Butterflies and moths

Orange lacewing butterfly
Photographer: Steven NowakowskiWhile there are many spectacular insects to see in the Wet Tropics, probably none attract more attention than the delicate butterflies and moths. Many sport colours that seem too good to be true. Even their larvae (caterpillars) can be a stunning combination of vivid colour and striking patterns.

Australia has about 400 species of butterflies with around 60 percent of them found in tropical Queensland. There are a few rare and locally endemic species but most are very common, so all visitors to the tropical north should see a wide variety while visiting in or near rainforests. 

Life cycles

Both butterflies and moths lay eggs which hatch out larvae (caterpillars). The larvae feed on foliage and grow before entering a state of dormancy inside a pupa or cocoon. During this stage, which varies in length for different species and environmental conditions, the larvae undergo a metamorphosis. At the end of this stage, a winged adult breaks out of the casing, dries its wings and flies away to feed, mate and lay the next generation of eggs.

4 o'clock moth caterpillar
Photographer: Mike TrenerryIt is helpful to know some of the terms used to describe the life cycle of butterflies and moths. When the larvae goes into the hibernation stage, it is called a pupa and the act of becoming a pupa is pupating. The protective shell of the pupa is called a cocoon for the moths and is often a woven, 'hairy' enclosure. For butterflies, the pupa hangs from a branch or leaf and is referred to as a chrysalis. Pheromones are the hormonal perfumes an adult female butterfly or moth secretes to attract males.


How to tell the difference

How can you tell a butterfly from a moth? Butterflies are active during the day and moths (with some exceptions) are active at night. Butterflies usually rest with their wings raised in an upright position with both wings together, whereas moths prefer to rest with their wings flat. Because butterflies are day-time animals, their wings are full of colour for recognition. As night-time creatures, moths have little use for colour so most are less brightly coloured. However, many moths have intricately patterned wings. The zodiac moth is one exception, being as beautifully marked as many butterflies, probably because it is a daytime moth.


Lurcher butterfly
Photographer: Mike Trenerry

Gardens to attract butterflies

Butterflies are found where their preferred food plants are which is something that local residents can take advantage of. If you want to attract a particular species of butterfly to your yard, find out what food plants it likes and plant them. It will also be useful to learn what the caterpillar for that species looks like. Many gardeners eliminate any caterpillars they see because of the damage they do to certain ornamentals and vegetables. Unfortunately, many of the butterfly larvae are destroyed this way, having been lumped into the pest category before any effort is made to identify them.



The caterpillars of both moths and butterflies can be camouflaged to blend in with their food plants while others display bright patterns and colours. This is used in nature to give a warning to would-be predators that this animal is toxic or at least doesn't taste very good. Many caterpillars are covered with hairs and for some species, these hairs are used as defence. Handling such caterpillars can be a very painful exercise, so it is best not to touch any hairy caterpillar unless you know the species.


More information

You can find out lots more about butterflies and moths in the fact sheets below:

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