Story: Butterflies and moths

Butterflies remind us of summer, freedom and happiness; moths are mythologised as creatures of the night. Essentially, however, there are no important differences between the two. New Zealand has a higher rate of unique butterfly and moth species than anywhere else. But you won’t see them all – these enigmatic and enchanting creatures can flutter along desolate coasts or in the highest mountains.

Story by Brian Patrick
Main image: Copper butterfly

Story summary

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Butterflies and moths are everywhere in New Zealand – from your back garden to high up in the mountains.

Are butterflies and moths different?

There are no major differences between butterflies and moths – they are common names given to a group of insects called Lepidoptera (from the Greek for ‘scaly wings’). But some generalisations can be made: moths usually hold their wings flat while resting, have feathery antennae, and are active at night. Butterflies are more colourful, have clubbed antennae, hold their wings upright while at rest, and fly during the day.

New Zealand species

There are about 2,000 types of native New Zealand butterflies and moths. More than 90% are found nowhere else – this is the highest proportion of unique butterflies and moths in the world. Another 68 types have been introduced since European settlement.

Life cycle

Most butterflies and moths have a similar life cycle:

  • Adults lay their eggs on plants or other surfaces such as rocks.
  • Larvae (caterpillars) hatch from the eggs, then grow.
  • They become pupae, encased in a cocoon while their wings develop.
  • They emerge from the cocoon as adults. Adult butterflies and moths do not live very long – one week is considered long.

Common butterflies

Yellow and red admirals can be seen around the mainland, especially where nettles grow – their caterpillars eat them. Chatham Island admirals live only on the Chatham Islands.

Orange-coloured copper moths are more plentiful in New Zealand than anywhere else. The largest have a wingspan of up to 3 centimetres.


There is most variety in the South Island, where there are large open areas, which butterflies and moths prefer.

How to cite this page:

Brian Patrick, 'Butterflies and moths', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Brian Patrick, published 24 September 2007