What Makes a Butterfly Different from a Moth?
Have you ever wondered about the difference between a moth and a butterfly? In many ways the seem so similar, yet they we are taught they are completely separate. Though they may at a glance appear very similar, in reality they are generally very different and often easily distinguished from one another when you know what to look for. The chart below gives an idea of the quickest and easiest ways to determine which is which when it comes to figuring out which are the butterflies and which are the moths.
Bright and colorful
Mostly earth tones
Long and thin with club tip
Short and bushy or feathery
Wings when inactive
At least partially closed
Usually fully open
Additionally, butterflies can be differentiated from moths by the way the forewing is held together with the hindwing while flying. Butterflies have an enlarged area where the forewing overlaps the hindwing known as the humeral lobe. The wings are not actually connected but this overlapped area allows the wings to move in unison. Most moths, on the other hand, have bristles or spines on the hindwing known as a frenulum that couples with a barb on the forewing. Some moths have a lobe on the forewing called a jugum that aids in coupling with hindwing.
Another difference between moths and butterflies can be seen during their metamorphosis into the pupal stage. Butterfly caterpillars usually create a chrysalis that hangs from a branch leaving the pupa exposed. Moth caterpillars more often form a cocoon from spun silk that is attached to a sturdy surface or pupate underground protecting the pupa during metamorphosis.There are exceptions to this, however, so this cannot always be a definitive way to determine if a certain species is a moth or a butterfly.
What Are the Similarities Between Moths and Butterflies?
Beyond their general appearance, butterflies and moths have a lot more in common. Both have iridescent scales on their wings that create the colors and patterns that we see. The wings would actually be transparent were it not for these scales that are somewhat similar to tiny hairs. Blacks and browns are generally created by pigments in the scales but other colors and the wings iridescence are a result of the micro-structure of the scales. The Glasswing Butterfly (pictured at the top of the article) has large sections of its wings that have no scales, thus giving the appearance that its wings are partially made of glass.
Also, the lifecycle of moths and butterflies are nearly identical. The eggs that are laid by an adult female hatch and grow into caterpillars. The caterpillar then generally pupates either by spinning a cocoon in the case of a moth or entering a chrysalis state in the case of a butterfly. From this state, the adult moth or butterfly will emerge to begin the cycle anew.
So You Want to Be a Lepidopterist...
Both butterflies and moths are part of the order of insects known as Lepidoptera. This order is comprised of nearly 175,000 species though recent estimates suggest that number may be even higher. Lepidoptera is the third largest order of insects behind Coleoptera (beetles with 400,000 species) and Diptera (flies, mosquitoes, gnats, etc. with 240,000 species). While many species are considered to be clearly either a moth or a butterfly, there are species that are considered moth-butterflies as well as species whose classification is disputed to some degree.
With so much variation among moths and butterflies, it can be overwhelming trying to keep them all straight. But because of their beauty and the amazing variety among the species, Lepidoptera is the most commonly studied order of insects. One who studies moths and butterflies is known as a lepidopterist, whether involved in intense scientific research or studying for personal interest. Simply watching these beautiful creatures for pleasure, however, is generally referred to as mothing or butterflying .
Both butterflies and moths emerge from the pupal state without a mouth, instead having developed a proboscis with which they consume primarily nectar from flowers. As adults, they subsist totally on liquid diets, drinking water from damp patches and other liquids such as tree sap and dissolved minerals in wet sand or dirt. Some need salt and this may lead butterflies and moths to land on people, attracted by their sweat. A few species emerge without a proboscis and simply mate and then die once they have used up the sustenance consumed as a caterpillar.
Butterflies can see colors, but their vision is shifted to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. Moths also can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. This aids both butterflies and moths in finding food sources as flowers are very vibrant when seen in this manner. Though this method of seeing has only been demonstrated in a limited number of species, it is generally accepted that this is likely a widely spread characteristic among all moths and butterflies.
Monarch Butterflies are one of the most recognized species of butterflies in America though they may be sometimes confused with the similar looking Viceroy Butterfly, which can be distinguished by an extra black stripe across its hindwing. It is believed the harmless Viceroy adapted the Monarch's coloring to fend off predators who avoid the Monarch, which is somewhat poisonous to most of the natural predators of butterflies and definitely not very tasty. This is due to the Monarch's diet as a caterpillar consisting primarily of milkweed.
The Monarch is known for its yearly migration, going south toward Mexico as winter approaches and then returning northward to Canada in the spring and summer. But no single Monarch completes this journey as their life cycle is too short. It takes three to four full generations for the journey to be completed each year. Scientists are researching this migration in an attempt to discover how the butterflies can complete the journey over several generations when members of the current generation would have no memory of where the previous generations had come from.
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Though Monarch Butterflies win the prize for furthest distance migrated, they are not the only butterflies that migrate. Most butterflies that frequent colder climates will migrate for two reasons. First, they simply cannot survive the cold temperatures and must find a warmer climate in order to survive. Second, their food sources do not grow in the winter months in colder areas so they must seek food in a warmer area.
But even those butterflies in warmer climates such as the tropics may migrate. This could be because the butterflies consume such a great amount of food as caterpillars that they must find an area with more food available to avoid starvation. Once the first area has had a chance to replenish the food supply, they return there so that the area to which they had migrated to can have a chance to recover as well.
Other Interesting Butterfly Facts
- Some butterflies can fly at a top speed of around 12 miles per hour.
- Representations of butterflies have been found in Egypt dating back 3500 years ago.
- At 9-10 months, the Brimstone Butterfly has the longest lifespan of adult butterflies.
- Many butterflies can "taste" the leaf they are on with their feet to determine if it would be a good food source for their caterpillars before laying its eggs.
- At night, butterflies rest by hanging upside down from leaves and branches where they can be hidden by the foliage.
- Butterflies tend to stay at rest on cloudy, overcast days.
The Luna Moth is special to this article because it was one of these beautiful moths that inspired the article. I saw one of these perched on the wall at my work the one day and thought it was an incredibly lovely butterfly. I was a little surprised to learn that it was a moth instead. Many consider it to be the most beautiful moth and it is easy to see why. With a wingspan of 3 1/2 to 4 inches, the Luna Moth is one of the largest moths and is considered common though it is rarely seen during its short adult lifespan of approximately one week.
Luna Moths are one of the species mentioned earlier have no mouth, no proboscis and no method of consuming food. They emerge in their adult state only to mate. The male uses its feathery antennae to sense pheromones emitted by the female to complete the act of mating. Despite this relatively short adulthood, nature has given this emerald beauty spots on its wings that resemble eyes to fool predators and increase their survival rate.
Speaking of moth survival, have you ever wondered why a moth will fly headlong into an open flame? No one knows for sure, but some researchers believe it has something to do with a natural ability moths may have to navigate by celestial objects such as the stars and the Moon. This ability is thought to have developed before man was around to create so many artificial nocturnal light sources. These lights confuse the moth and when the light source is an open flame, a moth has no experience to warn it of the danger even though it feels the heat as it approaches.
Another theory is that the infrared spectra of a candle flame coincidentally contains certain emissions that coincide with female moth pheromones, causing the male moth to be drawn to the candle in an ill-fated attempt to mate. This theory is somewhat supported by the fact that it is almost always a male moth that meets a fiery doom with females rarely making this mistake.
Since we now know that moths do not have mouths, perhaps you are wondering about how moths eat clothes. The secret here is really simple. It is not the moths that eat the cloth fibers but rather their larva. They will infest clothing made of natural fibers such as wool, cotton or silk but are not as likely to infest mixed materials that include artificial fibers and will never infest synthetic materials with no natural fiber content.
I hope you have learned something interesting about moths and butterflies by reading this article. If nothing else, maybe you will take away an appreciation of how beautiful both are. I had no idea there were so many beautiful varieties of moths in the world. I guess I was a little naïve in thinking such beauty was reserved for the butterflies. It just goes to show that there is delicacy and splendor everywhere in the world if we only look with open eyes. Perhaps we just need to slow down and take a moment to look around. With that, my friends, I will leave you with this quote...
"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough." - Bengali writer, artist and musician Rabindranath Tagore
Can you guess what this odd creature will become?
Other Interesting Facts About Moths
- Moths generally are faster fliers than butterflies with some species able to reach a top speed of about 25 miles per hour.
- The females of certain moth species have no wings and can only crawl.
- About 80 percent of the order Lepidoptera is comprised of moths.
- Some moths do migrate but only over very small distances.
- The Clearwing family of moths resemble other insects like wasps and hornets and includes the hummingbird moths that look and act like small hummingbirds.
- While many moths are strictly nocturnal, some do routinely fly during the day.
For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.
- When the caterpillar above emerges from his cocoon, what will he have become?
- Hummingbird Moth
- Black Swallowtail Butterfly
- Blue Mountain Butterfly
- White Plume Moth
- Brahmin Moth
- Eastern Tailed Blue Butterfly
- Indian Leaf Butterfly
- Death's Head Moth
- Spanish Festoon Butterfly
- Comet Moth
- Brahmin Moth
Interpreting Your Score
If you got 0 correct answers: Sorry!
If you got 1 correct answer: Perfect!
Bobbi on October 14, 2017:
Thanks for all the info & great photos. I am under the impression that the Hummingbird Moth lays the eggs of the large Horned Tomato Worm ? ? ?
rachel on April 11, 2017:
really Sp Greaney. thanks for the fact. my ansestors came from Ireland.
More people should know about this
Glenn from Greater Burlington, Vt on April 23, 2016:
A really nice piece. I like butterfly sites that identify as well as show images.
Woody142 on April 24, 2011:
Wow love the photos :D This was very intersting tank you :)
Sp Greaney from Ireland on April 24, 2011:
I love the photos. They add to the hub. We never see butterflies like that over here in Ireland. Took your quiz and guessed the correct answer the first time :-)