What’s The Difference Between Butterflies And Moths?

Butterflies and moths differ in colour, physical appearance, acitivity, wing structure, and pupae.

When I was in school, our teachers would take us on many nature walks. During these walks, we would cover the length and breaths of our campus, which was basically a forest. We would see birds, turtles, lizards, frogs, and beetles, but amongst them all, the butterflies dazzled us youngsters the most. They would be of all sizes, from small to large, and in every color of the rainbow.

On one such walk, I remember stumbling upon a particular butterfly that was resting on a leaf. It was light green with a tinge of white and was about the size of my palm. I vividly recall standing there thinking, “How peaceful and graceful this butterfly is, even while it’s resting!” It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.

I sprinted to my environmental science teacher, who was quite the expert in butterflies, and pestered her to identify it for me. She surprised me by saying, “This isn’t a butterfly, it’s a moon moth.”

Actias Selene or the Indian Moon moth(Rajendra Bhat)s

Can you imagine how easy it is to confuse moths with butterflies when they look like this? (Photo Credit : Rajendra Bhat/Shutterstock)

Now, as a young school student, I was perplexed. How could this insect be a moth when it looked just like a butterfly? I spent the rest of the day trying to decipher one from the other.

As you can see, one can easily get confused between butterflies and moths. Therefore, it’s important for you to remember that both are insects, but differ greatly from one another. Before looking at how they are different, let’s quickly look closer at butterflies and moths.

What are butterflies and moths?

Butterflies and moths both belong to the order Lepidoptera, which in Greek means “scales” and “wings”. Both have distinct features, such as a coiled proboscis (mouths) and big wings, which distinguish them from all other insects. Interestingly, their bodies, wings, and legs are covered with dust, which passes onto anything that touches them. Both of these insects are found across the world, except in Antarctica.

(L) Butterfly, (R) moth

(L) Butterfly, (R) moth. Can you spot any differences? (Photo Credit : Candy_Plus & Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock)

How do they develop?

Moths and butterflies both develop through a process known as metamorphosis, which includes four life stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa, and adult. In the egg stage, adult females lay eggs on plants, which then become food for the caterpillars that later hatch. Once the caterpillars hatch, their only job is to eat and gain as much nutrition as they can until they transform into a pupa.

Pupa can be hidden under leaves, buried underground, or suspended from branches depending on the insect species. Once inside, they may take weeks or even months to grow. Slowly and steadily, their cells turn into wings, eyes, legs, antennae, and other butterfly parts. Finally, the pupa transforms into a full-grown adult with legs, eyes, and a body. The transformation from egg to adult is long in relation to its overall lifespan. However, most butterflies and moths live for a week or two, although a few live for several months.

Swallowtail life cycle. Swallowtail life cycle(jps)s

The process of metamorphosis is similar in both moths and butterflies. (Photo Credit : jps/Shutterstock)

Now, let’s get into the juicy details of how they differ from one another!

Differences between butterflies and moths

Active hours

The most obvious difference between these two insects is when they are active. Butterflies are diurnal, which means they are active during the day, whereas moths are nocturnal, which means they are active at night. Thus, the next time you see an insect sipping on nectar from a flower on a hot summer afternoon, you can proudly and confidently tell your friends that it’s a butterfly.

Color

The next obvious difference is their color. Butterflies are far more colorful than moths. They have vibrant colors and intricate patterns on their bodies. Moths, however, are usually dull and less vibrant. Butterflies display a diversity of colors, but there are always exceptions. For instance, both the northern Queensland Day moth (Alcides metaurus) and Jacob’s Coat moth (Agarista Agricola) are exceptionally bright for moths.

As you can see, butterflies are a lot more vibrant than moths

As you can see, butterflies are much more vibrant than moths. (Photo Credit : Shubhrojyoti & Melinda Fawver/Shutterstock)

Wings at rest

When moths rest on plants, they keep their wings wide open. Butterflies, on the other hand, rest with their wings closed. However, at times, you may see butterflies with their wings open while sunbathing. Interesting, just like us humans, butterflies also need their daily dose of vitamin D to maintain their body heat. Hence, on most mornings, when you see them basking in the sun, they’re actually trying to increase their body temperature.

Physical appearance, size, and wing structure

Moths are plumper and furrier than butterflies, who are generally leaner and smoother. They are also much smaller than butterflies. Moths have a structure called the frenulum, which joins their front and hind wings, while butterflies don’t have this structure.

Butterflies are much leaner (and less bulky) than moths.

Butterflies are much leaner (and less bulky) than moths. (Photo Credit : Patrick Foto & Protasov AN/Shutterstock)

 

Nephele comma se frenulum, enkele saamgestelde borselhaar

The male hawkmoth has a single frenulum composed of several bristles, which can only be seen when the forewings are pulled back. (Photo Credit : JMK/Wikimedia Commons)

Pupae

Both these insects go through the pupa stage during metamorphosis. In butterflies, the caterpillar spins a pupa made of hardened protein, while moth caterpillars spin a silk cocoon.

 

(L) Butterfly pupa and (R) Moth pupa

(L) Butterfly pupa and (R) Moth pupa (Photo Credit : Leena Robinson & MagicBones/Shutterstock)

Antennae

The antennae of butterflies are wide, particularly at the tips. They also have a club or hook at the end. Moths, on the other hand, have thread-like and feathery antennae without clubbed tips.

What role do these insects play?

Pollination, the biggest and most crucial role played by moths and butterflies.

Pollination, the biggest and most crucial role played by both moths and butterflies. (Photo Credit : Media Marketing & Cornel Constantin/Shutterstock)

Even though there are many differences between butterflies and moths, both play a crucial role in our ecosystems. For starters, they both have aesthetic value, often representing beauty, peace, and eco-friendliness. Second, they have scientific value and have been model organisms for studies on navigation, genetics, population dynamics, and pest control. Third, they are of great value to our ecosystems as they help in pollination, are prey for insectivorous animals, and are indicators of healthy ecosystems. Fourth, their interesting life cycles make them ideal candidates to use while teaching children about the natural world. Fifth, like other animals and insects, both bring economic income via butterfly gardens and observatories. Last and most importantly, like every other creature on this planet, they too have the right to live!

References

  1. The University of Kentucky, USA
  2. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University
  3. Australian Museum 
  4. Australian Butterfly Sanctuary
  5. Natural History Museum
  6. Butterfly Conservation Europe
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Help us make this article better

Tamanna holds a Master’s degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences and has been working in the field of wildlife conservation for over six years now. She studies wild Asian elephants (their behavior and genetics, interactions with humans) for a living, and thinks it’s the coolest job in the world. She spends most of her free time soaking her feet in the cold waters of the Bay of Bengal.

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