Moths vs Butterflies: How do we tell the difference?

Even though they are related, there are distinct differences between moths vs butterflies.

Moths are the unsung members of the Lepidoptera order of insects. It is about ninety percent moths and less than ten percent butterflies.

Some moths are just as pretty as butterflies. In fact, some of them are quite amazing in appearance.

Moth vs butterfly, a beautiful Luna MothLuna Moths look like large green butterflies.

Years ago, my husband and I were tromping through the deep woods of Florida. We came upon a beautiful critter hanging on the side of a tree trunk in the shade. 

It was fairly large with a long swallowtail. It just hung there and didn't fly away while we admired it in amazement.

Because it was so pretty, I thought it was a butterfly.

We found out it was a moth. Now it makes sense because like other moths, it was resting from its night time activities.

the differences between moths vs butterflies

If there are so many moths, why don't we see more? We quite often see butterflies visiting our garden flowers.

What is the difference between a moth and a butterfly?Some moths are as pretty as a painting.

#1 moths and butterflies work different shifts

Moths are mostly nocturnal. They work at night and rest during the day.

Butterflies are active only during the daytime. While it's light, they are out visiting flowers.

Check it out. Go out by a street light or porch light at night. We can see all kinds of interesting moths flying around the lights.

Sometimes we see them landing on the exterior of our windows at night. The lights inside the house attract them to our windows.

#2 moths vs butterflies: watch them when they land

Moths land and sit down to rest with their wings stretched out.

When butterflies land, they fold their wings up above their head.

Moth-willowherb-hawk-moth

A Willowherb Hawk-moth resting with its wings out.

Notice the moth looks hairy compared to the butterfly's lightweight, smooth body.

The lovely Malachite Butterfly

This Malachite Butterfly landed with its wings up.

Also, there is an enlargement on the end of the butterfly's long, slim antennae.

#3 Moths vs butterflies: they are colored differently

Most moths have duller colors. Butterflies tend to have brighter colors.

The moth and butterfly above both have green colors, but the moth's green colors are dull.

The dull colors on moths don't attract the attention of predators while they are resting during the daytime.

#4 Moths look fuzzy or furry

Both butterflies and moths have scales on their wings and bodies.

Moth's scales stand up and look like fuzz or fur. The scales on butterflies lay flat, so they look smoother.

This Emperor Moth has feathered antennae.Emperor Moth from the UK

#5 the antennae of moths vs. butterflies

The moth's antennae are feathered or leaf-like.

The butterfly's antennae are long, smooth and slender. Generally, there is a small bulb on the end of a butterfly's slim antennae.

#6 moths tend to have heavier bodies

The butterfly's body is slimmer and lighter weight.

Consequently, moths fly slower than light weight butterflies.

#7 wing devices

Moths have a frenulum, which is a wing-coupling device.

This mechanism locks their fore-wing and hind-wing together. So, when they fly, their wings fly in unison.

Butterflies don't have this mechanism.

Moths-sphinx-mothSphinx Moths make tomato worms.

#8 the eyes of moths vs butterflies

Moths have different eyes from butterflies that enables them to see better at night.

Moths, as well some beetles and crustaceans have superposition eyes. These eyes allow them to see things much brighter in low light. But they don't see quite as clearly.

Butterflies on the other hand have opposition eyes for daytime vision.

Both moths and butterflies see colors.

#9 the life cycle of moths vs butterflies

Both moths and butterflies go through complete metamorphosis.

The adult female moth or butterfly lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars or in moths they may be called worms.

The next stage is the difference between moths and butterflies.

Moths spin a cocoon covered with strands of silk. Butterflies make a smooth shelled chrysalis that hatches into an adult butterfly.

Moth-Silk-cocoonsCocoons of the Silk Moth getting processed.

In the orient silk moths are raised to collect their cocoons to make silk cloth. That's how we get beautiful silk clothes.

No wonder real silk costs so much.

Monarch-chrysalisChrysalis of a Monarch Butterfly

During this stage of metamorphosis all butterflies make a chrysalis, sometimes called a pupa.

The Monarchs make particularly pretty ones.

defense mechanisms of moths and butterflies

Many moths and butterflies have what is called an eye-spot. The eye-spot is normally located on the outer portion of the wings.

Most times are two concentric circles with a dark spot in the middle. The dark spot mimics the pupil of mammals.

The eye-spot is a defense mechanism that works one of two ways. Either the eye-spot would scare a predator away. Or a bird would peck the eye-spot instead of the actual eye.

Then the moth or butterfly would only lose a bit of wing instead of their whole head.

The Eyed Hawk Moth has large false eyes on its wings.A well camouflaged Eyed Hawk Moth

How do we know the photo above is a moth?

  • It's resting with its wings out.
  • It is dull colored.
  • It has a heavy body.
  • The body and wings look furry.
  • Its antennae are thick, not slim like a butterfly's.

We can't tell by the photo if it's day or night, if there's a wing-coupling, the type of eyes or if it makes a cocoon or a chrysalis.

But - Five items definitely identify it as a moth!

yes, we can tell: moths vs butterflies

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