Pollinator series

Pollinator: Butterflies and moths

Written by Thary Gazi Goh
Photos by Thary Gazi Goh

In this part of our series on pollinators, we look at the Lepidopterans, or in simple words butterflies and moths. 

Flowers that butterflies and moths visit are usually also usable by other types of insects. 


Butterflies are primarily day-flying and attracted to brightly coloured flowers.  While they are quite well studied for insects, we don’t fully understand the ecology of many butterfly species. There are 1,051 species of butterflies recorded in Malaysia, so it is unlikely we will be able to understand all of them in a human lifetime. 

Butterflies can be common in gardens with many flowering plants.

There are a wide variety of butterfly species in Malaysia, ranging from tiny garden butterflies to very large Birdwings. Many larger species tend to prefer shady areas or forests, while a variety of small and medium sized butterflies are common in urban areas.

Golden birdwings are some of the largest butterflies in the world.

Learn more about attracting butterflies in this article: Butterfly Gardens Key Concepts

Examples: Lime butterflies, Birdwings, A variety of common garden species Species guide

Flower Structure: Flowers that grow in bunches with long nectar tubes are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are usually reds or yellows. 

Plants that they pollinate: Ixora, Saraca


Moths are very important pollinators, but since they fly in the darkness they are rarely noticed or appreciated. Local moth species range from tiny micro moths (many of which don’t even have names) to the world’s largest moths like Atlas moths and Lunar moths. In Malaysia, moths are more diverse than butterflies, with an estimated number of species of more than 5000. This pattern is similar for the rest of the world.

Moths are incredibly diverse pollinators.

Moths primarily navigate using moonlight and stars, while find food and mate using their excellent sense of smell (which is located on their often elaborate antennas). This is why they are endangered by human lighting and light pollution. Flowers that attract moths are often pleasant-smelling.

Moths smell with their elaborate antenna. This Saturnid Moth however doesn’t pollinate as it doesn’t feed as an adult.

Hawk moths have very long tongues called proboscis. Plant pollen usually has to stick to this structure instead of the moth body, since hawk moths don’t land on flowers but hover above them. Some larger hawk moths are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds.

Examples: Hawk moths, Saturn moths, Tiger moths, Owlet moths.

Flower Structure: Flowers that attract moths often release sweet smells at night. Since moths don’t use their vision to find flowers, most of these flowers are white in color. 

Plants that they pollinate: Papaya, Kenanga (Ylang-ylang), Jasmine, Frangipani