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Wild About Illinois Moths!

Approximately 2,000 species of butterflies and moths, members of the insect Order Lepidoptera, are found in Illinois. Of this number, 150 species are butterflies and 1,850 species are moths. The lepidopterans (from the Latin lepido for scale and ptera for wing) represent one of the largest groups of insects. It is a very important group economically because of its association with plants. In their caterpillar stage butterflies and moths eat plant parts and in their adult stage pollinate flowers. These insects are food resources for many birds, mammals, and other arthropods. Numerous species serve as indirect indicators of habitat quality. For example, if the plant species upon which they depend are becoming scarce, these insects may also become fewer in number.

Moth Taxonomy and Family Species Gallery

There are more than 40 superfamilies of moths. Because it is such a large group of animals, it is difficult to find common traits for the entire group. For example, their antennae vary in shape from hairlike to feathery. So there will be exceptions to the following characteristics. At rest, they generally flex and fold their wings on top of the abdomen. The body is stout with relatively small wings. They are mainly nocturnal. Their wings are held together in flight by a bristle or cluster of bristles.

Superfamily Bombycoidea – This group contains the silkmoths, emperor moths and their relatives. The larvae have “horns.”
Family Saturniidae – This family contains the largest moths in North America. They have a large wingspan, small head and hairy body. Larvae usually have clumps of bristles. Caterpillars feed on the leaves of trees and shrubs.
Subfamily: Ceratocampinae
     royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis)
     imperial moth (Eacles imperialis)

Subfamily: Hemileucinae
     io moth (Automeris io)

Family: Sphingidae - The sphinx or hawk moths have a large body with relatively small, pointed wings. The antennae are stout. Most sphinx moths are active at night or dusk. They feed on flower nectar.
     small-eyed sphinx moth (Paonias myops)
     snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis)
     hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe)
     white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata)

Superfamily: Yponomeutoidea  There are about 1,500 species of ermine moths and their relatives in the world. They are called “ermine” moths because the forewing coloration resembles the color of ermine fur.
Family: Attevidae – These moths are mainly native to tropical areas around the world, but at least one species also lives in temperate regions.
     ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

Superfamily: Noctuoidea – This group, the owlet moths, has more than 70,000 species.
Family: Noctuidae – This family is the largest one in the Order Lepidoptera. It contains more than 20,000 species worldwide with about 2,900 of them in North America. Because it is such a large group, it contains considerable variation. Most of the members are gray or brown with some markings on the wings. Most of them hold their wings together (like a roof) over the body when at rest. Most of them are nocturnal.
     leadplant flower moth (Schinia lucens)
     eight-spotted forester moth (Alypia octomaculata)

Family: Erebidae – Members of this very large family of moths can be found worldwide. They are defined by the vein structure in the wings.
     yellow-collared scape moth (Cisseps fulvicollis)
     giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia)
     LeConte's haploa (Haploa lecontei)


​Lepidopterans, like other insects, have three main body parts (head, thorax, abdomen), three pairs of legs, and a pair of antennae. Most have two pairs of wings, which are covered with tiny scales. The scales and their arrangement provide the diversity of color patterns seen in different species. A few species are wingless. In Illinois, females of the bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) and females of the white-marked gypsy moth (Orgyia leucostigma) are wingless.

The mouthparts of adults are modified into a tube-like proboscis for taking in liquids, like nectar or sap. The proboscis is coiled at the front of the head when not in use. Some species, such as the common Illinois moths cecropia and luna, do not feed as adults.

The cylindrical larva, or caterpillar, is soft-bodied. It has a hardened head with chewing mouthparts (mandibles), well-developed maxillary palpi for food handling, and spinnerets for releasing silk. The thorax has one pair of legs on each of its three segments. One pair of spiracles (for breathing) is present on the thorax, and spiracles are found on each of the ten abdominal segments. Prolegs are also present on abdominal segments three through ten. Prolegs often have small hooks, called crochets, which the caterpillar uses to cling to vegetation. Spines, bumps, or hairlike structures may be present on the body. Coloration ranges from protective camouflage to bright warning. The larvae of some species, such as swallowtails, can produce a disagreeable odor. Butterflies have threadlike, knob-tipped antennae. Moths have antennae in many shapes (but never with knobs).

butterfly antennae (left)

moth antennae (right)

Life History

Butterflies and moths undergo a complete metamorphosis, which has four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly or moth). Depending on the species, eggs may be laid singly or in clusters on or near the host plant. Eggs hatch into the larval, or caterpillar, stage. Larvae of some species feed on many different kinds of plants; others tend to feed on only one particular species. The larva may molt several times before it pupates. Although the pupa appears to be inactive, its internal tissues are restructuring to form the adult. Many species of moths and a few species of butterflies pupate within cocoons spun from their silk glands. Others may pupate in a sheltered area, like leaf litter, or in the soil. Most butterflies pupate on or near their host plant. Upon completion of this stage, the pupal skin splits apart, and the soft, newly formed adult pulls itself out through the narrow opening. Most adults live only about two weeks, during which they mate and lay eggs. However, some species overwinter in the egg, larval, or pupal stage, and adult monarchs migrate to Mexico in the fall. When butterflies and moths are ready to mate, the males and females of each species find each other by means of odors secreted by the pheromone glands or by looking for others with a specific pattern of markings on the body.

Butterfly & Moth Gardens

​Observing butterflies and moths can be a very rewarding activity. While you can seek them out in the wild, you can also bring them to your home or schoolyard with a butterfly and moth garden. All you need to be a butterfly gardener is a sunny space, good soil, a little hard work, and an assortment of nectar-producing flowering plants. A complete butterfly and moth garden contains food plants for the adults and their larvae. While the adults will feed on an assortment of flowers, the young are more choosy about where they dine. When planning your garden, try to find out which butterflies and moths are native to your area and learn about their food preferences, including those of their caterpillars.

Plant the garden in a sunny area. Butterflies need sunlight to warm their flight muscles, and when not feeding, they relax in the sun. A few flat stones or boards placed in and around your garden will provide resting sites. Mud puddles, too, are important moisture sources. You can create a mud puddle by sinking a container without drainage holes in the ground, filling it with a sand and soil mixture, and adding water. Or, when making the garden, leave the natural depressions unfilled, allowing the rain to create the puddles. Attracting moths for observation is more difficult. Aside from favorite host plants, outdoor lighting or bait (like fermenting fruit juices) also draws many species of moths. Another way to attract moths is by planting night-flowering plants, such as hard-shelled gourds.


​cecropia moth

Surveys indicate that the populations of some species of lepidopterans have declined in Illinois, especially those associated with prairies and wetlands. It is generally accepted that the primary cause for the reduction is loss of habitat from urbanization, industrialization, and the widespread use of pesticides. To conserve our remaining butterflies and moths, we need to continue to manage our public and private natural areas in ways that protect and maintain lepidopteran populations. Research to determine what species remain and to better define their habitat requirements should continue to be conducted and, based on our best information, recommendations made for management policies to be adopted by land managers.

There are many ways we can expand our knowledge of lepidopterans and support the conservation of these insects. Amateur lepidopterists make significant contributions to this science by studying and properly documenting life cycles and host plants of many species. While collections of natural history specimens, such as butterflies, are a necessity for scientists and the focus of many passionate hobbyists, there are other ways to enjoy these wonderful creatures.

  • Learn to identify the common lepidoptera in the field without catching or handling them. Many field guides are available to help you with identification.
  • Keep a journal of your butterfly and moth observations including items such as the weather, the habitat type, the insect's behavior, time, and date.
  • Photograph butterflies and moths.
  • Those who are interested in joining other butterfly enthusiasts can participate in butterfly monitoring programs. For more information, contact the North American Butterfly Association, 4 Delaware Road, Morristown, New Jersey 07960


​arthropod - invertebrate, such as an insect, crustacean, arachnid, or myriapod, with a segmented external covering and jointed limbs

caterpillar - the larval form of a butterfly or moth

chrysalis - pupa without a cocoon cocoon a covering of silk or other material spun by the larva as a protection for the pupal stage

entomology - the study of insects

Lepidoptera - the order of insects that contains the butterflies and moths; from lepido for scale and ptera for wing

maxillary palpi - mouthparts that aid in food handling

molt - to shed the skin

pheromone gland - structure that produces chemicals which, when released, influence the behavior of other members of the same species

proboscis - long, coiled, hollow feeding tube

proleg - fleshy leg without joints on the abdominal segments of a caterpillar

pupate - process of leaving the larval stage and entering the pupa stage

spinneret - opening of the silk gland from which silk is spun

spiracle - opening through which insects breathe

Lepidopteran Facts

​Butterflies are usually active by day and have threadlike, knob-tipped antennae, a small body, and broad wings. Moths generally are active at night, have antennae in many shapes (but never with knobs), a stout body, and narrow wings.

The monarch butterfly is the official State Insect of Illinois.

The largest moth in Illinois, the cecropia, is also the largest moth in North America. It has a wingspread of five to six inches.

Female moths release chemicals into the air to attract males. In some species, the male can find the female from one to three miles away.

Several species of Lycaenidae butterflies have caterpillars that are "tended" by ants. The ants protect the larvae from predators in exchange for food in the form of sweet excretions they take from the larvae.

Clearwing moths of the family Sesiidae fly about in the daytime, unlike most other moths. They are mimics of wasps, which serves to protect them from predators.

The spicebush swallowtail starts life as a caterpillar that mimics a bird dropping. As it grows bigger, the caterpillar then mimics a rough green snake. As a chrysalis, it mimics a dead leaf. As an adult, it mimics another swallowtail, the pipevine, that is distasteful to predators.

The dog face sulphur butterfly (Colias cesonia) has an image that resembles a French poodle on each wing.

Moths first appeared during the age of the dinosaurs, about 200 million years ago. Butterflies developed about 40 million years ago.

In the fall, monarch butterflies migrate approximately 80 miles per day to overwinter in the mountains of central Mexico. When they begin their flight back in the spring, they lay eggs along the way.

Some pyralid moths are aquatic: their eggs are deposited under water, and their larvae develop external gills. One species, Petrophila bifascialis, lives in a silken web in fast flowing streams where it feeds on diatoms and algae that it scrapes from rocks.

The red-humped caterpillar (Schizura concinna) defends itself by spraying an acid up to eight inches from an opening underneath the prothorax.

Some moths (including some inchworms and snout moths) have "ears" on the first abdominal segment that they use to detect the high-pitched calls of bats and thus aid their escape from these predators. Other moths have hearing organs on the thorax (including some owlet moths, tiger moths, lichen moths, and wasp moths).

Bibliography and Agency Resources


Bailey, D. 1991. Butterflies. Steck-Vaughn, Austin, Texas. 32 pp.

Brust, B. W. 1993. Butterflies. Wildlife Education, San Diego, California. 23 pp.

Covell, C. V., Jr. 1984. A field guide to the moths of eastern North America. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 496 pp.

Ehrlich, P. R. and A. H. Ehrlich. 1961. How to know the butterflies. William C. Brown Co., Dubuque, Iowa. 262 pp.

Fichter, G.S. 1993. Butterflies and moths. Golden Book, New York. 36 pp.

Irwin, R. R. and J. C. Downey. 1973. Annotated checklist of the butterflies of Illinois. Illinois Natural History Survey biological notes 81. Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Springfield. 60 pp.

Kendall, C. 1995. Butterflies. Dial Books for Young Readers, New York. Unpaged.

Lavies, B. 1992. Monarch butterflies: mysterious travelers. Dutton Children's Books, New York. Unpaged.

Mitchell, R. T. 1991. Butterflies and moths: a guide to the more common American species. Golden Press, Racine, Wisconsin. 160 pp.

Opler, P. A. 1992. A field guide to eastern butterflies. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 396 pp.

Sandved, K. B. 1996. The butterfly alphabet. Scholastic, New York. Unpaged.

Still, J. 1991. Amazing butterflies and moths. A. A. Knopf, New York. 29 pp.

Stone, L. M. 1993. Moths. Rourke Corporation, Vero Beach, Florida. 24 pp.

Taylor, B. 1996. Butterflies and moths. Houghton Mifflin, New York, Boston. 160 pp.

Agency Resources

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) offers information on butterflies and moths. Scientists at the Illinois Natural History Survey's Center for Agroecology and Economic Entomology study butterfly and moth distributions, populations, life histories, and economic impacts and maintain a research collection. They also provide educational materials and programs about insects to students and teachers. Entomologists from the Illinois State Museum conduct studies of butterflies and moths and curate its research collection. Biologists at the Division of Forest Resources study lepidopterans in relation to disease identification and control in forests. The Educational Services Section offers educational materials about insects for teachers and sponsors the Schoolyard Habitat Action Grants. These grants are very popular with educators who are interested in establishing butterfly and moth gardens.

Illustrations by Carie Nixon (Illinois Natural History Survey)

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