Sunday, December 20, 2015

Lepidoptera of 2015

The third installment of A Year of Pollinators (see Bees and Wasps) takes a look at the local lepidopterans (moths and butterflies). The word and order Lepidoptera is of Greek origin meaning "insects with four scaly wings," broken down into the Greek words "lepido-" [lepís, λεπίς] meaning scale and "pterón" [πτερόν] meaning wing or feather. Lepidoptera is one of four orders which represent the vast majority of pollinating insects. The other three orders are (in order of most species to least): Coleoptera (beetles, the most ancient pollinators), Hymenoptera (most notable superfamilies include bees, wasps, and ants), and Diptera (flies, gnats, midges, etc.).

This post is not all inclusive as I have limited it to including only the moths and butterflies which I could capture on camera. The first section is on moths while the latter section is on butterflies. Identification was achieved with the help of BugGuide volunteers. Enjoy!

(Also see Pollinators of 2015 posts: BeesWaspsFlies, and Beetles etc.)


While moths and butterflies can occasionally difficult to tell apart, there are a few key differences, some of which can be easily identified b the casual observer. Moths are mostly nocturnal, or active at dusk just before or at sundown (crepuscular), while butterflies are largely active during the day. Moths often have branched (feathered) antennae, but not always. The moths I have seen here have thin unbranched antennae, but differ from butterfly antennae by tapering at the tip rather than ending with a blunt flared tip (butterflies have characteristic "club shaped" antennae, typically curved at the tip). Another identifier is the wing position. Most moths hold their wings flat to their sides or wrapped against their bodies, though there are some butterflies (skippers) that sometimes share this characteristic. Butterflies, in contrast, will be found to hold their wings together above them, but not always. Moths also tend to have relatively hairier bodies than butterflies. Color is another factor to consider, the majority of moths are dull colored grays and browns, disguises that help them hide. These tips will be most effective when combined together as there are a lot of species ob both butterfly and moth that do not follow the rules.

Most moths are probably generalists, feeding on anything they like. Doctrine states that moths like white or other light colored musky-scented flowers. There is some evidence to support this, moth pollinated flowers include Dianthus (I've witnessed crepuscular moths visiting Dianthus gratianopolitanus at dusk)
 and some species of Narcissus (particularly sections NarcissusJonquillae, and Hermione). Deep tubular white flowers are typically considered to be moth flowers, which is probably true (the flower morphology will rule out the effectiveness or ability of other pollinators to contact the reproductive organs; i.e. Nicotiana), I have observed moths on all access flowers like composites (Echinacea, Madia) and plants in the Rosaceae (fruit tree blossoms) which have easily accessible yet abundant rewards (nectar and pollen).

Family Erebidae

Tribe Euclidiini

From the Greek meaning, "from the darkness," moths in the Erebidae are mostly nocturnal, though some species are also active in the day. They are attracted to light, and are very common, so are often encountered by people. Their role as pollinators is likely substantial, note the pollen on the proboscis of the moth in the photo below. Both butterflies and moths often transfer pollen that sticks to their proboscises, bodies, and feet, although many times the proboscis is the only part of their body to contact the reproductive parts of the plant.

Caenurgina erechtea on Berberis (March)
The forage looper, or common grass-moth, is common as the name states, is found coast to coast in the United States, and partly into Canada though it's range seems to be limited in the Northern latitudes. Host plants include grasses, alfalfa, and clover. This is most likely a female, the males have branched feather-like antennae.

Family Pterophoridae

The plume moths are an interesting group. Most people will find they form a T-shape when they are at rest, though their wings are delicate and fringed when in flight, resembling feathers (thus, plume moth). The larvae (caterpillars) are sometimes leaf-rollers or stem borers, but probably not in numbers to cause concern.

Plume moth (March)
I witnessed plume moths like this one working exclusively on Muscari armeniacum and hybrids at night over a succession of nights. I could clearly view their long proboscises moving from urn-to-urn (referring to the urn-shaped florets) and occasionally repositioning themselves to reach more.

Family Adelidae

Fairy moths, so called presumably due to the ridiculously long antennae of the males, are diurnal moths native to grasslands and forests from British Columbia to Idaho and south into California. The larvae feed on rotting leaf detritus and overwinter in cases on the ground. Adults feed on nectar, so are often found on flowers.

Adela septentrionella (April)
These are small moths, around a half-inch long (not counting the antennae). They were common on Lomatium, but difficult to photograph because they were so skittish. Females lay eggs on Holodiscus discolor, which is locally common here.

Family Hepialidae

Ghost moths, or swift moths, are a group of primitive moths that differ from other moths in a number of ways. Upon seeing my photo, you may or may not notice the lack of visible antennae. They do have antennae, though they are very short. There are a number of other features, but none or few will be apparent to non-entomologists (including me). They are called ghost moths because of the way they fly, though to be honest I have never seen them in flight.

Mating Ghost Moths (June)
Most probably lay their eggs on the ground, the larvae develop and pupate underground. One stunning characteristic of these moths is the lack of a functional proboscis, and either reduced or nonexistant mouth-parts in some species! Evidently, few to no adults need food, living only to mate. These moths do not visit flowers, instead getting all the food they need as larvae. I am not surprised that I found them mating, I would probably do the same thing if I didn't need to eat all the time!

Family Sphingidae

A notable and easily recognized group of moths, the sphinx-, hawk-, or hummingbird-moths are large, fast, diurnal, crepuscular, or nocturnal moths. They visit a variety of flowers, and are speculated to be the main pollinators of a few species (Narcissus peoticus, perhaps). The caterpillars, known as hornworms, are sometimes pests of crops depending on the species (i.e. tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculata).

Hawk moth on Petunia (August)
I have encountered hawkmoths twice here, both times at dusk. The first time I saw one visiting Echinacea, though was unable to take a photo. My second encounter is represented in this photo. We have a number of hanging baskets on our front porch with Petunias planted in them, and this large moth (nearly four inches across!) was moving from flower to flower. This photo was my best effort, and unfortunately I did not see the top of the wings (my best chance at identifying it to genus level). These large moths, undoubtedly prey to many predators, is very aware of its surroundings and of me, likely perceived as a large predator, so it flew away within ten feet as I attempted to approach as slowly as possible.


Butterflies are one of the most celebrated pollinators in the world alongside the European honeybee. They are also one of the most celebrated insects in pop culture and perhaps in the world, being neither harmful to our stuff (clothes, food, homes, etc.), they do not bite, they come in stunning arrays of color, and I could go on. Unlike moths, most fly in the day and hide at night (though the American moth-butterflies in the family Hedylidae are nocturnal, morphologically similar to both butterflies and moths, but closer to the former).

Most of the time, butterflies can be easy and straightforward to tell apart from moths. With the exception of some of the diurnal tropical moths, butterflies are much more colorful than moths, except for some of the skippers which can be kind of dull and moth-like. The antennae are the next characteristic to look at, with butterflies they are swollen or clubbed at the tips, sometimes hooked or bent at the end. The wings of butterflies, besides the telltale bright colors of some, are often held together which is another contrast to most moths which hold their wings to the sides like a fighter jet or wrapped around their bodies. Some of the larger butterflies (such as in the Nymphalidae and Papilionidae families) hold their wings spread out, possibly to ward off predators by some means (warning of toxicity, etc.)

Butterflies are generalists as pollinators as adults (as caterpillars they often need a specific host plant). They do not share the trait with bees of flower constancy, where a pollinator will visit a single species on each foraging trip (a trait that makes bees the most efficient of pollinators, enabling the transfer of pollen to the correct plants). Butterflies, conversely, visit whatever they please. Adults don't collect pollen for their young, but require the high-carb diet of nectar to sustain the massive demands of flight. They are most fond of plants with ample nectar, deep scented flowers are considered to be butterfly flowers. I have found, in no particular order, EchinaceaSyringa, and Allium to be the best butterfly flowers in my garden, but there were many others. They visit such a wide array of flowers, and sometimes I will only see a particular species of plant visited only a single time in a year, that it is difficult to say which plants they will or will not work. Probably the best advice is to plant a lot of flowers everywhere.

Family Nymphalidae

Tribe Nymphalini

The brush-footed butterflies are so-called because of a strange characteristic: their front pair of legs is modified into two small brushes used for smelling and tasting (tasting or smelling with feet is common with bees and flies, too). Brush-footed butterflies use only four legs for walking.

Nymphalis antiopa (March)
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is one of the earliest butterflies of the year because it overwinters as an adult. It is native to North America, but not in the extreme North, south into Mexico and also in parts of Europe and Asia. Their larvae feed mostly on trees (particularly partcular species of Salix, Populus, Ulmus, Betula, and Celtis). The adults are peculiar by feeding primarily on tree sap (usually Quercus) and rotting fruit, only occasionally on flower nectar (making these photos a bit out of the ordinary, which is in itself out of the ordinary for butterfly photos to be out of the ordinary).

Nymphalis antiopa (March)
This large butterfly, the only one of its kind that I have seen, was a repeat offender, by which I mean that it foraged on this plum tree for hours. I would too if all I ate was tree sap.

Family Lycaenidae

The blues, coppers, hairstreaks, and harvesters make up some of the rarest butterflies in North America. Lycaenidae means little butterfly (probably Greek). Some have a mutualistic relationship with ants (also known as myrmecophily; see this site). Some species in this family are parasitic or predatory of other Lepidopterans.

Tribe Polyommatini

Brephidium exile (June)
The Western Pygmy-Blue, Brephidium exile, is the smallest butterfly in North America, and probably the world. It migrates into Oregon, but is often found further south and to the east. They use many plants from many families as host plants, and larvae are attended by ants.

It was photographed here on Coreopsis tinctoria, the central disk measuring less than a half-inch across, illustrating how small this butterfly is.

Tribe Eumaeini

Strymon melinus (July)
The Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus, is common all over the United States, southern Canada, and south to Central Mexico. It was named after the ancient Greek name for the Struma River in Bulgaria and Greece, to which it has absolutely no connection (yes, the name was randomly chosen; it's an old practice of randomly selecting names from ancient Latin and Greek literature). The epithet melinus is from the Greek melinos, meaning ashen, likely a reference to the color. It's hosts are usually in the Fabaceae (pea) and Malvaceae (marshmallow) families, though it is versitile and probably not restricted to those.

Family Papilionidae

Tribe Papilionini

Large swallowtail butterflies are a conspicuous sight, hard to miss even a dozen yards away. The most notable feature of this family is the larvae. Many of the caterpillars are snake mimics, large spots and other lines on the head appear much like snakes. To further the illusion, and as a defense for non-snake-mimics, a special organ called the osmeterium can be everted at will from a segment above the caterpillar's head. It is forked, not unlike the tongue of a snake, and excretes a variably foul-scented or acidic mixture of constituents produced by the caterpillar.

Papilio rutulus (June)
The large Western Tiger Swallowtail, approaching five inches across, is native West of the Rocky Mountains in North America. Note the curved antennae. It was a common sight on Syringa, Echinacea, Allium, Abelia, and Crocosmia as well as occasionally visiting other plants.

Papilio rutulus (July)
Papilio rutulus (July)

Family Hesperiidae

The skippers are some of the most encountered butterflies, but also likely to be ignored or overlooked due to their generally dull appearance and small size. However, I believe they are valuable pollinators because they appear to visit the most flower types. They are called skippers because of their speed in flight. They are generally stocky, compared to other butterflies, with larger compound eyes relative to their body size.

Erynnis propertius (May)
Erynnis (Duskywings) are native from British Columbia to Northern Baja. They use Oak trees as hosts, and the adults feed on nectar. This one was spotted on Alyssum montanum, the photo taken through my bedroom window explaining the poor resolution.

Hesperia juba (October)
Hesperia (Branded Skippers) are a widespread group of medium to small skippers native all over North America. They lay eggs on grasses and sedges, where the larvae feed primarily at night. The adults are active over a long period, from late Spring to Autumn, feeding on a wide variety of plants.

Ochlodes sylvanoides ♂ - Woodland Skipper (August)
The Woodland Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides) lives in much of Western North America from British Columbia and Saskatchewan in the North, east to North Dakota, and as far south as New Mexico. It is found in many open habitats from gardens to fields to forest margins. The larvae feed on a variety of grasses.

Family Pieridae

Tribe Pierini

Known as Whites, Sulphers, and Yellows, it is easy to imagine that most of the genera in this family are yellow, white, or a combination (a few black or red) with other sparse markings and patterns. Many have hidden ultraviolet patterns that are likely used in attracting mates who can see in that spectrum. In fact, the word butterfly was created in reference to yellow or orange color of many of them, probably from yellow European butterflies.

Pieris rapae ♀ (September)
The Cabbage White is a common species not native to  North America, but introduced into Canada in the 1800's. It was originally from Africa, Asia, and Europe, but has since been introduced to many countries. Most or all of the host plants used are in the Brassicaceae, echoed in the epithet rapae from the Latin rapa (turnip, Brassica rapa). This butterfly was spotted feeding on Nepeta, then imbibing the dew on the hairy leaves of both Stachys byzantina and Salvia sclarea.


  1. Nice photos and brief but interesting info.

  2. Travis, wonder if you could be more specific about the Berberis shown in the photograph with the Caenurgina erechtea. Do we suppose it is a Berberis aquifolium or Berberis aquifolium var. repens?

  3. this blog is amazing!! keep it up, can I ask what camera do you use for your pictures?


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