While the butterflies form a monophyletic group, the moths, comprising the rest of the Lepidoptera, do not. Many attempts have been made to group the superfamilies of the Lepidoptera into natural groups, most of which fail because one of the two groups is not monophyletic: Microlepidoptera and Macrolepidoptera, Heterocera and Rhopalocera, Jugatae and Frenatae, Monotrysia and Ditrysia.
Although the rules for distinguishing moths from butterflies are not hard and fast, one very good guiding principle is that butterflies have thin antennae and (with the exception of the Hedylidae Family) have small balls or clubs at the end of their antennae. Moth antennae can be quite varied in appearance, but in particular lack the club end. The divisions are named by this principle: "club-antennae" (Rhopalocera) or "varied-antennae" (Heterocera).
The modern English word "moth" comes from Old English "moððe" (cf. Northumbrian "mohðe") from Common Germanic (compare Old Norse "motti", Dutch "mot", and German "motte" all meaning "moth"). Its origins are possibly related to the Old English "maða" meaning "maggot" or from the root of "midge" which until the sixteenth century was used mostly to indicate the larva, usually in reference to devouring clothes.
Moth larvae, or caterpillars, make cocoons from which they emerge as fully grown moths with wings. Some moth caterpillars dig holes in the ground, where they live until they are ready to turn into adult moths.
Moths evolved long before butterflies, fossils having been found that may be 190 million years old. Both types of lepidoptera are thought to have evolved along with flowering plants, mainly because most modern species feed on flowering plants, both as adults and larvae. One of the earliest species thought to be a moth-ancestor is Archaeolepis mane, whose fossil fragments show scaled wings similar to caddisflies in their veining.
Some moths, particularly their caterpillars, can be major agricultural pests in many parts of the world. Examples include corn borers and bollworms. The caterpillar of the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) causes severe damage to forests in the northeastern United States, where it is an invasive species. In temperate climates, the codling moth causes extensive damage, especially to fruit farms. In tropical and subtropical climates, the diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) is perhaps the most serious pest of brassicaceous crops.
Several moths in the family Tineidae are commonly regarded as pests because their larvae eat fabric such as clothes and blankets made from natural proteinaceous fibers such as wool or silk. They are less likely to eat mixed materials containing some artificial fibers. There are some reports that they may be repelled by the scent of wood from juniper and cedar, by lavender, or by other natural oils; however, many consider this unlikely to prevent infestation. Naphthalene (the chemical used in mothballs) is considered more effective, but there are concerns over its effects on human health.
Moth larvae may be killed by freezing the items which they infest for several days at a temperature below −8 °C (18 °F).
Despite being notorious for eating clothing, most moth adults do not eat at all. Many, like the Luna, Polyphemus, Atlas, Promethea, cecropia, and other large moths do not have mouth parts. Among those adult moths that do eat, they will drink nectar.
Some moths are farmed for their economic value. The most notable of these is the silkworm, the larva of the domesticated moth Bombyx mori. It is farmed for the silk with which it builds its cocoon. As of 2002, the silk industry produces more than 130 million kilograms of raw silk, worth about 250 million U.S. dollars, each year.
Not all silk is produced by Bombyx mori. There are several species of Saturniidae that also are farmed for their silk, such as the Ailanthus moth (Samia cynthia group of species), the Chinese oak silkmoth (Antheraea pernyi), the Assam silkmoth (Antheraea assamensis), and the Japanese silk moth (Antheraea yamamai).
The larvae of many species are used as food, particularly in Africa, where they are an important source of nutrition. The mopane worm, the caterpillar of Gonimbrasia belina, from the family Saturniidae, is a significant food resource in southern Africa. Another saturniid used as food is the cavorting emperor (Usta terpsichore). In one country alone, Congo, more than 30 species of moth larvae are harvested. Some are sold not only in the local village markets, but are shipped by the ton from one country to another.
Nocturnal insectivores often feed on moths; these include some bats, some species of owls and other species of birds. Moths also are eaten by some species of lizards, cats, dogs, rodents, and some bears. Moth larvae are vulnerable to being parasitized by Ichneumonidae.
Baculoviruses are parasite double-stranded DNA insect viruses that are used mostly as biological control agents. They are members of the Baculoviridae, a family that is restricted to insects. Most baculovirus isolates have been obtained from insects, in particular from Lepidoptera.
There is evidence that ultrasound in the range emitted by bats causes flying moths to make evasive maneuvers because bats eat moths. Ultrasonic frequencies trigger a reflex action in the noctuid moth that causes it to drop a few inches in its flight to evade attack. Tiger moths also emit clicks which can foil bats' echolocation.
Moths frequently appear to circle artificial lights, although the reason for this behavior remains unknown. One hypothesis to explain this behavior is that moths use a technique of celestial navigation called transverse orientation. By maintaining a constant angular relationship to a bright celestial light, such as the moon, they can fly in a straight line. Celestial objects are so far away that, even after travelling great distances, the change in angle between the moth and the light source is negligible; further, the moon will always be in the upper part of the visual field, or on the horizon. When a moth encounters a much closer artificial light and uses it for navigation, the angle changes noticeably after only a short distance, in addition to being often below the horizon. The moth instinctively attempts to correct by turning toward the light, thereby causing airborne moths to come plummeting downward, and resulting in a spiral flight path that gets closer and closer to the light source.Atlas moth (Attacus atlas), the largest moth in the world
White witch moth (Thysania agrippina), the Lepidopteran with the longest wingspan
Madagascan sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), considered to be one of the most impressive and beautiful Lepidoptera
Death's-head hawkmoth (Acherontia spp.), is associated with the supernatural and evil and has been featured in art and movies
Peppered moth (Biston betularia), the subject of a well-known study in natural selection
Luna moth (Actias luna)
Grease moth (Aglossa cuprina), known to have fed on the rendered fat of humans
Emperor gum moth (Opodiphthera eucalypti)
Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Bogong moth (Agrotis infusa), known to have been a food source for southeastern indigenous Australians
Ornate moth (Utetheisa ornatrix), the subject of numerous behavioral studies regarding sexual selection
Moths of economic significance
Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar), a pest of hardwood trees in North America
Corn earworm or cotton bollworm (Helicoverpa zea), a major agricultural pest
Indianmeal moth (Plodia interpunctella), a major pest of grain and flour
Codling moth (Cydia pomonella), a pest mostly of apple, pear and walnut trees
Light brown apple moth (Epiphyas postvittana), a highly polyphagous pest
Silkworm (Bombyx mori), for its silk
Wax moths (Galleria mellonella, Achroia grisella), pests of bee hives
Duponchelia fovealis, a new invasive pest of vegetables and ornamental plants in the United States