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This week we have science activities and resources for learning more about butterflies and moths, Order Lepidoptera.

  1. What are butterflies and moths?

Members of the Order Lepidoptera have four scale-covered wings as adults. They go through complete metamorphosis and the larval stage is commonly called a caterpillar. One unique trait of the Lepidoptera is that an adult butterfly's or moth's mouthparts, called a proboscis, is curled up under the head when not in use. The proboscis straightens out like a party favor blower when the butterfly or moth feeds.

The larval stages of butterflies and moths feed on plants (with a few rare exceptions). The adults feed on various liquids or don't feed at all. Many visit flowers for nectar.

Activity:  Demonstrate how the butterfly moth works with a party blower.


2. What are the differences between butterflies and moths?

buckeye-butterfly-dbg-4Buckeye butterfly

hickory-tussock-moth-19Hickory Tussock Moth


See our Growing with Science website for a longer discussion of the differences between butterflies and moths.

Activity:  Gather illustrations of common butterflies and moths and have the children sort them into groups using what they have learned.


Butterfly identification for beginners

3. Butterfly and moth life cycles

Check our Growing with Science website for a detailed discussion of butterfly and moth life cycles.

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Activity:  Draw the life cycle of a butterfly and label all four life stages.

Butterflies have four life stages: egg, caterpillar (larva), chrysalis (pupa), adult.

Ask-A-Biologist has a monarch butterfly life cycle coloring page .pdf to download or print.

Activity: Draw the life cycle of a moth and label all four life stages.

Moths also have four life stages, but instead of a chrysalis the pupa is either bare, or develops within a wrapping of silk called a cocoon.

Ask-a-Biologist has a Manduca moth life cycle coloring page .pdf to download or print. Note:  Manduca moths do not form a cocoon.

To see a moth that does form a cocoon, try our Silkworm Moth Life Cycle post.

4. Butterfly and Moth Anatomy

The Growing with Science website also has a discussion of adult butterfly and caterpillar anatomy.

Activity:  Caterpillar anatomy


Allow the children to observe a live caterpillar if available, or obtain some realistic plastic toy caterpillars if not. Explain that insect have six legs and caterpillars are not an exception, although it may look like they have more. The caterpillar has six true legs on its thorax (section right behind the head), but has additional fleshy appendages on the abdomen called prolegs. Those are not truly legs and are mostly used for gripping the plant.

5. Go on a caterpillar hunt outdoors

Young children benefit from experience being outdoors and seeing caterpillars in their natural habitat. If you are unsure where to look, find an experienced guide and/or scout the area in advance.

Six Tips for a Successful Caterpillar Hunt

Children's Books and Resources about Butterflies and Moths

butterfly-gardening-with-childrenCheck out our Butterfly Gardening with Children Week landing page for a list of links to related posts and activities.


At Science Books for Kids we have a growing list of children's books about moths and butterflies organized by reading level.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate for Amazon. If you click through the linked titles or ads and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra charge to you. Proceeds will be used to maintain this self-hosted blog.

See the other lessons in this series:

Insect Science Investigations

It isn't unusual to find tobacco hornworm caterpillars on the datura plant.


What is unusual is to find one with such a long "horn." It is likely that it recently hatched from an egg.

Probably most of you know that insects need to shed their exoskeleton or outer "skin" in order to grow (as well as the linings of the breathing tubes and parts of their digestive system). When an immature insect sheds its exoskeleton or molts, it is said to enter the next "instar." The word instar is Latin and it means likeness or counterpart. The caterpillar above would be in its first instar.

Tobacco hornworm caterpillars generally go through 5 instars, but that number can vary with environmental conditions.

manduca-larva-largeBy the time it is ready to pupate, the "horn" will be much smaller in proportion to the rest of the body.

Before it pupates, the tobacco hornworm caterpillar will leave the plant and look for a place to burrow into the soil, as shown in this time lapse video.

Before long an adult moth will emerge and the cycle will continue.

Why do you think the first instar caterpillar is "rearing up" with its head away from the plant? Any ideas?

Manduca rustica caterpillars usually feed high up in the desert willow tree and are hard to observe.

1-Manduca-rustica-caterpillar- 338This week one chose a low branch that was within easy reach.


It was eating the willow leaves from tip to base.



Can you see its legs, which is uses to hold onto the leaf? What about the antenna and eye, which are right by the mandibles?

The cream-colored oval behind the head is a spiracle. Spiracles are opening that allow air to pass into and out of the insect.

Have you ever watched a caterpillar eat a leaf? What kind was it?