by Regina Cutter Edwards – Entomologist
Butterflies, moths, skippers; really… what is the difference? There are many similarities and differences between the three. Many features of these Lepidopteran insects overlap and at times can make them difficult to identify. This article will explain these characteristics and will answer your question; what is the difference between butterflies and moths?
Table of contents
Are There More Butterflies or Moths?
The order Lepidoptera consists of approximately 265,000 species of butterflies and moths worldwide and only about 7.5% of them are butterflies. Moths are much more abundant than butterflies, but, why is it that we notice more butterflies? This is easy to answer. Many moths are nocturnal, they are active at night. Many are also small pests of grains, crops, trees, plants, and even clothing.
We notice butterflies more often because they are usually more colorful and active during the day as they visit our flowers and gardens on a regular basis. But, do not let that confuse you, there are actually more day flying moths than there are butterflies. Some include Burnets, Underwings, and the unique Hummingbird, Bee, and Wasp Moths that are diurnal, active during the day.
Colors of Butterflies and Moths
Colorful and beautiful are usually accurate descriptions for butterflies. Their coloration patterns have always been intriguing. Many cultures use butterflies in art and jewelry. The colors displayed on butterfly wings can be any color imaginable. When you think of a moth, you think browns, tans, and dull colors. Although colors seem to be a pretty accurate way of identifying a butterfly from a moth, it is not a sure way. There are many moths that have beautiful bright colors and butterflies that are dull brown for camouflaging.
Examples of moths that have beautiful colors are Cecropias, Tiger Moths, Io Moths, and some Ermine Moths. A few butterflies that are not brilliantly colored are Satyrs, Browns, and Elfins. Then, of course, there are Skippers; most of these are shades of brown and they look more similar to moths
How Butterflies and Moths Rest
The resting place for the wings on these fun flying creatures is another way many people believe they can be identified. The thought is that if the wings are spread out horizontally, they are moths, and if they are folded up vertically, they are butterflies. Again, this is not always the case. Many moths do spread out their wings as they are resting but swallowtail butterflies exhibit the same behavior. Skippers usually fold their wings into the vertical position when resting, although not always. This again is not a solid identifying characteristic.
Dichotomous Key to Identifying Butterflies and Moths
Identifying insects is not an easy task and as you can see with butterflies, moths, and skippers, there just does not seem to be any absolutes. The most accurate way to identify is to use a dichotomous key. A dichotomous key is a tool that scientists use to classify a plant or animal. They are pretty simple in thought; there are two options or a couplet, you pick the option that describes your specimen and then move to the next couplet, this is repeated until the answer is reached.
Using a dichotomous key to identify butterflies, moths, and skippers in your garden is not necessary. It is mentioned here only because scientifically, the key tells the real differences between the three. For the most part, the key that separates moths from butterflies and skippers are the antennae. Butterfly and skipper antennae are thin and knobbed or clubbed on the end. But the key also states that if the moth has thin antennae there will be no knob on the end. In addition, moths have a frenulum, bristles that are underneath the hind wing. Butterflies do not have frenulums.
Butterflies and Moths Antennae
The following couplet separates skippers from butterflies, again it is the antennae. Skipper antennae are located father apart on the head and will have a hook on the tip of the antennae. Butterfly antennae will appear close together and will never be hooked on the tip. A couple other characteristics which are more difficult to identify is the skippers will have a spur on the hind leg which butterflies do not possess. Also, the wing venation on a skipper will branch off five times in a particular location on the front wing while the butterfly’s veins will branch off three to five times in the same spot.
So, to narrow down an answer for the question; what is the difference between a butterfly, moth, and skipper? The answer would primarily be the antennae. Butterfly antennae are thin with knobs on the tips most of the time while skippers have hooked ends instead of knobs. Moth antennae can vary from both straight and thin to very feathery in appearance. These basic rules can assist you in identifying all the beautiful Lepidopteran creatures around your house and in your gardens. And, the next time someone asks you the important question, “What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?” You will have all the answers. Happy Butterfly Identifying!
Photo Credit: Fred Miller and Janie Hammon (Hummingbird Moth)
Borror, D. J., Triplehorn C.A., Johnson, N.F. 1992. Order Lepidoptera butterflies and moths. An Introduction to the Study of Insects (6th Ed). New York: Saunders College Publishing. pg. 588-664.
Butterfly Conservation, 2008. Identifying Moths. England. Accessed 2009 Jan 8
Butterfly Rainforest, 2008. Butterfly Q & A. University of Florida, Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed 2009 Jan 8 https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/butterflies/qanda.htm