Difference between a Moth and a Butterfly

February 13, 2017 by Editorial Team

Many people say that if they see a brown flying creature that looks like a butterfly, it is a moth. If it’s colorful, it’s definitely a butterfly. Is this true? We’ll help you find out in this article, as we discuss the differences between a moth and a butterfly.

Descriptions

Moth vs Butterfly
A moth perched on a leaf

The term moth refers to any of the 150,000 nocturnal, winged species that belong to the order Lepidoptera. They have plump and fuzzy bodies which can be as small as 2 mm or as big as 300 mm. They normally have feathery antennae, although many species may also have thin unclubbed antennae.

A moth has a wing-coupling device called frenulum. This allows its wings to flap in unison when flying. A moth’s wings are usually dark and dull, although some kinds have colorful wings (like the Emperor Moth). Its dark-colored wings help it blend into its surroundings and avoid predators when it flies at night. When at rest, it lays its wings flat or holds them closely over its body.

Moths come out at night and you can often see them flying closely around artificial lights. Because there is no sun to give them enough heat to function at night, they warm themselves by vibrating their wings. Some moth species, however, are diurnal and come out during the day.

Moth caterpillars can be identified easily by examining their cocoons. They spin themselves into silk cocoons which serve as protection while they transition to the next stage.

Although some moth caterpillars (like silkworms) are farmed because of their ability to produce silk, most moth species are considered pests as they feed on clothes and rob other pollinators of nectar. Some moths, however, do not eat when they reach maturity.

butterfly
A butterfly perched on a plant

A butterfly is a brightly colored winged insect that belongs to the order Lepidoptera. There are about 18,500 butterfly species known to this day. They have colorful wings and smooth and slender bodies. They have clubbed antennae that are full of sensors to help them locate their food.

A butterfly can be easily identified by its large wings that feature vivid colors. When it flies, its beautiful wings create a fluttering effect and when at rest, its wings are vertically positioned over its body.

Being a diurnal insect, a butterfly comes out and forages during the day. It feeds on flowers, fruits, and even tree sap. Some butterfly species are also attracted to the sodium content in human sweat, which is why they fly very close to humans sometimes. To get enough heat, a butterfly positions its wings in such a way that the underside is exposed to the heat of the sun.

During its pupal stage, a butterfly caterpillar forms a chrysalis, which is composed of hardened protein.

Because of their attractive iridescent colors, butterflies are often used as subjects in paintings, drawings, designs, crafts, photography, literature, and other forms of art. In some places, a butterfly also symbolizes the soul of a dead loved one.

Moth vs Butterfly

What, then, is the difference between a moth and a butterfly?

When it comes to appearance, a moth can be identified by its plump and fuzzy body, while a butterfly can be identified by its smooth and slender body. A moth usually has dull-colored wings and feathery or unclubbed antennae. A butterfly, on the other hand, has colorful wings and clubbed antennae. When at rest, a moth lays its wings flat whereas a butterfly positions its wings vertically. Additionally, a moth has a frenulum (a structure which attaches its front and back wings together), while a butterfly does not.

A moth flies at night, while a butterfly flies at daytime. Because there is no sun to provide heat at night, a moth vibrates its wings to warm its body. A butterfly simply positions its wings in such a way that the underside is exposed to the sunlight to get warm during the day.

Although a moth may feed on nectar, it is sometimes considered a pest because some will eat clothes as well. A butterfly, on the other hand, feeds on flowers, tree sap, and fruits. It may also land on humans because it is attracted to human sweat, but it is not harmful.

During the pupal stage, a moth caterpillar encases itself within a silk cocoon, whereas a butterfly caterpillar forms a chrysalis, which is hardened protein.

Because of their dull colors, moths are not typically used as subjects in visual arts, unlike butterflies. However, some types of moth caterpillars (like silkworms) are bred because of their capability to produce silk.

Comparison Chart

MothButterfly
Has a plump, fuzzy bodyHas a smooth, slender body
Usually has dull-colored wings, although some species have colorful wingsHas colorful wings
Has feathery or unclubbed antennaeHas clubbed antennae
Has a frenulumDoes not have a frenulum
When at rest, its wings are laid flat close to its bodyWhen at rest, its wings are positioned vertically over its body
NocturnalDiurnal
Vibrates its wings to generate heatAbsorbs heat from the sun by exposing its wings to sunlight
May feed on clothes and nectarFeeds on flowers, fruits, and tree sap; also attracted to human sweat
A moth caterpillar has a silk cocoonA butterfly caterpillar forms into a chrysalis
Not used as a subject in visual arts but some species are bred for the silk they produceUsed as a subject in visual arts