Butterflies are fascinating creatures and some of the interesting facts about them make them even more intriguing. As a butterfly enthusiast myself, one of the most common questions I hear from my children or friends is “What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?” They look very similar and it is easy to mistake them for each other.
Butterflies and moths are closely related and both belong to the order Lepidoptera. Lepidoptera is Greek and means scale wing. So often, we use the terms moth and butterfly interchangeably but in reality, there are slight differences between the two species – and many similarities. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America, the differences aren’t too difficult to spot.
The first trick to differentiating between a moth and a butterfly is to take a look at their antennae. Butterflies and moths each have antennae, but they are slightly different. The antennae of butterflies have a clubbed tip that somewhat resembles a straight pin with a pin head. Moths do not have the clubbed tip on their antennae. Moth antennae might be straight or feathered.
Moths at rest hold their wings flat while butterflies at rest will hold their wings up.
Butterflies are considered diurnal (active during day and night) while moths are primarily nocturnal. Some moths are crepuscular, which means they are active at dawn or dusk.
Moths are generally colored in more muted tones, as opposed to the bright colors that many butterflies feature. There are a few exceptions though, as in the Io Moth or the Luna Moth. Butterflies are also not as hairy as moths and have a sleeker, more streamlined body.
Butterflies have been known to reach flying speeds of 12 miles per hour, while certain moths have reached 25 miles per hour in speed.
There are around 24,000 species of butterflies worldwide. In that respect, moths outnumber butterflies with 140,000 species around the world.
Certain moth species have a short life cycle as an adult and do not eat because they do not have mouths or a proboscis. They survive on the sustenance they received as caterpillars and their sole purpose as adults is to mate then die.
A moth caterpillar will spin a cocoon – usually of silk and added leaves – to metamorphose into an adult moth. Butterfly caterpillars instead pupate – shedding their skin to reveal a pupa. The pupa skin hardens into a chrysalis.
The wings of both butterflies and moths are actually transparent. The scales on their wings overlap – much like roofing shingles on houses – and it is the scales that give the wings their colors. It is not quite accurate that touching the wings of butterflies and moths will hurt them and ruin their ability to fly. The fact that butterflies hold their wings up when they are at rest makes holding them easier, but you must be extremely gentle with them.
For more information about butterflies and photos, see Rearing Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies in My Yard.
For more great facts about butterflies and moths, check out thebutterflysite.com and milkweedcafe.com.