Lepidopterans And People

Butterflies have appeared in ancient Egyptian and Chinese carvings, on Aztec pottery, and in countless paintings, sculptures, jewelry, textiles, glass, drawings, and poetry. They have been used to symbolize joy, sorrow, eternal life, or the frailty of life. In some parts of the world butterflies and moths are thought to represent the soul. In fact, psyche, the word for butterflies and moths in Greek, means "soul."


Thousands of caterpillars are raised each year to sell as pupae to butterfly houses in Europe and the United States. Raising birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera and Troides) in Papua New Guinea not only helps the local economy, but it also encourages people to protect butterfly habitats. The survival of the world's largest butterfly, Ornithoptera alexandrae, may depend on the efforts of farmers who encourage the growth of the caterpillar's food plants.

Many lepidopterans are directly beneficial to humans. The best known example is the silkworm. They are raised commercially on farms so that silk from their cocoons can be harvested to manufacture textiles. Other lep-idopterans are useful, too. Flower-visiting adults are important pollinators of flowers, while some caterpillars eat pest insects, such as aphids and scale insects, and others parasitize plant hoppers. The eggs of some moths are used to raise large numbers of a parasitoid wasp Trichogramma, which is then released to control the caterpillars of another moth species that is a pest of crops. The larvae of a South American moth are used in South Africa and Australia to control cactus, which is considered a weed outside of its normal range in the New World. In many parts of the world, caterpillars, rich in protein, are considered a part of a balanced human diet.

Yet the feeding habits of many caterpillars have led humans to consider them major pests. Leaf-rollers, webworms, leaf miners, cutworms, armyworms, underground grass grubs, vine borers, carpenterworms, gypsy moth caterpillars, tent caterpillars and their relatives attack crops, garden plants, and forests managed for timber. Still others destroy clothing and stored foods.

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