By Sam Burbach, Education & Programming Coordinator – 06/24/2020

When asked what pollinators are, butterflies often come to mind right up there with bees, and moths should be thought of along with them! Unlike bees, butterflies and moths are accidental pollinators. They do not actively seek out pollen and do not have any specialized structures to help them transport pollen, but they still do their part in pollination, especially for wildflowers. 

Butterflies and moths visit flowers to drink the flower’s sugary nectar. Upon walking around on the flower to search for the nectar source, pollen is picked up on their legs by happenstance. Since butterflies and moths do not actually use the pollen for their own gain their bodies are not designed for collecting pollen. Long legs without special pollen holding hairs or pollen baskets hold a butterfly’s body high above the pollen source on many flowers leaving less surface for pollen to stick to, and some moths never actually land on the flower and rather hover above it to drink the nectar. Despite all odds, butterflies and moths often brush up again some pollen and inadvertently carry it to another flower. While they may not carry as much pollen as bees, they visit a high number of flowers and can fly longer distances which makes up for the smaller amounts of pollen.

What are some differences between butterflies and moths?

  • Butterflies have clubbed antennae, while moths have feathery antennae.
  • Butterflies are active during the day, while most moths are active during the evening or overnight.
  • Butterflies tend to rest with their wings closed, while moths rest with their wings open.
  • Butterflies form a chrysalis during metamorphosis, while moths spin a cocoon and sometimes even overwinter in their cocoon before emerging as an adult moth the following year.

Butterflies as Pollinators

Butterflies are important pollinators of many flowers, especially native wildflowers. Butterflies have good color vision and prefer brightly colored flowers, including red which bees cannot see, and prefer large flower heads to land on or smaller flowers that are in clusters which also gives them an area to stand on. Some flowers have even developed a fragrance that mimics the pheromones that butterflies produce to attract the opposite sex to trick those butterflies into visiting their flowers.

Cloudless sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice)

Painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) and Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae)

Moths as Pollinators

Moths are especially important as pollinators because they are active in the evening or overnight, which means flowers that do not open until later in the day or overnight have a chance to be pollinated. Because there is a smaller pool of pollinators overnight, night-blooming flowers are specialized in attracting pollinators. Many night-blooming flowers are white or pale-colored to reflect the light of the moon to increase its visibility at night. Night-blooming flowers are also highly fragrant to help attract pollinators in the dark. Some moths do not actually land on the flowers to drink the nectar, such as the hummingbird moth; instead, they hover near the flower while their proboscis reaches within the flower to reach the nectar.

Hummingbird moth (Macroglossum stellatarum)

Luna moth (Actias luna)

Some plants even have a specific and specialized pollinator!

Learn about a really cool symbiotic relationship between the yucca plant and the yucca moth here: https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/yucca_moths.shtml