All about Pollinators Series: Moths and Butterflies

Over the past few weeks, we’ve learned why we need pollination and the importance of pollinators such as bees, wasps and butterflies. Although bees are the most efficient pollinators, moths are another group of pollinators, closely related to butterflies in the order Lepidoptera. As a general rule, butterflies are diurnal, meaning they fly during the day, and moths are nocturnal, meaning they fly at night. However, there are exceptions to every rule.

Hummingbird Moth sitting on top of a purple flower

Hummingbird moths are day-flying moths often misidentified as actual Hummingbirds, as they hover in mid-air and dip their tongues into long-necked flowers to sip nectar. Hummingbird moths are rather plump; the tip of their tail opens into a fan. Most common in the east is the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is more common in the west, but both are widespread throughout North America. Both have clear patches on their wings. The next time you see a “baby hummingbird” sipping nectar, note the color of its wings, whether or not it has antennae on its head (the birds will not) and whether or not it has a long beak (the moths will not).

Monarch Butterfly pollinating a purple flower
Monarch chrysillis hanging from a leaf

To further distinguish between moths, butterflies and skippers, get a good look at the antennae on their heads. Antennae (plural of antenna) are sensory appendages used to sense smell and balance. Butterflies have rounded knobs or clubs on the end of their antennae. Skippers, included with butterflies as they also fly during the day, have hooks at the antennae ends. Moth antennae are either fuzzy plumes or come to a straight point like a needle. Moths, butterfliers and skippers have a four-part life cycle called complete metamorphosis: egg, caterpillar, pupa – cocoon or chrysalis — and adult. The adults lay their eggs upon host plants. The caterpillars eat the host plant. Moth caterpillars spin silk to cover themselves to form a cocoon while butterfly and skipper caterpillars shed their skin to form a hard, smooth chrysalis.

Field of Purple Coneflowers at the Holden Arboretum

A successful butterfly garden will have a variety of host plants for the caterpillars as well as nectar sources (flowers) for the adults throughout the growing season. Butterflies prefer large, flat flowers they can use as landing pads. Keep in mind that whatever flowers you plant to attract butterflies will also attract bees.

Mary Ann Wagner earned a certificate of Landscape Horticulture from the Arboretum in 1995 and began volunteering shortly thereafter. She is an officer of the Blackbrook Audubon Society and volunteers at Lake Metroparks and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. From the first week of April through October, Mary Ann monitors a butterfly transect at the Mentor Marsh. She has been tagging Monarch butterflies for MonarchWatch since 2000. Mary Ann has been the Administrative Coordinator at the Harding & Jacob Insurance Agency since 2017.