We can’t discuss the animal kingdom without spending some time on insects. Our world consists of about 160,000 moth species, varying greatly in size and color. If the insect world fascinates you, here, you’ll learn about the different types of moths. We also explore what moths are, moth identification, and the differences between moths and butterflies.
The insect is a member of the largest class of the phylum Arthropoda. Also, the phylum Arthropoda is the largest phylum in the animal kingdom. These insects have different orders: Diptera, Lepidoptera, Coleoptera, Hemiptera, and others. The subjects of this article, moths, belong to the Order Lepidoptera.
Moths are winged flying insects. They are a paraphyletic group of insects that consists of all members of the order Lepidoptera, excluding butterflies.
Lepidoptera, which translates to “scaly-winged,” is an order of insects whereby insects undergo a larval stage popularly known as a caterpillar, a pupal stage known as chrysalis, or cocoon, and the adult stage known as butterfly or moth. Many people often confuse moths with butterflies, but they differ from each other.
There are about 160,000 unique species of the nocturnal flying moth1, except for a few species active during the day, like the sphinx moth, day moth, and buck moth. On the other hand, moths’ close relative, the butterfly, has 17,500 species. There are nearly 11,000 species of moth in the United States and 2,500 in the United Kingdom.
Like all insects, moths have six legs, two antennae, a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. They have a life span of six months to three years. Furthermore, moths range in size from a few millimeters to the largest moth species with a wingspan of 10 inches (25cm).
In addition, moths are diverse in their ecology. Moths inhabit places like farmlands, gardens, woodlands, marshlands, sand dunes, and even mountains. They also tend to lay eggs within cracks, near plumbing fixtures, and other dark areas. Moths come in various types, from the familiar brown house moth to multicolored, unique ones.
Related: You might like our curation of butterfly quotes full of plenty of colors apart from your average moth.
You can approach moth identification in various ways to understand the diversity of these insects.
Moth classification is one of the ways to explore moth identification. As there are so many moth species, experts classify them into two groups: the larger or macro moths and the smaller or micro-moths. Aside from this classification, we can group the majority of moths into five families. The families have different morphological characteristics. These families are:
There are approximately 10,000 species of this family in the world. This family is a native species of North America, Europe, and Canada. They inhabit a cool tropical climate. Arctiidae family species feed on their host plants, such as the Plantago and the Foxglove. Many species in this group have bright colors of yellow and red.
This is the most prominent family of moths globally, with some 25,000 known species. Cutworms, fruit worms, underwing moths, and ear moths appear in this family. Most of the species in this family have dull-colored wings. Another name for the Noctuidae family is owlet moths. They are present in crop fields and gardens as crop pests.
This family consists of around 15,000 species. These moths feed on apple trees, rowan trees, birch, and willows. Caterpillars of these camouflage themselves on the branches of trees. They have yellow wings with a brown borderline on their forewings. Larvae moths are usually called inchworms because of how they walk. The brimstone moth and peppered moth are examples of moths in this family.
The largest moth is in this family. The Saturniidae family comprises some 1000 moth species. The luna moth of the Eastern United States and the emperor moth are examples of moths in this family. These moths have furry wings like butterflies. The wingspan of this moth is 2.4 inches (6cm). The caterpillar's red, orange, and yellow spots make it patterned and colorful. The giant silkworm moth also belongs to this family.
This family contains about 1000 species. They have very large and robust bodies. Also, they have streamlined wings. The hummingbird hawk-moth and army green moth are examples of moths in this family.
This list of families of moth species is non-exhaustive. Other families include Gelechiidae, Tortricidae or leafroller moths, Lymantriidae, and Tineidae.
We’ve established that there are wide varieties of moths in existence worldwide. There are quite a large number of these species, which outnumber that of their relative cousins, butterflies, and skippers.
In addition, moths range from small, camouflaged species to large specimens wider than a human palm.
Many also have eye-popping displays to ward off predators. Although many moths have dull wing colors, many others possess spectacular colors and striking patterns. For instance, many people consider the Madagascar Sunset Moth one of the most beautiful insects. Apart from appearance, some moth species are good pollinators. At the same time, others, like the corn earthworm or codling moth, are troublesome as they infest field crops.
To better understand different types of moths, we’ll discuss these in sections.
Even though we recognize common moths for their dark brown, dull wings, there are still many eye-catching and beautiful moths. You’ll find bright moths and also dark or black moths mixed with colorful tones. This method of moth identification zones in on colors. Some of these flying insects are:
Scientific name: Chrysiridia rhipheus
This beautifully colored moth can be mistaken for a butterfly because of its color. It has a wingspan of between 3.25 inches and 4 inches. This moth lives in Madagascar with a background color of black, and its wings are especially showy, with many tails.
This hind wing has a blue band, and there are also green band dots and stippling on the forewings. Also, the moth gets its name from the sunset-colored patches near the bottom of its hind wings—little wonder why it is often referred to as one of the most beautiful insects.
However, the colorful wings aren't simply for the pleasure of humankind as they warn predators that the moth is toxic.
Scientific name: Actias luna
Another brightly colored moth is the Luna Moth, a type of silk moth. It’s also known as the American moon moth. Its species name is Actias luna, common in the United States and Mexico. It’s a part of the Saturniidae family, the giant silk moth family. The family also consists of the Japanese silk moth and emperor moth, and as with other giant silkworm moths, they exist to lay eggs and don't eat anything as adults.
It’s one of the prettiest moths, with a wingspan of 3 to 4.25 inches. The wing is colored in luminous pale lime-green or blue-green. The wings each have an eyespot attached to them with a band of brown. The hind wing also has scalloped eyespots and beautiful long tails that aid its identification as a moth. Luna moth male and female species are identical, though the male has fuzzier antennae. The white body is fat and covered with pale fur.
Scientific name: Agarista agricola
Large Agarista, otherwise known as Joseph's Coat Moth, is another of the world's most beautiful and brightly colored moths. It has black wings with streaks and blotches and yellow, white, blue, and red bands. It has a hind wing fringed with white, and the thorax - the segment between the head and abdomen is yellow.
Its wingspan is between 2.5 inches and 2.75 inches, with a metallic glimmer in its blue wing. It also has a cape of cream or white color and feeds on species of wild grapevines.
Scientific name: Hypercompe scribonia
The giant leopard moth belongs to the family Erebidae. It has bright white wings covered with dark, round blotches in a manner that resembles a snow leopard.
It has a distinctive color pattern. When it spreads its wings, its colorful abdomen becomes visible with shiny blue and orange spots. The wingspan is about 7.6cm, and the average male grows to an average length of 5.1cm while the female counterparts grow up to 3cm. Their mating session is exceptionally long and can last for about 24 hours or even more.
Scientific name: Dysphania militaris
This moth is another moth that people often mistake for a butterfly, perhaps due to its bright coloration; that looks like some swallowtail butterflies. We can find it in Southeast Asia with a wingspan of about 3.5 inches.
The head, thorax, and abdomen are golden yellow with purple bands. Also, the forewings have half golden yellow, with the other outer half purple.
Scientific name: Attacus atlas
The atlas moth falls under the Saturniidae family. It’s one of the largest moths in the world, with a wingspan of around 10 inches (25cm). These brown moths have brightly colored orange-brown wings with triangular markings of white, and black stripes, yellowish patterned margins, and a round orange-brown body.
Its antennae of two long filaments make it look like a fish skeleton. They live in forests and shrublands in Southeast Asia. As beautiful as these adult moths are, they have a short life span. The atlas moth only lives a few weeks once it’s out of its cocoons.
Scientific name: Smerinthus jamaicensis
Twin-spotted sphinx moths belong to the family Sphingidae along with others like the rosy maple moth and white-lined sphinx moth. This sphinx moth has a large wingspan of 2 to 3 inches.
This sphinx moth has stunning blue eyespots on its hind wing. The colors on its wings are beige-brown, white and pinkish-red, and yellow markings. The larger wedge-shaped forewings are yellowish-brown with shades of dark brown and white markings. You’ll find this sphinx moth spread across North America.
Scientific name: Dryocampa rubicunda
This moth species possesses bright colors. It has pink legs, a yellow body, and striped pink and yellow wings. The rosy maple moth is native to North America, specifically temperate forests in eastern North America. These moths get their name from their tree of preference, the maple tree.
Scientific name: Automeris io
The IO moth, also known as the peacock moth, sports these incredible colors and patterns on their wings. We can find this moth in North America, where we can find the plant species that the caterpillars enjoy eating, such as willow and pear. This nocturnal moth can grow as large as 8cm.
Asides from the species of moth that can be categorized as brightly colored, some moths can be referred to as cute moths due to their striking and even beautiful appearance. A list of some attractive moths are:
Scientific name: Macroglossum stellatarum
Out of the members of the hawk moth family members, hummingbird hawk moths are probably the most attractive and cutest. They have grayish-brown forewings and orange hindwings. Their colorful hindwings become evident in their rapid flight.
Hummingbird moths get their name because of their feeding behavior, similar to hummingbirds, with their long proboscis or nose. Also, they hover over flowers and make humming sounds just like hummingbirds. They belong to the family Sphingidae, along with others like the oleander hawk moth.
Scientific name: Hyalophora cecropia
Cecropia moths are cute moths famous for their brilliant colors and large size. This cute moth has a reddish body and reddish-brown wings with bands of white and tan, and orange markings. The cecropia moth has a wingspan of 5 to 6 inches. It’s the largest moth in North America.
They are hard to spot as they are mainly nocturnal and live primarily in rocky mountains of the United States and Canada. You’ll find the moth larvae on cherry trees, maple trees, and birch trees.
Scientific name: Tyria jacobaeae
When it comes to ranking cute moths, there is no doubt that cinnabar moths make the list; both the adult and larvae moths are colorful. It has a bright orange body, red markings on its forewings, and scarlet on its hindwings.
The bright color of the larvae serves as a warning to predators. Cinnabar moths live in meadows, wastelands, and downlands.
Scientific name: Arctia caja
The attractive coloration and patterns on the hindwings of this moth make it cute and appealing. The garden tiger is a pretty colorful moth found in North America and Eurasia.
It has white with attractive black markings on its forewings and orange with many black spots on its hindwings. Their colorful hindwings are warnings to predators. Garden tiger moths display their colorful hindwings when threatened. They secrete poisonous fluid from their body when a threat persists.
Scientific name: Antheraea polyphemus
The polyphemus moth is easy to spot with its striking eyespots on both fore and hind wings. The hind wings’ eye spots are large, with yellow as the primary color and black-white strings.
The forewings spots are also yellow but smaller in size. It has a wingspan of 15cm. Their wings are not just widely spread but are also colorful with red, grey, and brown shades. It gets its name from the cyclops in Greek mythology called Polyphemus because of its sizeable solitary eyespot in the middle of its hind wings.
Scientific name: Pyrrharctia isabella
This is another species of moth that can be classified as one of the cute moths. It’s notable for its multi-colored larvae with black-brown-red segments. People also know this as the banded woolly bear.
The adult moth has a pale yellow, scaly body and orange-yellow wings with a marked forewing. Woolly bears are endemic to the Southern United States of America and Canada.
Although moths are excellent pollinators, with many of them being beautiful, a few species are pests to farmlands, agriculture, and forestry. Some moth larvae can destroy a whole crop of corn, fruit, or tomatoes.
Apart from crop pests, brown house moths and other species in the Tineidaa family are considered pests as the larvae eat clothes and feed on fabrics. A clothes moth particularly enjoys natural fibers such as wool and the dark of closets and attics. Some of the pests moth species are:
Scientific name: Manduca quinquemaculata
This moth is a part of the hawkmoth group, meaning that it’s relatively large with a long proboscis. The five spotted hawkmoths are the Sphingidae family's brown and grey hawk moth. It’s a threat to all Solanaceae plant family crops, including tomato, tobacco, potato, and pepper.
They are a major pest in gardens. They get their name from the raising of their posterior end and their use of tomatoes as host plants.
Scientific name: Cydia pomonella
The codling moth has a wingspan of about 1.2 to 1.8cm, and it's about 1cm long when at rest with the wings folded. It has a grey-brownish-pale color. This moth originated in Asia but has spread out to all continents except Antarctica.
It’s the primary insect pest of pome fruits like apples and pears. The larvae not only feed on the leaves of these fruits but also on the fruits themselves. They are highly dependent on fruits as a food source. Consequently, these insects cause damage and loss since every fruit they munch on becomes unsellable.
Scientific name: Plutella xylostella
Diamondback moths feast on any crop in the Brassicaceae plant family. They also feed on floral stalks and flower buds. Adult moths are small, slender, and greyish brown. The male moth has three diamond markings on its back. The damage diamondback moths cause is not so much from feeding but the contamination the pupae cause.
Scientific name: Mamestra brassicae
The cabbage moth is one alarming pest for farmers. Cabbage moth is simply a common name as the species feeds on many fruits, vegetables, and crops in the genus Brassica - cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts. It also eats tomato plants, potatoes, and other important crops. It’s a major pest for all brassicas.
Scientific name: Helicoverpa zea
This moth species belongs to the family of Noctuidae. The larvae of Helicoverpa zea, corn earworm, is a major agricultural pest. The moth measures 3.2 to 4.5cm in wingspan. The corn earworm moth has different common names like cotton bollworm and tomato fruitworm.
This moth is particularly destructive as it targets the most important parts of a plant for food. As insignificant as it might seem, the economic costs of this moth type are over $250 million per year in the United States.
Scientific name: Sitotroga cerealella
Angoumois grain moths attack several grains. This moth species is mainly associated with ear corn, and it's rare in shelled corn.
This insect is a primarily stored grain pest because its caterpillar stages develop entirely within a grain kernel. The infested grain, therefore, loses its economic worth. In addition to this, it causes an unpleasant smell, so animals may refuse to eat it and reduce its consumption.
Scientific name: Ephestia kuehniella
This moth species belongs to the family Pyralidae. As its name suggests, this moth species is a common pest of flour. Although it explicitly infests flour, people also know it as a prevalent pest that targets cereal grains.
You’ll find these insects in various parts of the world. The adult variants have a wingspan of about 2 to 2.5cm and a length of around 0.9 to 1.2cm. The forewings have a uniform grey color with some dark brown and white marks.
Even though both moths and butterflies belong to the same insect order, Lepidoptera, and share the same biology, these two have diverse differences.
Have you struggled to spot the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Often, people mix up moths and butterflies. However, they possess many differences that classify them as butterflies or moths. The differences can be physical or behavioral. Below is a list of differences between moths and butterflies.
The obvious difference between butterflies and moths is their antennae shape. Moths have thicker feathery, or thread-like and pointed antenna, while butterfly has thin antennae with small balls at the end. Although this usually is the case, there are exceptions to this—for example, the Zodiac moth has slender antennae rather than feathered but without the club.
Many moths use a series of loops called a retinaculum, and a fringe called a frenulum to connect their front and rear hind. This frenulum is a wing coupling device that ensures the wings travel together during flight. This frenulum is absent in butterflies.
Another notable difference between a moth and a butterfly is the resting posture of the two insects. A butterfly holds its wings vertically. While resting, moths either fold their wings tent-like over the body, wrap them around it, or hold them extended at their sides.
Most moths are nocturnal; that is, active during dusk and nighttime. Whereas the butterfly is diurnal mainly; that is, active during the day.
During metamorphism from the caterpillar stage to butterfly, caterpillars spin a pupa consisting of hardened protein known as a chrysalis. On the other hand, moth caterpillars form silk pupae known as cocoons. Exceptions to this generalized rule are the Parnassus butterfly which makes a cocoon, and the gypsy moth, which forms a pupa that resembles a butterfly.
When compared to butterflies, moths have a fuzzier appearance. Their bodies are thicker than that of a butterfly which has a smooth and lean body. This difference in appearance is due to the scale size; butterflies tend to possess far smaller scales. Moth wings have scales, while butterflies don’t have this on their hind and forewings.
Moths tend to be duller and less vibrant in color, with less intricate and striking patterns than butterflies. Some brown moths in light brown or darker shades include the brown house moth, emperor moth, Asian gypsy moth, and European gypsy moth. However, the European gypsy moth also has cream-colored wings.
Apart from these dull colors, we have species like the Madagascan Sunset Moth. It possesses beautiful colors and striking patterns. Unique moth types like the peppered moth possess patterns that help them easily camouflage against trees.
As moths are generally nocturnal and butterflies are diurnal, it's evident that the two species will adapt to different types of eyes to suit the time they carry out their activities. Moths possess superposition eyes which create images 1,000 times brighter than acquisition eyes but sacrifice image quality. On the other hand, butterflies have apposition eyes that gather multiple images and combine them in the brain.
Moths are larger than butterflies as they take up to 89-96% of the order Lepidoptera. On the other hand, Butterflies make up only 6-11% of the order Lepidoptera. Researchers recently found that the increasing amount of light in our cities and urban centers has resulted in declining moth populations2.
Moths have fully developed forelegs, while butterflies have reduced forelegs.
Although some species of moths can be an agricultural nuisance, it doesn't rule out the fact that moths contribute to the economy and ecosystem at large. Below are some of the importance of moths.
While it’s easy to mistake a moth for a butterfly, many moth species make it clear that they stand out. Moths are not just little insects that fly around, they have roles to play in balancing ecosystems. Even though some of them are pests in agriculture, they are also important to the growth of plants and leaves. Plus, we have many cute moths in the world. As a result, it’s important to avoid the use of chemicals that kill moths.
Apart from the range we’ve discussed here, the world houses many types of moths beyond the common brown house moth. You’ll find other moths like the peppered moth, a night-flying species with a white and dark gray or black shade. There’s also the Japanese silk moth that’s endemic to East Asia and the light brown apple moth native to Australia, amongst others.
Kristensen, N. P., Scoble, M. J., & Karsholt, O. L. E. (2007). Lepidoptera phylogeny and systematics: the state of inventorying moth and butterfly diversity. Zootaxa, 1668(1), 699-747.
van Langevelde F, Braamburg-Annegarn M, Huigens ME, Groendijk R, Poitevin O, van Deijk JR, Ellis WN, van Grunsven RHA, de Vos R, Vos RA, Franzén M, WallisDeVries MF. Declines in moth populations stress the need for conserving dark nights. Glob Chang Biol. 2018 Mar;24(3):925-932. doi: 10.1111/gcb.14008. Epub 2018 Jan 4. PMID: 29215778.
Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations. (2008). Table 74. Raw silk: production (including waste)
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.