingly insignificant moth are over $250 million per year. This moth is particularly destructive as it targets the most important parts of the plants for food. While this moth doesn’t overwinter in cold climates, it can migrate and create seasonal infestations that overwhelm farmers.
Light Brown Apple Moth – Epiphyas postvittana, Tortrichidae
The light brown apple moth is native to Australia and New Zealand, where it feeds on just about any crop it can find. This generalist insect can feed on hundreds of commercially important crop species. In 2007, the moth was first detected in California. Officials in California are trying to contain the infestation, but the moth is now widespread in at least 13 counties. If the moth did the same amount of economic damage in California as it does to the fruit industry in Australia, it would cost farmers 70 million dollars annually.
Moths of Cultural and Economic Importance
Peppered Moth – Biston betularia, Geometridae
Almost all biology classes touch on the peppered moth. Before the industrial revolution in Britain, the moth was typically white so it could blend in with the bark of birch trees. After decades of heavy pollution, the white trees became grayer, as did much of urban Britain. Scientists were surprised to find the peppered moth seemed to change colors before their eyes. Within a few years, the white moths turned into gray or black moths. This was a result of heavy natural selection. Moths that were white stood out against the blackened tree trunks, while darker variants succeeded. Evolutionary biologists love using the peppered moth as a rapid example of natural selection.
Wax Moth – Achroia grisella, Pyralidae
The wax moth is both a pest and an asset. The larval form of this moth lives in honey bee hives where it eats the wax. In active, managed hives, this behavior can be a nuisance to the bees. In some cases, an already weakened hive can be taken over by wax moths. However, in feral bee colonies, wax moths are seen as beneficial because they consume weak hives or abandoned hives. It is helpful that the wax moth consumes these weak hives since they harbor more potent vectors and diseases that could be spread to healthy honey bee colonies.
Silkworm – Bombyx mori, Bombycidae
Do you have any silk in your closet? You can thank the silkworm for that silk! The silkworm is the larval stage of a moth, which is cultivated around the world for its silk. The cocoon of a silkworm is woven out of a single strand of silk, measuring hundreds of meters long. It takes over 2,500 cocoons to create one pound of silk! Animal rights activists have criticized the silk moth industry for killing billions of caterpillars annually.
Black Witch Moth – Ascalapha odorata, Noctuidae
The black witch moth is a large member of the Noctuidae family, resembling a bat in shape. Many Latin American cultures, from Mexico to Argentina, see the moth as a bad omen. While beautiful in a dark way, it’s easy to understand why many people associate it with death and sickness.
Edible Moth Species
People around the world eat caterpillars as a good source of nutrition. Compared to meat, growing caterpillars takes few resources and provides great protein. In fact, sources such as the U.N. are urging people to adopt eating caterpillars more widely as a way to increase food resiliency. Below is a shortlist of a few species of caterpillars humans like to eat.
Madora – Gonimbrasia belina, Saturniidae
The madora is a major protein source for certain people in sub-Saharan Africa. This large caterpillar, a relative of the luna moth and some other beautiful moths listed above, lives on the mopane tree. While some people pick madora caterpillars off mopane trees in the wild, most of the caterpillars are grown in farms. This industry is worth millions of dollars, providing crucial economic support to communities in southern Africa.
Bagworm Moth, Fangalabola – Deborrea malgassa, Psychidae
There are tons of species called ‘bagworm moths’, most of which are small and inconspicuous. Deborrea malgassa is a bagworm moth species that lives in Madagascar, where it is cultivated and harvested as a source of protein. This caterpillar is much smaller than the two Saturniidae moths above.
Bamboo Worms – Omphisa fuscidentalis, Crambidae
The bamboo worm feeds on bamboo in Southeast Asia. Demand for the bamboo worm has increased throughout this region, prompting commercial farming of the worms. If you want to try eating some yourself, this is one of the few worms that can be bought online
Many moths have moved outside of their initial home range due to globalization and climate change. Some of these non-native moths have caused substantial damage to goods and ecosystems since their introduction.
European Gypsy Moth – Lymantria dispar, Erebidae
The European Gypsy Moth is one of the most destructive moths in the world. This moth can kill up to 20% of the trees in the forest of eastern North America. The moths’ populations can erupt in certain years where they completely defoliate entire sections of forests.
Clothes Moth – Tineola bisselliella, Tineidae
You may not have used mothballs in your life, but they exist to combat this tiny, clothes eating moth. The clothes moth can derive energy from natural fibers such as wool and cotton. As the larvae eat the fibers, they wear through the clothes creating holes. Mothballs work by emitting gases that kill moth larvae.
Cactus Moth – Cactoblastis cactorum, Pyralidae
The cactus moth is native to South America, where it feeds on cacti in the Opuntia genus. As is the case with most invasive species, the cactus moth has plenty of predators to keep its population in check in South America. Recently it has arrived in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, where it is destroying native cactus species. Of particular worry is its impact on the nopal cactus, which is grown industrially for food. Interestingly, the Opuntia cacti are invasive in Australia and the cactus moth is an effective biological control for non-native cacti on that continent.
Box Tree Moth – Cydalima perspectalis, Crambidae
The box tree moth has expanded its invasive range across Europe as of recently. This moth, a native of Asia, feasts upon the leaves and bark of various box trees. Infestations of the box tree moth can kill box trees. Climate change and the horticultural trade of box trees across Europe all but ensure the expansion of this moth’s range in years to come.
Brown House Moth – Hofmannophila pseudospretella, Oecophoridae
This moth is just about everywhere and eats just about everything inside a house. Originally native to Asia, this moth is now found around the world. It eats structural components of houses along with items inside houses, such as stored food goods, books, and wine corks (oh no!).
White-shouldered House Moth – Endrosis sarcitrella, Oecophoridae
Similar to the brown house moth above, this traveler has made it to every corner of the globe where it eats stored food goods.
Winter Moth – Operophtera brumata, Geometridae
The winter moth is native to Europe and Asia, where it is a nuisance in its own right, eating the leaves off of many kinds of trees. In coastal New England and the Pacific Northwest, this moth can cause serious damage to forest trees such as oaks.
Moths in Our World
For better or worse, moths have significant impacts on human existence. Moths provide ecosystems with invaluable pollination services and are an important food source for bats, birds, mammals, and reptiles worldwide. Some species of moths have become nuisances to forest management, agriculture, and human dwellings. We must learn to live with these non-native moths because they will only become more present with climate change and increasing globalization.