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Moths

Lettered Habrosyne - Habrosyne scripta 7771  Pink-spotted Hawk Moth - Agrius cingulata Whitefly? - Ceratomia catalpae drab condylolomia - Condylolomia participalis Erebidae (on fungi), prolegs - Metalectra discalis On wild cherry tree - Schizura ipomoeae Hodges #7094 Drab Brown Wave ? Caripeta aretaria
Show images of: caterpillars · adults · both
Classification
Kingdom Animalia (Animals)
Phylum Arthropoda (Arthropods)
Subphylum Hexapoda (Hexapods)
Class Insecta (Insects)
Order Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths)
No Taxon Moths
Other Common Names
larvae commonly called caterpillars (as are larvae of butterflies)
pupal case, when covered in silk, commonly called a cocoon (vs. the typical naked chrysalis in butterflies)
Spanish: polilla (referring mostly to clothes moth), mariposa de la noche, mariposa nocturnas (night butterfly), paloma (literally, dove)
French: mite (referring mostly to clothes moth), papillon de nuit (night butterfly, as in Spanish)
Synonyms and other taxonomic changes
BugGuide currently follows the classification found at ZooKeys. An updated list can be found in the "Latin Name Index" at MPG here. (Click on "Download current MPG checklist file" near the middle of the page.)
See discussion on forum here which is an update to the discussion here for more information.
Markku Savela's Lepidoptera site is invaluable for synonyms, links to original literature, distributions south of the border, and numbers of spp. Search by genus or genus species.
Explanation of Names
The related word "motte" in German shows that "moth" was inherited from the ancestral language that gave rise to both German and English. The Old English form was "moþþe" ("moththe" after converting the Old English letter thorn). The original meaning is unclear; mothhthe is perhaps related to maggot (older Germanic forms mado, made) and/or midge (Patridge, 1958; Wiktionary--moth; Wikipedia--Moth-etymology). It seems likely that the original meaning referred to moth caterpillars, and it may have referred, in particular, to human commensals such as Tineola bisselliella, the Webbing Clothes Moth.
Numbers
about 13,000 described species in about 70 families in North America (plus many more undescribed species of mostly micromoths)
about 165,000 described species in the world
Size
wingspan of North American species ranges from about 2-3 mm in the tiniest micromoths, to more than 150 mm in the largest silk, sphinx, and owlet moths; some tropical species have wingspans of more than 250 mm (see Largest Lepidopteran Wing Span)
Identification
Adults (imagos) usually have feathery, thickened, or threadlike antennae (not knobbed or hooked, as in butterflies and skippers), and most species are active at night. At rest, many species hold their wings out horizontally, or hugged over/around the abdomen. Rarely, the wings are held together vertically above the body, as butterflies do.
Larvae (caterpillars) have a hardened head capsule and a fleshy body composed of a thorax bearing three pairs of legs, and an elongated cylindrical abdomen bearing from zero to five pairs of prolegs (short fleshy ventral projections used for clinging or walking). The body may be either uniformly colored or patterned with stripes, bands, or spots; the surface may be smooth, or may be sparsely or densely covered with short or long hairs, tufts of hair, spines, knobs, or other features.

For a start on identification of moth families, see:
    
    
Range
cosmopolitan
Please report significant date, location and/or species records to your local LepSoc Zone Coordinator
Habitat
larvae may be found anywhere on their host plant, from underground on or inside the roots, to the highest leaves of tall trees; a few species are aquatic, developing on or in standing or running water
adults are generally found near the larval host plant; many species are attracted to artificial light. Essentially a group of nocturnal insects but there are some diurnal species; see Internet Reference (TT).
Season
active spring through fall outdoors; in some species, overwintering adults may occasionally become active on warm sunny days in winter
species considered household pests may be active all year indoors
Food
depending on species, larvae may feed on all parts of herbaceous plants, roots/twigs/stems/leaves of trees and shrubs, fungi, lichens, dead or decaying plant material, stored food products, fabrics made of cotton or wool, or generally any organic material; many species are very host-specific, and can be identified by the plant they are feeding on; larvae of a few species are known to eat other caterpillars, and a few other species eat soft-bodied insects such as aphids
most adults feed mainly on nectar from flowers of a great variety of woody and herbaceous plants; secondary foods include sugary secretions (honeydew) from insects, juices of decaying fruit, tree sap, and manure liquids; adult moths in several families have either no mouthparts or non-functional mouthparts, and therefore do not feed as adults.
Life Cycle
These insects undergo complete metamorphosis, that is, the young go through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Many species have one generation per year; others may have from two to several generations; a few species take more than one year to develop. Depending on species, moths may overwinter as an egg, larva, pupa, or adult. Adult lifespan ranges from as short as a few days (in ghost moths) up to several months in species that overwinter as an adult.
Remarks
Modern cladistic analysis using DNA evidence shows that butterflies probably evolved from within the moths, most likely in or near the Superfamily Geometroidea.
Although dividing Lepidoptera into butterflies and moths may not be scientifically accurate, it's easier for non-scientists to understand, and it's still useful in many ways, so we've kept it.
See Also
Trichoptera (caddisflies) have hairs but few or no scales on wings; no coiled proboscis.
Butterflies and skippers--have knobbed or hooked antennae
larvae of sawflies (Hymenoptera)--often mistaken for caterpillars but have more than five pairs of prolegs, whereas caterpillars always have five or fewer pairs.
larvae of some lady beetles--have waxy white tufts may be mistaken for hairy caterpillars, but have no prolegs and always consume living insects.
various other insects are sometimes mistaken for small moths--see moth flies, whiteflies, pleasing lacewings, and derbid planthoppers in the genus Otiocerus
Print References
Covell, Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Moths (1), Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America (reprint) (2)
Himmelman, Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard (3)
McFarland, N. 1964. Notes on collecting, rearing, and preserving larvae of macrolepidoptera. Jl. Lep. Soc. 18(4): 201-210; additional notes, 1965, vol. 19(4): 233-236
Miller, J. C. & P. C. Hammond 2003. Lepidoptera of the Pacific Northwest: caterpillars and adults. FHTET-03-11: 1-323 (PDF)(4)
Patridge, 1958. Origins: A short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: MacMillan, 972 pp.
Internet References
Moth Identification. North Dakota State U.
Moth Photographers Group - several thousand pinned and live adult photos of all types of moths by many individuals and a few organizations (Bob Patterson [Webmaster], hosted by Mississippi State U.)
The Moths of Canada - classification, distribution, and identified pinned adult photos of more than 2,000 species of macromoths occurring in Canada (J.T. Troubridge and J.D. Lafontaine, Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility)
Mostly Moths of Maryland - adult photos of about 1,000 species of all types of moths (Larry Line, Maryland)
Moths of Ottawa area - live adult photos of about 500 species of mostly macromoths (Lynn Scott, Ontario)
Macromoths of Northwest Forests and Woodlands - links to pinned adult images of about 250 species of western macromoths, plus flight season, foodplants, similar species, and other info (Jeff Miller, United States Geological Survey)
Caterpillars of Eastern Forests - links to live larva images of about 200 species of mostly macromoths, plus foodplants, seasonality, and other info (David +Wagner and Valerie Giles, United States Geological Survey)
North Dakota State University - Glossary with images showing wing venations
Works Cited
1.Peterson Field Guides: Eastern Moths
Charles V. Covell. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Company.
2.Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America
Charles V. Covell, Jr. 2005.
3.Discovering Moths: Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard
John Himmelman. 2002. Down East Books.
4.Lepidoptera of the Pacific Northwest: Caterpillars and Adults
Miller & Hammond. 2003. USDA.