500,000: that’s how many moth species scientists think there could be in the world. There are at least 160,000 moth species, more than ten times the number there are of butterflies (which moths are related to); the U.S. alone has 11,000 species of moths.
As those numbers suggest, moths are some of the most diverse organisms on the planet. They live in plants and trees and can be found around the world. Most are nocturnal but some can also be active during the day or at twilight.
Moths and their caterpillars or larvae (including corn borers and bollworms) are often regarded as major agricultural pests; gypsy moths are an invasive species that has been known to cause severe damage to forests in the U.S.’s northeast. But moths play a crucial role in ecosystems across the globe. They and their caterpillars provide food for insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards, bats and birds; moths also pollinate some flowers while feeding on their nectar.
As moths are so widespread around the world and live in so many different sorts of habitats, they can provide many clues about the health of our environment in regard to the effects of pesticides, air pollution and climate change.
Moths have been in decline in the U.K. and other places. More than 60 species became extinct in the U.K. in the 20th century. Counting moths is key to checking on the health of their populations and July 20 – 28 has been designated as National Moth Week in the U.S. and around the world. Here are ten moth species that give just a small picture of the amazing range of their colors, shapes and sizes.
1. Giant Atlas Moth
One of the world’s largest insects and usually seen in Malaysia and south-east Asia, a foot-long one was found in Lancashire in the U.K. last year. The females are larger and heavier than the males and live only for a week, just long enough to reproduce.
2. Cecropia Moth
The Cecropia moth is the largest moth native to North America. Its wingspan is about 6 inches; it is found (often on maple, cherry and birch trees) as far west as the Rocky Mountains and (going north) into most of Canada’s provinces.
3. Polyphemus Moth
This American moth gets its name from Greek mythology: Polyphemus was the name of the Cyclops, a one-eyed monster. The Polyphemus moth has two distinctive eye spots and can be found as far north as subarctic Canada.
4. Five-Spot Burnet
The five-spot burnet has a quite extensive range, from North Africa through the Mediterranean region and into the southern U.K., central Europe and Ukraine. Those in the Alpine regions are somewhat larger than those in more southern ones, which are darker but still have the telltale red spots.
5. Daphnis nerii Linneaus
The Daphnis nerii Linneaus is a hawk-mouth moth that lives in Africa and Asia and migrates to parts of eastern and southern Europe in the summer. Its caterpillars have two blue spots and feed on oleander, a plant that is highly toxic to most other creatures.
Also known as the royal walnut moth, the caterpillars of this North American species have their own moniker, hickory horned devils, with brightly-colored horns and black spines (which are a ruse to ward off predators). Rather than spinning a cocoon, the caterpillars burrow into the ground to pupate.
7. Hummingbird Moth
With a long proboscis (and a very long tongue) and its hovering behavior as it feeds on flowers, this moth indeed resembles its namesake birds. They are widespread in North America; in Europe, there are a number of species of hummingbird moths with similar habits.
8. Luna Moth
Photo via Trisha Shears/Flickr
Pale green luna moths are another very large species in North American. Like other members of the family Saturniidae, they do not have mouths and, after pupating, emerge only to mate.
9. African Peach Moth
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
The African Peach Moth is diurnal — active during the day — and indeed feeds on peaches as well as Sapindus species (including plants called soapberries). It lives in the Afrotropic ecozone, in Africa south of the Sahara Desert, the very most southern and eastern regions of the Arabian Peninsula, parts of southern Iran and the most southwestern part of Pakistan.
10. Deilephila porcellus
Called the small elephant hawk moth, this insect lives in Europe, north Africa and western Asia. Its caterpillars are green, in contrast to the pinks and browns of the moths in their adult form.
Photos from Thinkstock unless otherwise noted.