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The Similarities, Differences, and Environmental Niches of the Moth and Butterfly (Lepidoptera)

"Most people love butterflies and hate moth," he said. "But moths are more interesting - more engaging." "They're destructive." "Some are, a lot are, but they live in all kinds of ways. Just like we do." Silence for one floor. "There's a moth, more than one in fact, that lives only on tears," he offered. "That's all they eat or drink." "What kind of tears? Whose tears?" "The tears of large land mammals, about our size. The old definition of moth was, 'anything that gradually, silently eats, consumes, or wages any other thing.' It was a verb for destruction too. . . .” ― Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs

Moths and butterflies are both insects that belong to the order Lepidoptera (from the Greek lepis meaning scale and pteron meaning wing)

The earliest Lepidoptera fossils are of a small moth, Archaeolepis mane, of Jurassic age, (Mya) around 190 million years ago.

Butterflies evolved from moths, so while the butterflies are monophyletic (forming a single clade), the moths are not. But there are numerous other physical and behavioral differences between the two insect types and the purpose for them in the environment.

On the behavioral side, moths are nocturnal and butterflies are diurnal (active during the day).

However, there are moths that are diurnal, such as the buck moth.

As is there are butterflies that are crepuscular, meaning. they fly at dawn and dusk.

Butterflies tend to hold their wings vertically up over their backs. Moths tend to hold their wings in a tent-like fashion that hides the abdomen.

Butterflies are typically larger and have more colorful patterns on their wings. Moths are typically smaller with drab-colored wings.

Moths have a frenulum, which is a wing-coupling device. Butterflies do not have frenulums. Frenulums join the forewing to the hind wing, so the wings can work in unison during flight.

Though these various traits usually distinguish a butterfly from a moth, there are numerous exceptions to these rules. The Madagascan sunset moth, for example, is brightly colored and active during the day.

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

Their pupal stage (between the larva and adult stages) is slightly different, too.

Butterflies and moths are holometabolous meaning that they undergo a complete metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar and from chrysalis to adult.

Here, moths make cocoons that are wrapped in silk coverings. Butterflies, on the other hand, form chrysalises, which are hard, smooth and silkless.

Other ways that help to identify butterflies and moths:


Butterflies tend to hold their wings vertically up over their backs. Moths tend to hold their wings in a tent-like fashion that hides the abdomen.

Butterflies are typically larger and have more colorful patterns on their wings. Moths are typically smaller with drab-colored wings.

While at rest, butterflies usually fold their wings back, while moths flatten their wings against their bodies or spread them out in a “jet plane” position.


Butterflies are primarily diurnal, flying in the daytime. Moths are generally nocturnal, flying at night. However, there are moths that are diurnal, such as the buck moth and there are butterflies that are crepuscular, that is, flying at dawn and dusk.Cocoon/Chrysalis

As scientists discover and study new species of butterflies and moths, distinctions between the two are becoming blurred.

Some moths may fool you into thinking that they are butterflies such as the Urania leilus, a colorful day-flying moth from Peru.

The Castnioidea moths, found in the neotropics, Indonesia, and Australia exhibit many of the characteristics of butterflies such as brightly colored wings, clubbed antenna and day flying.

The plume winged moths of the family Pterophoridae also pupates without a cocoon and the pupa resembles the chrysalis of the pierid butterfly.

There are many exceptions to this rule, however. For example, the hawk moths form an exposed pupa which is underground.

A few skipper butterfly larvae also make crude cocoons in which they pupate, exposing the pupa a bit.

The Parnassius butterfly larvae make a flimsy cocoon for pupation and they pupate near the ground surface between debris.

Despite appearances, butterflies and moths have different types of compound eyes. Though not universal, moths very commonly have superposition eyes, while butterflies equally commonly favor apposition eyes.

This is due to the superposition eye’s adaptations for low light environments suiting the nocturnal moths, and the opposite eye’s superior resolution and potential for color vision benefiting the more diurnal butterflies.

There are several exceptions to this rule, such as with the diurnal Zygaenidae and Sytomidae families of moths, both of which have apposition eyes, or the Hedyloidea family of butterflies, which are nocturnal and feature superposition eyes.

In most cases where one species is found to be using the opposite type of eye than expected, it is because they are active during the opposite time of day than is normal for other butterflies or moths.

There are many more species of moths than butterflies. Butterflies and skippers (hooked-shaped antennae) make up 6 to 11 percent of Lepidoptera order, while moths make up 89-94 percent of the Lepidoptera order.

The following families of Lepidoptera are usually considered butterflies:

  • Swallowtails and birdwings, Papilionidae
  • Whites or yellow-white, Pieridae
  • Blues and coppers or gossamer-winged butterflies, Lycaenidae
  • Metalmark butterflies, Riodinidae
  • Brush-footed butterflies, Nymphalidae which contain the following 13 subfamilies:
  • the snout butterflies or Libytheinae (formerly the family Libytheidae)
  • the danaids or Danainae (formerly the family Danaidae)
  • the Tellervinae
  • the glasswings or Ithomiinae
  • the Calinaginae
  • the morphos and owls or Morphinae (including the owls as tribe Brassolini)
  • the browns or Satyrinae (formerly the family Satyridae)
  • the Charaxinae (Preponas and leaf butterflies)
  • the Biblidinae
  • the Apaturinae
  • the nymphs or Nymphalinae
  • the Limenitidinae (especially the Adelphas) (formerly the family Limenitididae)
  • the tropical longwings or Heliconiinae
  • The family Hesperiidae, or the skippers, often considered as butterflies, have significant morphological differences from butterflies and moths.

The other families of the Lepidoptera are considered moths.

What Good Are Moths?

Although many people overlook them, moths are numerous and widespread, living in a wide range of habitats. They are a major part of our biodiversity and play vital roles in the ecosystem, affecting many other types of wildlife.

Eyed Hawk-moth and their caterpillars are food for a wide variety of wildlife, including other insects, spiders, frogs, toads, lizards, shrews, hedgehogs, bats, and birds. Night-flying adult moths form a major part of the diet of bats.

Many birds eat both adult moths and their caterpillars,

But the caterpillars are especially important for feeding the young.

Small Yellow Underwing Moth caterpillars have a great impact on plants by eating their leaves. This had led to many types of plant evolving special chemicals to make them less appealing to caterpillars and limit the damage.

But moths also benefit plants by pollinating flowers while feeding on their nectar, and so help in seed production. This not only benefits wild plants but also many of our food crops, which depend on moths as well as other insects to ensure a good harvest.

Moths also play a vital role in telling us about the health of our environment, like the canary in the coalmine. Since they are so widespread and found in so many different habitats, and are so sensitive to changes, moths are particularly useful as indicator species.

Monitoring their numbers and ranges can give us vital clues to changes in our own environment, such as the effects of new farming practices, pesticides, air pollution, and climate change.

What Plants Do Moths Need?

As different species of moth are around at different times of the year, you should aim to have plenty of nectar-bearing flowers out in as many months as possible, including early spring and late summer and autumn.

Generally, the more old-fashioned varieties tend to have more nectar than more modern forms and hybrids. In particular double flowers have little or no nectar, so it is better to choose varieties with single flowers.

For example, some Pinks and Sweet Williams are good sources of nectar, but only if you look for the old-fashioned single-flowered varieties, not the modern double-flowered forms which are now common in garden centers.

Good plants for supplying nectar in spring include Aubretia, Bluebell, Clover, Cuckooflower, Daisy, Dandelion, Forget-me-not, Honesty, Pansy, Primrose, Sweet Rocket, and Wallflower.

For late summer and autumn nectar, plant Buddleia, French Marigold, Ice Plant, Knapweed, Lavender, Marjoram, Michaelmas Daisy, Mint, Red Valerian, Scabious, and Thyme. Ivy is especially good for autumn flying moths, as it flowers in October and November.

Night-scented plants are particularly good for moths, and actually evolved their night-time perfume to attract moths to pollinate their flowers.

They include summer flowering Jasmine, Honeysuckle, Evening Primrose, Sweet Rocket and Night-scented Stock.

Tobacco plants, commonly sold as summer bedding plants, can also be good but you need to look for the original species Nicotiana alata, as modern varieties have lost much of their scent.

What Do Butterflies Do?

Butterflies make the world a little more colorful. Their vivid wing coloration and fluttering flight path lend a special touch of beauty to nature. However, butterflies do more than just paint a pretty picture.

They help flowers pollinate, eat plenty of weedy plants and provide a food source for other animals. In addition, their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the local environment.

Butterflies make the world a little more colorful. Their vivid wing coloration and fluttering flight path lend a special touch of beauty to nature. However, butterflies do more than just paint a pretty picture. They help flowers pollinate, eat plenty of weedy plants and provide a food source for other animals. In addition, their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the local environment.

Adult butterflies drink nectar from blossoms on flowering plants. Butterflies use a long proboscis to reach deep into the bloom to get at the nectar.

The proboscis, which is a part of their mouths, works like a long straw that butterflies curl into a spiral when not using.

Like bees and other pollinators, butterflies pick up pollen while they sip a flower’s nectar. Once they’re off to another plant, the pollen goes with them, helping to pollinate the plant species. About one-third of the food people eat depends on the work of pollinators such as butterflies.

Butterflies in the larval, or caterpillar, stage consume the leaves of host plants. Caterpillars have chewing mouthpieces that allow them to eat through leaves quickly, using them as an energy source while the larvae grow. Some caterpillars eat flowers or seed pods as well.

Butterflies are typically very specific as to the type of plant on which they feed. For example, during its caterpillar stage, the monarch butterfly only eats milkweed plants.

As a result, they may help plants lose leaves prior to autumn, or help keep certain plant species from propagating out of control.

Although adult butterflies help keep aphid populations in check by eating them, other adult butterfly species eat rotting fruit, carrion or animal excrement, thus ridding the environment of waste.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

Most butterflies eat (actually they “drink”) from nectar plants (while the plants that caterpillars eat are called host plants). Each species of butterflies has nectar plants that they prefer but many adult butterflies will feed from a wide variety of nectar sources.

Butterflies are not as specific in their food source as are their caterpillars. A few adult butterfly species even prefer rotting fruit and dung as opposed to nectar.

Some general plant species you may want in your garden`1

Flowering Almond

Want To Get Species Specific?

Anise Swallowtailcolumbine, Hall’s lomatium, leichtlin’s camas, New England Aster, lantana
Eastern Black
Milkweed, Phlox
Giant Swallowtaillantana, orange
Pipevine SwallowtailAzalea, Honeysuckle, Orchid, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Spicebush Swallowtail         .Joe-Pye Weed, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, Jewelweed, Lantana, honeysuckle, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Eastern Tiger
Bee Balm (Monarda), Butterfly Bush, Honeysuckle, Sunflower, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
Zebra SwallowtailMilkweed, Joe-Pye Weed, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy
MonarchMilkweed, New England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy, Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia)
ViceroyMilkweed, New England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy, rotting fruit
rotting fruit, dung, small white flowers such as a white Buddleia
Great Spangled
Milkweed, New England Aster, Red Clover, Zinnia, Cosmos sulphureus, Lantana, Pentas, daisy
Variegated Fritillarymeadow flowers, Hibiscus, composite family
Meadow Fritillarymeadow flowers, composite family
Mourning Cloakrotting fruit, dung, meadow flowers
Question Markrotting fruit, dung, meadow flowers
Green Commadung, fruits, puddles
Red AdmiralCosmos sulphureus, fruit, Gaillardia
Painted Ladyvariety of garden and field plants
American Painted
Burdock, daisy, everlastings, Mallow, Malva sylvestris, Yarrow, Zinnia, Heliotrope
BuckeyeGaillardia, Lantana, Cosmos sulphureus, clovers
Lobelia, Purple Coneflower, Gaillardia
Pearly CrescentspotZinnia, daisies, clovers, Goldenrod
Great Purple
daisy, Purple Coneflower, clovers
Gray HairstreakYarrow, meadow and edge flowers
American Copperdaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Tailed Bluedaisy, dandelion, clovers, Milkweed
Spring AzureColtsfoot, daisy, Milkweed, other meadow flowers
Cloudless Sulphurhibiscus, cassia, Pentas, bougainvillea
Clouded Sulphurclovers, dandelion, Phlox, Milkweed
Orange Sulphurclovers, dandelion, Parsley, Zinnia, other meadow flowers, composite family
Dogfaceclovers, thistles, most composite flowers
Checkered Whitedandelion, Gaillardia, Purple Coneflower
Cabbage Whitemany garden and meadow flowers
Zebra LongwingHibiscus, Pentas, Lantana
Gulf Fritillaryhibiscus, Pentas, Lantana
Malachiterotting fruit, dung, mud

Which Plants DO They Lay Eggs In?

  • Monarch – Milkweed
  • Black Swallowtail – Carrots, Rue, Parsley, Dill, Fennel
  • Tiger Swallowtail – Wild Cherry, Birch, Ash, Poplar, Apple Trees, Tulip Trees, Sycamore
  • Pipevine Swallowtail – Dutchman’s Pipe
  • Great Spangled Fritillary – Violet
  • Buckeye – Snapdragon
  • Mourning Cloak – Willow, Elm
  • Viceroy – Pussy Willow, Plums, Cherry
  • Red Spotted Purple – Willow, Poplar
  • Pearl Crescent, Silvery Checkerspot – Aster
  • Gorgone Checkerspot – Sunflower
  • Common Hairstreak, Checkered Skipper – Mallow, Hollyhock
  • Dogface – Lead Plant, False Indigo (Baptisia), Prairie Clover
  • Cabbage White – Broccoli, Cabbage
  • Orange Sulphur – Alfalfa, Vetch, Pea
  • Dainty Sulphur – Sneezeweed (Helenium)
  • Painted Lady – Thistle, Hollyhock, Sunflower
  • Red Admiral – Nettle American
  • Lady – Artemisia Silvery
  • Blue – Lupine

Fascinating facts about butterflies and moths.

It is not true that if you touch a butterfly’s wing and the ‘powder’ rubs off that the butterfly will not be able to fly.

The powder is actually tiny scales and a butterfly sheds these ‘scales’ throughout its lifetime.

The largest known butterflies in the world are the bird wings. The Queen Alexandra Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae) from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea has a wingspan of 11 inches.

It is the rarest of all butterflies.

The Goliath birdwing (Ornithoptera goliath), also from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, is also one of the largest butterflies with an average wingspan of 11 inches.

The smallest known butterflies are the blues (Lycaenidae), which are found in North American and Africa. They have wingspans from 1/4 – 1/2 inches. Western Pygmy Blue is the smallest.

The most common butterfly is the Cabbage White found in Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda, and Hawaii.

The largest known moths are the Atlas moths (Saturniidae) with wingspans as large as 12 inches.

The smallest known moths are from the pygmy moth family (Nepticulidae) with wingspans as small as 3/32 of an inch.

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