Learning About Lepidopterans

Learning About Lepidopterans - Monarch

One of the joys of life is the ability we all have to learn beyond school or college. Learning often happens when we contact someone who knows a lot about a subject we have never studied. For example, we recently visited the Marine Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where we met specialists in butterflies and moths. So naturally, we were interested in learning about lepidopterans.

The order Lepidoptera includes butterflies and moths, and we learned that there are 2932 species of these insects in Florida. Studies have revealed incredible details about these creatures’ surprising complexity and design. The word “lepidoptera” means “scale wings,” and these creatures have microscopic scales on their wings. They have four wings – a pair in front and a pair in the back. Their bodies have three parts, a head, a thorax, and an abdomen with three pairs of jointed legs attached to the thorax.

Butterflies and moths taste with their feet, which means when they land on something, they immediately know whether it is food or not. These creatures breathe through tiny valves on the sides of their abdomen called spiracles, and they eat through a long tube called a proboscis. Butterflies are active during the day, and moths are active at night, with very few exceptions. Coming out of their heads between their eyes are antennae. In butterflies, the antennae are club-shaped, and in moths, they taper to a point. When a moth attaches to a surface, sensitive cells detect moisture, temperature, and exposure to the wind and rain.

Butterfly antennae have cells sensitive to the pollen of whatever plant its caterpillars need to survive. Each butterfly has a particular sensitivity to a specific plant or group of plants. For example, monarch butterflies are sensitive to milkweed. Farmers know which butterflies produce caterpillars that eat certain crops. In the natural world, the caterpillars of moths and butterflies are food for many larger creatures. When humans eradicate those predators, we upset the balance, causing problems for humans. Learning about lepidopterans and the environment is essential for understanding how to maintain balance. God did not design butterflies and moths to be destructive, but when we mismanage the environment, the result is a problem for humans raising crops.

The complexity of butterflies and moths is impressive. They have their larval ability to eat plants and produce silk to make a cocoon and morph into adults with the beautiful colors and designs of wing scales. Learning to control the destructive nature of caterpillars requires an understanding of the complexity of these remarkable creatures. Without the help of mature insects as pollinators, many other plants would suffer. Learning about lepidopterans shows us God’s excellent design of life.

— John N. Clayton © 2022