Johnson County

Butterfly Frequently Asked Questions

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There seems to be a few questions that always come up when discussing butterflies. If you do not find the information you are searching for contact the Extension Master Gardeners.

Q: What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?
A: Following is a brief comparison. 

Butterflies

  • Antennae clubbed
  • Wings not hooked together
  • Wings held vertically over back when at rest
  • Mainly diurnal, some crepuscular
  • Mainly brightly colored
  • Body slender, smooth
  • Pupa termed chrysalis, suspended or with a basal attachment and girdle (all of silk); no cocoon                  

Skippers

  • Antennae clubbed with hooked ends, often with an apiculus
  • Wings not hooked together
  • Wings held vertical, horizontally, or split when at rest
  • Mainly diurnal
  • Most dull-colored
  • Body thick, head large
  • Pupa with basal attachment and girdle (silk) and often housed within a loosely constructed silken cocoon

Moths

  • Antennae straight or feathery
  • Wings hooked together
  • Wings held horizontally or chevron-like with hindwings covered when at rest
  • Mainly nocturnal
  • Most dull-colored
  • Body thick and "furry"
  • Pupa often within a silken cocoon, or if naked, within soil.

* Table Copyright ©1995 by Gary Noel Ross, from his publication, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Butterflies--100+ Questions & Answers,"
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Q: What are butterflies and moths?
A: Butterflies and moths are insects, which mean they have a head, thorax, abdomen, three pairs of legs, a pair of antennae, and a tough outer covering called an exoskeleton. They belong to the order Lepidoptera which literally means "scale wing" referring to the tiny overlapping scales (like the shingles on a roof) on their wings and bodies. The scales are usually colored and arranged in very specific patterns.

Q: Do butterflies or moths grow?
A: Butterflies and moths do not grow once they have reached their adult stage. Actually, growth only takes place during the larval or caterpillar stage, and, since they are insects with an exoskeleton, they must shed their skin (molt) several times in order to grow. The period of growth between each molt is called an instar. The number of instars varies with species.
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Q: If caterpillars are insects, why do they have more than three pairs of legs?
A: Caterpillars do appear to have many legs, but they have only three pairs of "true" legs.

The other "legs" are prolegs which aid in movement. The true legs are jointed and located on the thorax of the caterpillar — the prolegs are fleshy, suction cup-like and are located on the abdomen and near the rear end of the caterpillar.

Q: Why do some butterflies only have four legs?
A: Some butterflies do appear to have only four legs. These butterflies have a pair of reduced legs that are used for chemical perception (to taste) which are usually hairy looking and held close the body when not in use. This group of butterflies is called the Brush-footed butterflies.

Q: What do butterflies and moths eat?
A: Butterflies and most moths (some moths don't eat as adults - see Cecropia, Polyphemus, and Luna) feed through a tube-like tongue called a proboscis so their food must be liquid. Many feed on nectar from various flowers while others feed on a variety of moist rotting matter including, fruit, sap, animals, and animal droppings. Some butterflies will also visit mud puddle to sip nutrients from soil.
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Q: What do caterpillars eat?
A: Most caterpillars are host specific and have only a certain family of plants on which to feed, for example, the Monarch needs to feed on milkweed, but the Black Swallowtail needs to feed on plants in the carrot family such as dill, fennel and parsley. The caterpillar is dependent on the female adult to place the egg on the correct food source for that species. Some species will feed on a wide variety of plants or trees.

Q: If I try to attract butterflies to my garden, won't they eat all my other plants?
A: In general, butterflies and moths are very host specific, that is, they will usually only lay eggs on certain plants that are just right for their caterpillars. For example, the Monarch will only lay eggs on members of the Milkweed family. Examples are given when possible for each species featured in this Web site.

Q: Last fall I saw Monarch caterpillars in my yard.  Where do they go in the winter time?
A: The adult Monarchs migrate to warmer climates. Monarch larvae and pupae that do not have time to complete the metamorphosis into adults will be killed by our freezing temperatures

Q: If I don't spray chemicals to control other bugs how CAN I control them?
A: Actually, chemicals can be used, if used carefully and sparingly. Once you learn which plants butterflies use as larval hosts, you can protect or avoid spraying these. There are other alternatives as well, try contacting the Extension Master Gardener Hotline for help with specific plants or pests. They can also send additional information about Integrated Pest Management.

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Phone: (913) 715-7050