Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: How to tell difference between moths and butterflies?
This Week's Rare Bird Alert
Our reader enclosed four photos, none of which, or in combination, revealed enough of the “butterfly” for me to identify it. To the contrary, my best guess is that it was not a butterfly but a cecropia moth. The cecropia does appear to be a bit larger than the monarch butterfly and is also quite common in our area. Probably the monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the best known butterfly. Even so, one has to be careful in its identification, as the viceroy closely resembles the Monarch. Predators can tell them apart as the viceroy tastes bitter to them.
The insect order “Lepidoptera” is a word that means scaly-winged and includes both moths and butterflies. How can one tell the difference between the two that have so many contrasts as well as similarities? Moths are as brightly colored as any butterfly, while some butterflies are as dull-colored as any moth can be. Many moths travel only at night while others, like butterflies, enjoy the sunshine. Many moths fold their wings when resting as butterflies do. Most of them can be told apart by looking at their antennae, sometimes called feelers. The antennae of butterflies usually are slender with a knob on top, so also are some moths. Most moths lack the knob and appear to be feathered out. Some moths exhibit a thread-like appearance as do butterflies. One should consult an expert in the insect order Lepidoptera to be absolutely sure.
While on the subject of monarchs it will not be long for them to begin their fall migration as the raptors are doing now.
According to C.C. Williams, a well-known British entomologist, there are more than 250 insects that migrate. And the most famous of them all is the monarch butterfly. Its autumnal, drifting movements southward are watched for with great enthusiasm by butterfly buffs. These “ultra-lights” of the insect world spend weeks traveling 2,000 miles or more to reach their chosen winter quarters.
“The Audubon Nature Encyclopedia” offers an excellent treatise on the monarch butterfly. Its text describes its travels along the East Coast of the U.S. as follows: “Monarchs drift down the Long Island shore — sometimes a thousand individuals an hour fluttering past the dunes. They cluster on Spanish oaks at Cape May, New Jersey, when the autumn birds are going through. They also move south along the ridges of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania at a time of the migration of the broadwings and sharpshins. But the full magnitude of this annual insect migration cannot be fully appreciated until a person crosses North America from Cape Cod to California in the fall of the year. Those weeks of travel reveal a nationwide cross section of the southward-bound hordes of butterflies.
“On four-inch wings these migrants journey from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, and often farther, all the while traversing country they have never seen before. Because one monarch looks like another monarch, people see them in the mass. The manner in which millions of butterflies stream southward is known. But what happens to the individual — its adventures along the way, its destination, its winter life, its northward movement when spring returns?
“Spectacular as the massed southern movement of the butterflies may be, it is the thin, scattered return journey that presents the most puzzles. Only a few of the millions of monarchs that streamed south in the fall come north in the spring. They come singly instead of in concentrations, and they are weatherworn and tarnished, less likely to catch the eye. Some scientists believe that the monarchs that reach the upper limits of their range may be the second or third generation on the northward journey. This, like so many other mysteries concerning the life of this familiar, black-and-orange insect, will remain obscure until it is illuminated by evidence that only the wholesale marking of monarchs can produce.”
There are two moth look-a-likes, the “bumblebee” and the “hummingbird,” moths and they're members of the sphinx moth family. Bumblebee moths differ from hummingbird moths in that they have an unscaled cell on the front edge of the forewing near the body. Both species feed on flowers during the day. And they look a great deal like a either a bumblebee or a “different” kind of hummingbird. There are about 100 species of sphinx or hawk moths in North America.
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey 03446.
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