Types of Moths

picture of an emerald moth

Like butterflies, moths belong to the family Lepidoptera, yet they display some of their own unique physical and behavioral characteristics.

While it does not hold for every example, moths are normally considered night Lepidopteras species, active during the evening and night. Butterflies, on the other hand, are considered daytime Lepidoptera species.

Moth physical features, like having thicker bodies than butterflies, and the absence of a club (or ball) at the end of the antenna helps with moth identification.

Colorful wings represents another general rule of thumb for differentiating between moths and butterflies. That generalization holds for many, but not all moth and butterfly species. A high percentage of butterfly species in the Hesperiidae family (skippers) and Riodinidae family (metalmarks), for example, have brown color wings.

The Emerald Moth in the top picture demonstrates the colorful wings of many moth species.

In terms of population size, Smithsonian Institution estimates place the number of moth species in the eleven thousand range.

With approximately six hundred butterfly species found in the United States, the number of moth species far surpasses the number of butterfly species.

Because of the population differences, the types of moths found in the United States fit into a larger number of families, approximately forty, compared to their butterfly relatives. Seven of the more easily recognized moth families are:

  • Clearwing Moths: Family Sesiidae - Clearwing Moths have transparent wings and resemble wasps with long feathery antennae. They are active during the day and nectar on flowers.
  • Clothes Moths: Family Tineidae - Most of the species in this family feed on materials other than the basic caterpillar food, plants. Two particular species, the Clothing Moth (Tineola bisselliella) and the Case-bearing Clothes Moth (Tinea pellionella) are identified as the pests that eat fibers such as wool from sweaters.
  • Giant Silk Moths: Family Saturniidae - This family contains the The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas). Found in Southeast Asia, it is considered the world's largest moth.
  • Inchworm Moths: Family Geometridae - A family of moths named for the manner in which the caterpillars move.
  • Sphinx Moths: Family Sphingidae - A number of moth species in the family are called hummingbird moths because they fly during the day, and they hover while nectaring at flowers.
  • picture of a tent caterpillar tent

  • Tent Caterpillar Moths: Family Lasiocampidae - The caterpillars of the family build and live in large, silk tent structures attached to tree limbs. Different species can be found around the United States. They are often considered pests because the caterpillar colonies are capable of consuming all the leaves from the host tree. The top picture shows a tent with its caterpillar colony.
  • Tiger Moths: Family Arctiidae - This family is known for its woolly bear caterpillars.

Despite the differences in population levels, all the moths and butterflies undergo a similar metamorphosis, from egg to caterpillar to pupa (chrysalis) to adult.

© 2008-2013. Patricia A. Michaels