Moths and Caterpillars

Jock has a real soft spot for his fluttery pals, the moths. He feels that sometimes folks can overlook them in favour of their more colourful cousins, the butterflies.

But look more carefully at moths - Jock knows just how beautiful, fascinating and important these little guys are! He loves to watch them feeding on Bennachie’s heather.

If you want to find out about moths, have so much brilliant information! We refer to them often in these resources!

Elephant Hawk Moth Nectaring
Elephant Hawk Moth Nectaring (Select image for Larger Image)

Information and Activities

What Makes A Moth a Moth?

It’s true that moths and butterflies can look pretty similar. In fact they do have lots in common, they both belong to the Lepidoptera order. They both have tiny scales covering their bodies and wings. To our eyes it seems like their wings are covered in fine dust - in fact that’s millions of tiny ridged scales, arranged in overlapping rows. These scales give them their colouring and markings.

There are 58 different types of butterflies in the UK, but an incredible 2,500 types of moths! In Scotland, 34 species of butterfly are regularly seen and 1300 species of moths!

So how do we tell if it’s a moth or a butterfly?

There are a couple of easy ways to sort your moths from your butterflies! Look out for these clues!

First of all look at the feelers or antennae - a butterfly’s antennae have slender long shafts with little rounded bulbs at the end.

A moth’s antennae are feathery or tapering, without the rounded bulbs at the end.

Common Heath Female
Common Heath Female (Select image for Larger Image)
Common Heath Male
Common Heath Male (Select image for Larger Image)

Now look at the wings - notice how butterflies rest with their wings held upright over their backs.

Most moths rest with their wings spread out flat.

You might think that butterflies are brightly coloured, and moths are dull in colour, and only fly at night - think again, there are some brightly coloured moths, and some dull, brown butterflies. Mostly butterflies have quite a lot of ‘hair’ on their thorax. And believe it or not, there are more day flying types of moths in the UK than butterflies!

Take a look at this video and play the moth/butterfly game!

Butterfly or Moth?
Moths Matter from Butterfly Conservation
Merveille Du Jour (Close-Up Of Scales)
Merveille Du Jour (Close-Up Of Scales) (Select image for Larger Image)
Butterfly’s Antennae, Short Tortoiseshell (Alba Birds and Beast)
Butterfly’s Antennae, Short Tortoiseshell (Alba Birds and Beast)
Red Admiral Butterfly
Red Admiral Butterfly (Select image for Larger Image)

Moths and Butterfly Body Parts

Moths and butterflies are flying insects of different colours and patterns, depending on the species. They have 2 pairs of wings, 6 jointed legs, a pair of antennae, a pair of eyes, 3 body segments and an exoskeleton (a hard shell).

The 3 body segments are the head, the thorax (chest) and the abdomen (the tail end).

The wings and legs are attached to the thorax which contains the muscles needed to move and fly.

They also have a proboscis; it’s like a long straw which they drink nectar through.

Moths - Life Cycle

At first glance, moths seem like straightforward little creatures, but moths don't actually start out as moths! They have 4 stages in their life cycles, where they completely transform! This is called metamorphosis.


The female moth looks for a good place to lay her eggs. That’s going to be somewhere with loads of greenery, because once the larvae - Jock prefers to call them caterpillars - hatch they are really hungry!

Over 2 weeks, depending on her species she could lay anything from 200-1500 eggs. She will die soon after laying her eggs.

Larva (singular) Larvae (plural) - Jock Calls Them Caterpillars

Inside the egg, the embryo can develop into a larva, (which we all know as a caterpillar) in as little as 2 weeks, and in some cases the egg remains dormant over winter.

When it hatches, the larva is said to be in its first instar. What this means is that as it grows the hungry caterpillar gets too big for its skin, and needs to moult into a bigger one! The skin splits along its back and the caterpillar crawls out in its new and bigger skin. Once it sheds its second skin, it is said to be in its second instar, and so on. Different kinds of moth larvae will have different numbers of instars as they grow, but most often they change their skin around 5 times. The colours can be quite different, to camouflage it on whatever food plant it eats at that stage.

The job of a caterpillar is to eat! Ask any gardener and they will tell you just how much caterpillars can eat! In fact, they can eat an amazing 2700 times their own body weight, as they get ready for the next stage of their life cycle, the pupa.

Emperor Moth Female Egg Laying
Emperor Moth Female Egg Laying (Select image for Larger Image)
Emperor Moth Caterpillar
Emperor Moth Caterpillar (Select image for Larger Image)
Emperor Moth Caterpillar
Emperor Moth Caterpillar (Select image for Larger Image)


This is where the caterpillar transforms itself into a fully grown adult moth. How amazing is that! The fancy word for this is metamorphosis.

When a moth caterpillar is fully grown, it sheds its skin for a final time, and now looks completely different. It has changed into a pupa. The pupa has a very tough skin which gives protection while the caterpillar goes through its metamorphosis. Butterflies also go through this process, but their protective skin is called a chrysalis. Some moth caterpillars spin a cocoon, which looks like a sort of sleeping bag, out of a type of silk, and then they change into a pupa inside the cocoon. The cocoon’s job is to protect the vulnerable larva while it pupates and then metamorphoses into an adult moth.

Inside, the larva is really busy, in fact this is the most intensive stage of the life cycle. All the energy from the food the hungry caterpillar has munched is now put to use, as inside the pupa the larva breaks itself down into a sort of soup, out of which develop all the structures it will need to become an adult moth. This whole process can take 5-21 days, depending on the type of moth.

This may sound quite complicated but you will be amazed as you watch this fantastic video showing how a Puss Moth caterpillar completes this whole process;

YouTube Video: Watch This Caterpillar Turn Into A Puss Moth
Small Egg Cluster - Probably November Moth
Small Egg Cluster - Probably November Moth (Select image for Larger Image)
Large Egg Cluster and Flightless Female Vapourer Moth
Large Egg Cluster and Flightless Female Vapourer Moth (Select image for Larger Image)
Emperor Moth Cocoon
Emperor Moth Cocoon (Select image for Larger Image)

Adventure of Jock and Hector the Hairy Caterpillar

Watch this fantastic Doric tale of how Jock came to the rescue of Hector the Hairy Caterpillar!

Jock and Hector, the Hairy Caterpillar

You can learn more about Fox Moth (like Hector) by reading Butterfly Conservation's Fox Moth information.

Fox Moth
Fox Moth (Select image for Larger Image)

Adult Moth (Technically Called An Imago)

This is the last stage and where we see the moth flying around. But first, the adult moth has to get itself out of its cocoon, and that’s really tricky!

At first it will have a bloated abdomen and shrivelled wings. It has to pump a blood like substance into its wings to get them up to full size, so it can fly. When it first emerges, the adult moth will be wet, so it has to dry before it can fly. This all takes a few hours.

Take a look at this incredible video of a female Emperor Moth emerging from her cocoon!

Emperor Moth Saturnia Pavonia Female Emerging From Cocoon

The purpose of adult moths is to mate. Often the male finds the female by following a scent she gives off ( called a pheromone). The male detects this using his antennae , which can be incredibly sensitive - he can locate her from up to 2 miles away!

Depending on the species, adult moths can live from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. In some rare cases, adult moths can live for 8-10 months. But most moths won’t live till old age. We will look at why shortly and also how moths try to camouflage themselves. The female moths die off shortly after laying their eggs, thus completing the life cycle and starting it all over again.

Watch This Caterpillar Turn Into A Hawk-Moth

For more information on the moth’s life cycle Butterfly and Moth Lifecycles PDF (from Munching Caterpillars).

Butterfly and Moth Lifecycles
Butterfly and Moth Lifecycles PDF (Munching Caterpillars).


Jock knows that caterpillars are always very hungry! Most caterpillars are vegan and will merrily munch on plant leaves, though some do like seeds and flowers. Some will eat any type of leaves; they're called generalist feeders, whilst others are very fussy and are called specialist feeders. The female adult moth will lay her eggs on the caterpillar’s favourite food plant so it can start munching just as soon as it hatches! On the menu could be leaves, flowers, seeds , buds, blooms, grass, even bark and twigs! Some will even eat other caterpillars - yuk!

Adult moths will feed on nectar and are important pollinators. Think of night flying moths as the pollinators night shift! When we are asleep, moths are doing really important work pollinating plants.

That said, there are some adult moths which don't feed at all, living off the fat stores from all that food munched when they were caterpillars! Those which do feed, do so through a proboscis, a sort of tube, which reaches deep into the flower as they suck up the nectar. They use the nectar to power their wings. Some can also suck up tree sap, juices from decaying fruits, manure liquids - their aim is to gain energy to help them find a mate and reproduce.

Pesky Moths - Clothes Moths

Okay, although Jock loves moths, it has to be said that there are only 2 types of moths found in the UK which cause problems in our houses. Jock has heard that us humans can get angry with the Common Clothes Moth (the main culprit) and the Case Bearing Clothes Moth.

These are hardly ever seen as they like quiet dark places and don't like the sunlight.

The adult moths don't actually feed. The female lays her eggs in natural fibres - that’s because they contain keratin, a form of protein which the larvae can digest. When the larvae (caterpillars) hatch, off they set on a munch fest! On their menu could be clothes, furnishings, carpets. They don't like cotton or man-made fibres. Especially in the old days, chemicals, like mothballs , were used, as they give off toxic fumes, but nowadays cedar balls, and lavender will help repel the adult moths. Dry cleaning destroys pests. Clothes which have been attacked can be put in the freezer for at least 2 weeks to kill the larvae.

For more information:

Lesser Swallow Prominent Caterpillar Feeding
Lesser Swallow Prominent Caterpillar Feeding (Select image for Larger Image)
Elephant Hawk-Moth Nectaring
Elephant Hawk-Moth Nectaring (Select image for Larger Image)

Moths Are Struggling Right Now!

Moths are struggling right now!

Butterfly Conservation are experts on this - see Why Moths Matter

Sadly moths are in trouble in the UK, with numbers going down, and some species even becoming extinct.

That matters a lot! As well as being important pollinators, moths and their caterpillars are a really important food source for lots of other creatures. They’re on the menu for loads of types of birds, as well as bats, frogs, toads, lizards, hedgehogs and other insects including spiders, and even ants eat moth eggs! So what’s going on with moths can therefore affect all these creatures.

It’s likely that some of the birds in your garden or park feed their chicks on caterpillars. For example, robins, blue tits, great tits, wrens and blackbirds, and cuckoos even eat hairy caterpillars!

Jock o' Bennachie

Jock Says:
A blue tit chick can eat 100 caterpillars a day, and a nest of chicks may gobble 10,000 caterpillars before they fledge!

YouTube Video: Blue Tit With Caterpillars Credit Helen Taylor

Researchers aren’t exactly sure why numbers are going down, and are trying to work out why this might be happening. The likely causes include habitat loss - that’s when green areas are lost to growing towns and cities, as well as industrial development. Street lights also cause light pollution, which can affect night flying moths.

Climate change is also affecting moths. In the UK, as average temperatures rise, moths which like cool conditions can no longer live in the south. On the other hand, moths which like warm weather are now spreading into northern areas. As we have already seen, moth life cycles are linked to when their food plants are available. As climate change alters when plants put out young leaves this may mean adult moths have to change the timing of their egg laying.

Even what we do with our gardens could be affecting moths - with more gardens being paved over, or with gravel and decking reducing the amount of plants around.

Robin With Caterpillar
Robin With Caterpillar (Credit Lynn Stout)
Blue Tit With Caterpillars
Blue Tit With Caterpillars (Credit Helen Taylor)
Blue Tit Close-Up
Red Carpet Moth
Red carpet moth, a northern species in serious decline, presumed due to climate change (Select image for Larger Image)
Pale Pinion Moth
Pale Pinion moth, a southern species which reached Scotland in 1996 and is continuing to spread. (Select image for Larger Image)

Get Smart or Become Dinner!

It’s not easy being a moth or a caterpillar with all those hungry creatures looking out for dinner! Jock thinks moths and their larvae have been really smart in evolving some really clever ways to avoid becoming someone’s dinner!

Some of the tricks caterpillars use include:

  • I’m not here!
  • I’m a twig!
  • I’m bird poo!
  • I taste horrid!
  • I’m dangerous!

See our examples below.

Moths - I’m not here!
I’m not here! Emperor Moth Larva use colour to blend in with their background (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - I’m a twig
I’m A Twig Pale Brindled Beauty Larva (Select image for Larger Image)
Peach Blossom Larva
I’m Bird Poo Peach Blossom Larva (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - Warning - I Taste Horrid!
Warning - I Taste Horrid! Cinnabar caterpillars contain toxins from their plant food (Select image for Larger Image)
Elephant Hawk Moth Larva
Warning - I’m Dangerous Elephant Hawk Moth Larva's eyespots Make Them Look Like A Predator (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - Puss moth caterpillar has a scary face and tails
Warning - I’m Dangerous Puss moth caterpillar has a scary face and tails (Select image for Larger Image)

Adult moths have plenty tricks up their wings too! Colour and pattern are really important in avoiding predators.

  • I’m not here!
  • I’m bird poo!
  • I taste yucky!
  • I’m not even a moth!

See our examples below.

An Engrailed Moth
I’m Not Here! An Engrailed Moth (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - A Grey Chi Moth On A Rock
I’m Not Here! A Grey Chi Moth On A Rock (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - An Adult Lime-Speck Pug Moth
I’m Bird Poo An Adult Lime-Speck Pug Moth (Select image for Larger Image)
Moths - Garden Tiger
I Taste Yucky The Garden Tiger warns off predators by opening its wings, and showing its red hind wings with dark blue spots. If anything is daft enough to attack it oozes out nasty yellow fluid from behind its head! (Select image for Larger Image)
I’m Not Even A Moth!
I’m Not Even A Moth! Lunar Hornet Moth - Yes it is a moth! (Select image for Larger Image)

Up Close!

Note: Remember, all our activities need you to be with a responsible adult.

Observing Caterpillars

Where and when to find caterpillars? The Wildlife Trusts have brilliant information to help you identify caterpillars How To Identify Caterpillars.

Good places to find caterpillars include in grass, hedges, and on the undersides of leaves. Although some caterpillars do like nettles, please don't go looking in nettles as you can get nasty stings.

If you notice leaves with holes in them, the chances are you're on the right track. You may well find them in your garden, at home or school grounds.

Lots of caterpillars hide in the daytime and feed at night. Sometimes you might be lucky, and find them crawling quickly across paths. This is usually when they're fully grown and on the hunt for a good place to pupate.

Jock o' Bennachie
Jock Says:
Don’t handle caterpillars directly, use a flat leaf, and gently encourage the caterpillar to crawl on by softly prodding it in the right direction using a grass stem. Non hairy caterpillars are quite soft and you don't want to hurt them. Hairy caterpillars can really irritate your skin, so don't pick them up!

Use these ID sheets to see who’s who in the North East caterpillar world! You can see them by the type of habitat they're in Scottish Moth Caterpillars by Habitat.

Observing Moths

If you want to go on a ‘moth safari’ there are a few fun ways to find or ‘trap’ moths. Of course that doesn’t mean setting nasty traps for them or hurting them in any way!

Butterfly Conservation have a brilliant step by step guide to help you identify moths - Identify A Moth.

Remember there are loads of day-flying moths, so keep your eyes peeled for them! To give yourself the best chance of finding them, a nice calm, warm day is best. Think about where moths might like to rest - try gently wiggling some leaves or hedges, grasses or flowers.

Here’s a great day flying moth identification guide, so you can work out who’s who! A Day-Flying Moths - A Brief Guide (PDF)

What about night flying moths? We can use moths' attraction to light, and their sense of smell to help us look at moths!

First of all, we need to think about why moths are so attracted to light. You will have seen them circling round madly when we leave an outside light on. Scientists aren’t totally sure about why, but one idea is that moths evolved to use the moon and stars to navigate.

Watch this short video to find out more.

Why Moths Are Obsessed With Lamps.

So how can we attract moths to light?

Here are a few ideas!

Lancashire Manchester and North Merseyside Wildlife Trusts have brilliant information for beginners Moth Trapping For Beginners.

Adam and Anne from the University of Gloucestershire have super ideas on how to build and use a simple moth trap, check out their videos as Adam makes the trap and Anne sets it up outside.

Add - Moth Trapping
Anne Moth Trapping

Munching Caterpillars can show you how to build a moth trap - How To Build A Moth Trap (PDF).

Being able to smell is vital to moths so they can find their food and mates. Discover Wildlife can tell us about this How Can Butterflies And Moths Smell?

We can attract moths by a method called sugaring. The moths smell the sugar and find it. Butterfly Conservation know loads about how to do this Find Moths With Moth Traps (PDF).

Have a look at this brilliant video from Helen Rowe, where she shows us how to do sugaring for moths, and the moths she found in her moth trap at the pond at Den of Maidencraig Local Nature Reserve in Aberdeen

Note: This recipe involves using a few drops of alchohol - make sure your responsible adult does this!
YouTube Video: Marvellous Moths at Maidencraig

Check out Butterfly Conservation’s Things To Do section here, they know all sorts of ways to look at moths! All About Moths (PDF)

Jock o' Bennachie

Jock Says:
A male emperor moth can smell a female 2 miles away - that’s because he can smell her pheromones! How amazing is that for a tiny creature who doesn’t even have a nose as such!

For more information on how to start mothing, Butterfly Conservation have great information How To Start 'Mothing' (PDF).

A Look at Some of Bennachie’s Moths

Emperor Moth

These clever caterpillars vary their colours for camouflage as they develop. You can often see the caterpillars in August feeding on heather. They over winter as pupae, sometimes for 2 winters! The adult male is day flying, look out for it in April-May.

Emperor Moth
Emperor Moth (Select image for Larger Image)

Magpie Moth

Look out for the adults on heather moorlands and gardens - you can often see them when walking on Bennachie’s paths . The larvae hatch at end of August, they feed on heather and a range of bushes. They over winter as a small larva, then feed and grow during the spring. They can often be seen on heather in June before they pupate and emerge as adults during July.

Magpie Moth
Magpie Moth (Select image for Larger Image)

Fox Moth (like Hector!)

You can see adults in May/June. The males and females look different. The caterpillars are hairy and appear from June-September. They are often seen and feed on heathers, bramble and meadowsweet. They overwinter in the soil , emerge, don't feed again, pupate and the adult emerges in May.

Fox Moth
Fox Moth (Select image for Larger Image)

Silver Y

From spring onwards they invade from Europe, sometimes in clouds of millions! They can arrive at any time of year, if there is a mild southerly wind. They breed here, several generations. They rarely overwinter in the UK as caterpillars. You can often see them feeding at flowers in gardens in the summer.

Fox Moth
Silver Y (Select image for Larger Image)

Poplar Hawk Moth

An example of a night flying moth is the Poplar Hawk moth. You may find these in parks, gardens woods, their caterpillars feed on poplars and willows. Their unusual resting posture helps disguise their shape, and make them look less like moths.

Poppler Hawk
Poplar Hawk Moth (Select image for Larger Image)

July High-flyer

Their larvae feed on bilberry, heather, willows. From April-June they spin silk and stick leaves together for day time hiding places. They come out at night to feed. They can be seen flying mid-July to early October.

July High-lyer
July High-flyer (Select image for Larger Image)

Large Yellow Underwing

This is a large moth, 50 mm across, brown, but with yellow hind wings. It can flash these if alarmed to give predators a fright, and the flickering effect makes it hard for the eye to follow the moth in flight. The adults which are quite long lived can be seen May-October. Eggs are laid from July onwards. They overwinter as larvae, feed on grasses, docks, etc.

Large Yellow Underwing
Large Yellow Underwing (Select image for Larger Image)

What Can We Do To Help Moths?

With moth numbers falling, they need all the help we can give them - remember moths are important pollinators, with many beavering away while we are sleeping.

Things To Do - Gardening For Moths

We can help by growing plants in our gardens which give them the nectar they need for energy! Growing a range of plants which flower at different times of the year helps as many species as possible.

Remember the night flyers, and grow flowers which bloom at night and give off their scent in the evening to attract moths.

Don’t Forget About Hungry Caterpillars!

Here are some ideas about suitable plants from Butterfly Conservation, the RSPB and the Royal Horticultural Society:

Plants which are scrummy to caterpillars from Butterfly Conservation Caterpillar Foodplants.

Jock's Moth Jokes!

Jock o' Bennachie

Jock Says:

One day a man asks his caterpillar if he wants to go on a walk.

The caterpillar doesn't answer. So he asks again, "Hey caterpillar do you want to go on a walk?"

Still no answer from the caterpillar. So the man asks a little louder, "HEY caterpillar! Do you want to go on a walk?" The caterpillar still says nothing. So the man yells "HEY CATERPILLAR, DO YOU WANT TO GO ON A WALK?"

The caterpillar looked up at the man and replied,

"I heard you the first time. I was putting on my shoes."

Jock o' Bennachie

Jock Says:

What is a caterpillar scared of? A dogarpillar!

What does a caterpillar do on New Year’s Day? He turns over a new leaf!

What’s the biggest moth in the world! A mammoth!

What do insects learn in school? Mothematics!

Why was the moth so unpopular? He kept picking holes in everything!

How do stones stop moths eating your clothes? Because Rolling Stones gather no moths!


With grateful thanks to David Hood for his expertise and guidance in creating these resources. Sincere thanks to Roy Leverton for his support and all his excellent photos.

Where not otherwise stated, the photos used are credited to Roy Leverton. Our sincere thanks also go to all those who kindly provided their fantastic photos and videos.

Also see our Summer Programme, Spring Programme, Winter Programme and Autumn Programme

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