Night butterflies are insects closely related to butterflies. Both belong to the order Lepidoptera. The differences between butterflies and night butterflies/moths is more than just taxonomy. Scientists have identified some 200,000 species of moths worldwide and suspect there may be as many as five times that amount.
Night butterflies often have feather like antennae with no club at the end. When perched, their wings lay flat. They tend to have thick hairy bodies and more earth tone colored wings. Night butterflies are usually active at night and rest during the day in a preferred wooded habitat.
They have very long proboscis, or tongues, which they use to suck nectar or other fluids. These proboscis are very tightly coiled not in use, like a hosepipe. When in use, the proboscis are uncoiled to their full length and in some species, that length is remarkably long. Not all night butterflies have long tongues. In some, the proboscis is very short, an adaptation which enables easy and effective piercing of fruit.
In some, there is no feeding mechanism at all. There are adults of some species that do not take in any food. Their brief lives as an adult are spent reproducing and they are able to acquire all of the energy needed for this from the fat stored in the body by the caterpillar.
A moths antennae, palps, legs and many other parts of the body are studded with sense receptors that are used to smell. The sense of smell is used for finding food (usually flower nectar) and for finding mates (the female smelling the male’s pheromones). Pheromones can be dispersed through the tibia segment of the leg, scales on the wings or from the abdomen. Pheromones released by females can be detected by the males from as much as 8 kilometers away.
Moths (like many other adult insects) have compound eyes and simple eyes. These eyes are made up of many hexagonal lens/corneas which focus light from each part of the insect’s field of view onto a rhabdome (the equivalent of our retina). An optic nerve then carries this information to the insect’s brain. They see very differently from us. They can see ultraviolet rays, which are invisible to us.
The vision of the night butterflies changes radically in their different stages of life.
Night butterfly caterpillars can barely see at all. They have simple eyes (ocelli) which can only differentiate dark from light. They cannot form an image. They are composed of photoreceptors (light-sensitive cells) and pigments. Most caterpillars have a semi-circular ring of six ocelli on each side of the head. A caterpillars ‘fuzz’ gives it its sense of touch. Caterpillars sense touch using long hairs (called tactile setae) that grow through holes all over their hard exoskeleton. These hairs are attached to nerve cells and relay information about the touch to the insect’s brain.
Setae (sensory hairs) on the insect’s entire body (including the antennae) can feel the environment. They also give the insect information about the wind while it is flying.
Behavior, Diet & Habits
Night butterfly behavior, diet and habits are as varied as their appearance. They range from beautiful pollinators to sneaking blood feeders. Some moths are major agricultural pests, while the majority complete their life cycle with no significant direct impact on man. They often are the food source for many animals, including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, arachnids and even some plants. Indoors, homeowners most likely encounter night butterflies that are either feeding on stored pantry items or on fabrics.
Although they are most famous for their ability to ruin wool clothing, webbing clothes moths are also attracted to a variety of other natural materials, including silk, hair, felt, fur and feathers. These night butterflies tend to measure 2.5 to 5 cm in length and are buff colored.
They avoid light and are most commonly found in dark locations such as basements, attics and closets. Within these locations, moths can be found in the folds of fabrics or hiding in corners. Moths are capable of infesting a home long before their populations are noticed. As a result, substantial damage can occur to clothing or furnishings.
Night Butterflies as pests
Webbing clothes moth larvae, not the adults, are responsible for destroying clothing. They prefer animal-based fabrics. Moths may consume sweaters, coats, blankets, carpets, decorative items, comforters, pillows and toys. They prefer not to feed on synthetic fibers, but will consume blended and stained fabrics.
While some are harmless and others are known to be beneficial for their silk and nutritional value, most moths and caterpillars are considered nuisance pests. A few, including the Io moth, the saddleback caterpillar moth and the southern flannel moth, are more concerning because the larvae can sting. Particularly in agricultural communities, some moth and caterpillar populations cause severe damage. Gypsy moth caterpillars are known to damage forested areas in the northern United States. Fruit farms suffer from codling moth infestations, while cabbages and mustard crops are often destroyed by the diamondback moth. Some moth larvae are known to consume cotton, tomatoes and corn. These larvae are commonly referred to as cotton bollworms, tomato fruit worms and corn earworms. Some moth species are also known to eat fabrics made from natural fibers, such as wool and silk.