What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?

What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?

My nine year old daughter went a bit crazy on the butterflies and moths this Summer.  It was great to see so many of them and herself and her friend spent hours catching them, minding them in the insect observer they have, identifying which type they were and eventually setting them free.  To my knowledge none of them were harmed in the process and along with plenty of fresh air she also got to learn a lot about nature!


Caer asked me the other day…. “What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?”
Moths and butterflies both belong to the order Lepidoptera (which means scaled wings).  They both start their lives as caterpillars and then transform into winged insects that eat nectar in the adult phase of their life.  There are however many general differences between butterflies and moths, although for each difference there is usually a moth or butterfly that is an exception to the rule!

So here are some differences between butterflies and moths….

Most moths are active at night (nocturnal) while butterflies usually fly during the day (diurnal ).
The antenna on butterflies tend to have a little ball at the end, these are referred to as clubbed, while the antenna of moths are usually plain or feathered.
Clubbed antennae on buckeye butterfly
photo credit: jjjj56cp via photopin cc
Feathery antennae on white ermine moth
photo credit: e³°°° via photopin cc

Butterflies fold their wings together behind their back when at rest while moths tend to place their wings down their backs.

Wings folded back along the body of a tiger moth
Wings folded together on a Queen butterfly
photo credit: jjjj56cp via photopin cc

The forewing and hindwing of a moth are attached together by a filament called a frenulum.  This allows the wings to move together in flight.  Butterflies do not have frenulums.

Both butterflies and moths undergo a complete metamorphosis (homometabolism) from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis to adult.   However the chrysalis of a moth is usually enclosed in a cocoon of silk while that of a butterfly is not.
Butterflies tend to be more colourful than moths, although this is not always the case!

Moths tend to have hairy, plump bodies while most butterflies have more smooth, slim bodies.

An exception to the rule…

There are, as I mentioned, plenty of exceptions to all these rules…. the Madagascar sunset moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus) is a good example.  The bright colours of this day flying moth are more akin to the colours we expect from a butterfly rather than a moth!  As always, Mother Nature likes to keep us on our toes!

The Madagascar sunset moth
Image credit: Anaxibia via Wikimedia Commons
If you have spotted any unusual butterflies or moths lately or have anything to add please leave your comment below!