If butterflies are more colourful than moths, moths are far more diverse, with 590 species in Lebanon against 194 species for the butterflies.
We are used to distinguishing both among Lepidoptera (insects endowed with scaled wings) by saying that the butterflies fly during the day, and the moths during the night. And we meet with them because of their attraction to light. However, a lot of moths can also be seen in the daytime.
Anyway, we quite instinctively identify a moth. Here are their main characteristics, comparatively to butterflies:
|1||Club-shaped antennae||Comb-like or feathery antennae|
|Colourful << locates its mate by colour||Dark or dull appearance, camouflage patterns (locate its mate by pheromones)|
|2||At rest, wings held together, vertically above its body||At rest, wings are usually held in a tent-like fashion over its abdomens|
|Slender and smooth abdomen||Plump, stout and hairy body|
|Fine scales||Large scales >> it looks fluffy >> it conserves heat|
|Warm up by sun exposure with open wings||Warm up by shivering its flight muscles|
|Apposition compound eye = each facet produces its own image >> adapted to day light||Superposition compound eye = all facets produce one single image >> adapted for low light environments (night, forest, cupboards, …)|
|Forms a chrysalis||Builds a cocoon|
But in scientific terms, only butterflies are clearly defined: they are Rhopalocera (endowed with club-shaped antennae), and moths are all Lepidoptera that are not a butterfly. We call them Heterocera (endowed with other antennae). Technically, it is a paraphyletic class (without one common origin).
The great majority of moths are active during the night, and their appearance is dull. It may confirm Adolf Portman’s theory of “self-expression of life”: focusing on the phenomenal appearance of organisms, he states that living forms express their particularity by developing a beautiful appearance, away from any adaptative function. Since moths are not visible, they would not develop such a visual expression. However, daily moths develop artistic appearance, and also caterpillars, since they are active during the day.
For Lebanon, we are indebted to Husein Zorkot’s Pictorial Guide to the Moths of Lebanon. He distinguishes different kinds of moth according to their habitat, stating that almost a third of them live in forests, a third in grasslands, and a third in agricultural lands.
Here, we will just mention some noteworthy species with different characteristics.
Scientific name: Thaumetopoea
In the case of moths, the larva stage is very important, since its lifespan represents the same period of time as the adult stage (around three weeks). And because many species do not feed during the adult stage, their ecological effect concerns only the larva stage. Processionary moths are even named on their larva spectacular habit of travelling in large numbers in nose-to-tail processions. If the moth is difficult to observe, since it flies at night, the caterpillar is easy to identify due to this very habit and its hairy (and venomous) body.
In Arabic, they are called dūd al-rabi‘ (spring worm), and can be seen in their nest of silk on the ground among the grass during the winter. They are considered as the first sign of Spring, when they go out their nest. In Lebanon, we can observe the main species, the one which feeds on the leaves of oak tree (Thaumatopoea processionea), but also other species specialized in cedar needles (T. libanotica), on pine needles (T. wilkinsoni), or sumac (T. solitaria). On these plants, during the winter, they will be present in large silken nests.
Scientific name: Daphnis nerii
Hawkmoths (Sphingidae) are large moths among the fastest insects (up to 19 km/h). Along with hummingbirds, some bats and hoverflies (sirphidae), they developed the capacity to hover, flying standstill in front of a flower to suck its nectar without resting on it.
The caterpillar of the oleander hawkmoth is the only animal able to eat the poisonous leaves of the oleander. It even conserves the poison under its skin, preventing birds from eating it.
Scientific name: Sesiidae
The clearwing moths (Sesiidae) are very special. First, they take their name from the partially transparent wings; second, they are a diurnal moth family; third, they developed a Batesian mimicry in both the appearance and behaviour of various Hymenoptera. Even their flight is buzzing like that of wasps.
Can be observed in Lebanon the marjoram clearwing (Chamaesphecia chalciformis), which mimics digger wasps, and different species of Pennisetia, like P. fixseni or P. hylaeiformis, which mimics the common wasp, as well as does Synanthedon vespiformis, and Synanthedon myopaeformis which mimic a sort of fly, the Myopae.
Scientific name: Alucitidae and Pterophoridae
These two families of moths have unusually modified wings. For Alucitidae, both forewings and hindwings consist of about six rigid spines, from which radiate flexible bristles creating a structure similar to a bird’s feather. In Lebanon, one can observe the many-plumed moth (Alucita cancellate) which flies year-round.
As for regular plume moth (Pterophoridae), their forewings usually consist of two curved spars with more or less bedraggled bristles trailing behind. In Lebanon, one can observe Beautiful plume (Amblyptilia acanthadactyla) which flies year-round, Rose plume (Cnaemidophorus rhododactyla) which flies from June to August, Morning-glory plume (Emmelina monodactyla) which can be seen on Convulvus and flies year-round.
Scientific name: Galleria melonella.
This species is considered a pest by beekeepers since it intrudes in beehives and eggs on combs. The wax moth larva feeds on the wax under the bee larva combs, which leads to the death of the bee larva. But, easily raised, their larvae are used by trout fishers At the same time, it was recently discovered that this capacity to digest wax is also a capacity to digest plastic. Hence, the pest became a possible savour of the great ecological danger of plastic bags.
Wax moth belongs to snout moths (Pyralidae), easily identified thanks to their snout-like head. Snout moths are one of the largest family of moths, and many species can be observed in Lebanon, like Carob moth (Ectomyelois ceratoniae), veined snout mouth (Polyocha venosa), palma christi snout mouth (Phycita poteriella), the endemic Synaphe berytalis, etc.
Scientific name: Bombyx mori, derived from B. mandarina (China)
Although billions of silkworms existed in Lebanon some eighty years ago, this moth disappeared from Lebanon. Raised on the Western slope of Mount Lebanon up from the 7th century, it cannot be observed anymore but in the Silk Museum of Bsous. The contrast is huge. Indeed, to take the numbers of 1895, nearly 30 million white mulberry trees were grown in Lebanese regions to feed silkworms, 5, 000 tons of silk were produced, and some 50,000 families made their living out of the raising of this moth (it means more than a tenth of the population of this time).
The reason for such a disappearance is simple: from the domestication of Bombyx mandarina some 5000 years ago in China, the species that evolved, Bombyx mori, is unable to survive in the wild and mate without the help of humans. Its artificial evolution equipped it to live in crowds and produce bigger cocoons than other moths, but it also implied the loss of its pigments (which means no camouflage), and the loss of its ability to fly, then escape from enemies and find the female to mate. Hence, the silkworm is perfectly adapted to breeding conditions, but not at all to the wild.
Husein Ali Zorkot, A Pictorial Guide to Moths of Lebanon, Beirut: SPNL, 2021
Maurice Févret, “La sériciculture au Liban,” Géocarrefour 1949