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Butterflies and Moths

Vashti sphinx moth.
Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Butterflies and moths belong to the order of insects called “Lepidoptera,” which means “scale-wings.” They are named thus because their wings are covered with coloured scales that are arranged in rows, like shingles on a roof. The arrangement of these scales produces many beautiful patterns in the various species. Lepidopoterous larvae are called caterpillars; they undergo complete metamorphosis and later pass through a pupa stage, from which they emerge as adult butterflies or moths. Butterflies are diurnal (day-fliers); some moths are also diurnal, although most are nocturnal. Most butterflies are very colourful, and so are many of the moths. The most noticeable difference between butterflies and moths is that butterflies have enlargements, known as clubs, on the ends of their antennae.

Speyeria hesperis lais, Northwestern Fritillary.
J. Pepper (Saskatchewan Environment) Ecosystem Image Information System

So far, 160 species of butterflies have been found in Saskatchewan. The skippers have stout bodies and curled antennal clubs. Eight species of the swallowtail family have been recorded in Saskatchewan; these usually have a false eye-spot at the outer corner of each hind wing, and also a tail which acts as a false antenna - both being a means of protection that diverts the attention of their enemies away from more vulnerable areas.

The pure white butterflies are called whites. We have several species of yellow butterflies known as sulphurs. There are three species of marbles, which have green marbling underneath. The gossamer-winged butterflies are small and dainty. The hairstreaks have hair-like tails on their hind wings. The coppers often have bright coppery colours and are found in wet areas. Seventeen species of blues have been observed in Saskatchewan - more than in any other province.

The harvester is North America's only known butterfly whose caterpillars feed on other insects instead of leaves. The metalmarks are a tropical family, the Mormon metalmark being the only Canadian species. Our largest butterfly family, the brushfooted butterflies, comprises the fritillaries, crescents, checkerspots, anglewings, tortoiseshells, admirals, and ladies. The meadow browns have fifteen known species in Saskatchewan. They vary in colour from tan (ringlets) to dark brown (wood nymphs).

Saskatchewan's largest butterfly is the monarch, orange with black veins, and with a wing expanse of up to 10 centimetres. It reaches Saskatchewan as a migrant in late June, and produces a brood on milkweed, which emerges in August and goes south to Mexico for the winter. Early in the spring the monarchs move northward and produce a brood that then continues on to Canada.

There are nearly 1,500 species of moths known to occur in Saskatchewan, and a few additional species are discovered annually. These moths are divided into two groups: the Macrolepidoptera contain the biggest specimens, the black witch moth that strays here from the southern United States being the largest species; the Microlepidoptera, on the other hand, comprise many tiny species as well as some marginally larger ones - the only big moths in this group being the ghost moths.

Moths of the Macrolepidoptera normally have heavy bodies, with the exception of the geometrid moths. Their caterpillars are called “measuring worms”: lacking any semblance of legs in the centre of their bodies, they loop themselves up and then stretch forward as they are crawling. Our six species of silk moths are up to 10 centimetres across. The caterpillars spin silken cocoons. The adults do not eat, and live only a few days. The males find the females by picking up the scent with their feather-like antennae. Our twenty-six species of sphinx moths have long, narrow fore wings, and hover over flowers while feeding. Moths of the clearwing species fly in bright sunshine with the butterflies; the caterpillars do not spin cocoons, but the pupae hibernate in the ground. The tiger moths spin silken cocoons; the colourful adults have a variety of spots and stripes.

Saskatchewan's largest family of moths is that of the owlet moths. A number of species are destructive cutworms, but most are not plentiful enough to be serious pests. The most colourful owlet moths are the underwings, with red, pink, or orange hind wings.

Ronald R. Hooper

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