8 Mesmerizing Facts About Moths

Some are colorful, some don't have mouths, and some can mimic bird poop.

male emperor moth
A male emperor moth peeks over a leaf.

Sandra Standbridge/Getty Images

We usually think of moths as drab brown or gray winged creatures that batter themselves against the front porch light. But moths also come in an incredible array of colors, with patterns and designs on their wings that rival the most beautiful butterflies.

And even those drab-looking moths offer far more intrigue than many people realize. Here are a few more incredible facts about these undervalued cousins of butterflies.

1. Moths Come in Many Sizes

Atlas moth
The atlas moth is native to China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images

The smallest moth species come from a group known as microlepidoptera, which includes a variety of tiny moths and butterflies. The smallest moth on Earth may be Stigmella maya, a native of the Yucatan in Mexico whose forewing measures just 0.04 inch (1.2 millimeters). Other tiny moths include Britain's Enteucha acetosae, which has 0.1-inch (3 mm) wingspan.

On the other end of the scale, some giant moths are wider than a human hand. The largest moth native to North America is the cecropia moth, whose wings can span 7 inches (18 cm). The atlas moth of Asia is one of the biggest insects on the planet, with a wingspan of 10.6 inches (27 cm). Some other moths may grow even larger, like the white witch of South America or the Hercules moth of New Guinea and Australia, both of which have been reported as 11 inches (28 cm) across.

2. Some Moths Don't Have Mouths

Many moth species don't eat, at least not in their adult stage. They feast when they are caterpillars, but once they transform to adults, they live for a matter of days — just long enough to mate, lay eggs, and die — and don't eat at all during that time. In fact, some moths emerge from the cocoon without a mouth at all. Why bother having a mouth if you aren't going to use it?

3. Moths Can Mimic Anything from Predators to Poop

wood nymph moth, Eudryas grata
The wood nymph moth is camouflaged to mimic bird droppings. Judy Gallagher/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Moths are incredibly good at mimicking other objects as a form of camouflage. Some species even mimic the appearance of bird poop. They look like an unappetizing splatter left on a leaf, rather than any sort of tasty morsel a predator might want to eat. Other moth species have evolved to mimic the appearance of wasps, preying mantises, and even tarantulas.

4. Moths Can 'Smell' Without a Nose

Moths have an incredible sense of smell. But they don't have noses. So how do they do it? Their antennae. The male giant silk moth can "smell" females as far as 7 miles (11 kilometers) away, using his antennae to sense molecules of a female moth's sex hormone, then zero in from impressive distances. Females aren't too shabby themselves. Researchers discovered female moths can use the scent of a male's pheromones to determine his reproductive fitness — right down to his ancestry.

5. Moths Love Beer

You can often enjoy the diversity of your local moths just by standing near an outdoor light after dark, but there are also other ways to improve your "mothing" experience. Set up a light source where you can sit comfortably and watch moths, and trying hanging up a white sheet next to the light, which can provide an easier background for spotting moths.

You can also help lure moths with beer. According to The Nature Conservancy, you can mix together a paste of beer, brown sugar, and ripe banana, then paint it onto the bark of a tree at eye level to attract a multitude of moths at night.

6. Moths Outnumber Butterflies

There are nine times more moth species on Earth than butterfly species. There are an estimated 160,000 species of moths in the world, compared with about 17,500 species of butterflies. In the United States alone, there are nearly 11,000 known species of moths.

7. Some Moths Come Out During the Day

hummingbird clearwing moth
At first glance, the hummingbird clearwing may look more like a hummingbird than a moth. Judy Gallagher/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Although we tend to think of moths as nocturnal, with butterflies accounting for the day shift, but it isn't that simple. Many moth species are active during daylight hours, including some tiger moths, lichen moths, and wasp moths. Some daytime moths are commonly mistaken for butterflies, bees, or even hummingbirds. The hummingbird clearwing moth, for example, is often misidentified as its namesake bird.

8. Moths Can Be Important Pollinators

Butterflies may get more credit, but moths can also be important pollinators. Moths can also act as agricultural pests, especially their hungry caterpillars, but that shouldn't overshadow all the value they offer with pollination, both for crops and wild plants. Yucca plants have highly specialized relationships with yucca moths, for example, with a moth partner for each species of yucca plant. Some orchids also rely on specific moths whose tongues are long enough to pollinate their flowers, including the mysterious ghost orchid.