Moth or Butterfly?
We'll show you how to distinguish the differences between the two.
By Tom Allen, Contributing Editor
Moths and butterflies look like similar creatures, but don't let them fool you. Moths, like the luna moth at right, outnumber butterflies by more than 10 to one, and the two groups can really be confusing. However, you can learn a few simple tricks to help tell them apart.
The simplest way has to do with timing. Butterflies are active during the day, and most moths are active at night. Butterflies depend on sunlight to find food and seek out mates. So if you see a flying flower during daylight hours, chances are you're seeing a butterfly. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. There are a number of moths that fly during the day.
Color is the next thing to look for when distinguishing butterflies from moths. Most butterflies, but not all, have bright colors that help with the mating process and ward off predators. Brightly colored butterflies attract mates from quite a distance, and colors can be very important in butterfly courtship displays.
Though a few day-flying moths are also brightly colored, most are a dull gray, brown, white or a combination of the three. Their coloring tends to be duller because they rest on trees, the ground and on rocks during the day to avoid predators.
In general, butterflies are thinner bodied that moths—with the exception of skippers. Skippers tend to be dull in color and have large heads and robust bodies. Unlike butterflies, most moths are not strong fliers.
If you're still not sure if you're seeing a moth or butterfly, there's one distinguishing feature that never fails. Look at the antennae. Butterflies have enlarged clubs at the tips of their antennae, like this American lady butterfly (right) that Christine Wilhelm photographed. The clubs may be slightly curved, round or oblong.
Moths, on the other hand, have either tapered or feathered antennae, and do not have clubs on the ends. However, the hummingbird moth's antennae tend to get larger toward the tips.
When it comes to caterpillars, it's even more difficult to tell the difference between butterflies and moths, unless you are familiar with their host plants. There is one big difference, though. Butterflies form a chrysalis, and moths spin cocoons.
A chrysalis is a hard outer shell that is attached to the host plant, either upright or upside down, depending on the species. Moths have a different approach. They pupate in soft cocoons that they spin from silk.
One other difference between moths and butterflies is how they keep warm. This isn't something that is easy to see, but it is interesting. Both creatures are cold-blooded, so they need to warm their bodies on chilly days in order to be active.
During the day, butterflies find a perch and bask in the sun, often with their wings outstretched to absorb more heat. Moths have to use a different method, since they are nocturnal. They vibrate their wings rapidly for periods of time while perched. This creates friction and warms their bodies.
So the next time you see a flying flower in your yard, take a close look, especially at the antennae. You'll know how to distinguish moths from butterflies in no time!