Wednesday 23 January 2013


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You spot a pretty, flapping insect in your garden during the day and assume it is a butterfly, not a moth.  Moths are smaller and more drab, coming out only at night. Right?

Monarch butterfly
Not exactly. Not all moths come out at night. There are some colourful daytime moths that appear similar in appearance to butterflies.  Nor are all moths drab in appearance; there are some very colourful moths out there too. And size is not a good indication either, as both moths and butterflies vary considerably in scale.

Moths and butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, meaning scale winged.  Butterflies comprise of the subfamilies Papilionoidea (true butterflies), Hesperioidea (skippers) and Hedyloidea (moth-butterflies). All the many other families within the Lepidoptera are referred to as moths.

The distinction between butterflies and moths is becoming blurred as new species are being discovered. Although butterflies and moths have a lot in common there are some key differences that can help you to recognise them. Although, of course, there are always exceptions to these rules.

Hemlock Hooper moth
One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae. A moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged. A butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end.

Moths are typically smaller with drab-colour wings in order to camouflage them against predators. Butterflies are typically larger and have more colourful patterns on their wings.

Both butterflies and moths have scales on their wings, which come off when handled. 
However, the scales on moths are larger, giving a more dense and dusty appearance.

Moths tend to rest their wings to the sides of their body so that they lie flat or in a tent-like fashion that hides the abdomen. Butterflies fold their wings vertically up over their backs 
when they are perched, although they occasionally open them flat in order to bask for short periods.

Atlas moth
Unlike butterflies, moths have a frenulum which is a wing-coupling device. Frenulums join the fore wing to the hind wing, so the wings can work in unison during flight.

Body structure
Moths have stouter and hairy, furry looking bodies as they need to conserve heat during the night.  Butterflies are able to absorb solar radiation and so have smoother, slender bodies.

Butterflies are primarily diurnal, flying in the daytime, whilst moths are generally nocturnal, flying at night.  However, there are some moths that fly in the daytime, and there are butterflies that fly at dawn and dusk.

The buck moth (Hemileuca maia) flies in the day time. The Green-banded Urania (Urania leilus) is a colourful day flying moth from Peru. Castniid moths (Castnioidea) are found in the neotropics, Indonesia, and Australia which exhibits many of the characteristics of butterflies such as brightly colour wings, clubbed antenna and day flying.

Purple Emperor butterfly
Butterflies and moths undergo a complete metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar and from chrysalis/cocoon to adult.  They go through a intermediate stage between caterpillar and adult called pupa.

Cocoons and chrysalis are protective coverings for the pupa. A moth makes a cocoon, which is wrapped in a silk covering. A butterfly makes a chrysalis, which is hard, smooth and has no silk covering.

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