With their fragile wings and bright colours, butterflies are beautiful insects to see up close. While the same can be said for moths, we tend to think about them much less favourably. Butterflies are seen by many of us as colourful, graceful creatures of sunny meadows whereas moths are the less-loved creatures of the night that flutter in through open windows on a summer evening. But what is the difference between moths and butterflies? And how can you tell them apart?
In the UK, there are over 2,500 species of moth and only 60 species of butterfly, so you can think of butterflies as just a type of moth. Both moths and butterflies belong to the order of insects called lepidoptera which means ‘scale winged’ as these animals are covered in tiny scales which provide them with patterns, camouflage and insulation.
It is a common misconception that all moths fly at night. There are many beautiful day-flying moths, including the scarlet tiger and the cinnabar moth. Meanwhile, not all butterflies are flashes of bright colour - the speckled wood and the meadow brown butterflies are both a rather dull brown. Some moths can also be absolutely stunning – take the elephant hawk moth: its lime greens and bright pinks make it one of the most jazzy animals in the UK! A group of our young volunteers were amazed when we found a pair at Grow Wilder the other weekend.
If you want to tell them apart. there are some useful things to look out for. Antennae are interesting - butterflies tend to have club-shaped ones that end in a bulge, whereas moths’ antennae are straight or feathered. However, when they are flying through your garden, this can be very difficult to see.
Wings are another clue. Butterflies tend to fold their wings vertically up over their backs, while moths are more likely to hold their wings horizontally when at rest.
However, there are many exceptions to these ‘rules’, and the real answer is that, scientifically, there isn’t really a difference between them at all.