How Can You Tell The Difference Between a Butterfly and a Moth?

a young girl looking at a butterfly on some bright pink flowers

Butterflies and moths are both fascinating creatures. However, telling the difference between a butterfly and a moth can sometimes be challenging. After all, these insects share many similarities. So, what actually makes one different from the other? Is a butterfly a moth? While technically, butterflies and moths are both in the same species classification of insects, they do, in fact, have many distinguishable differences.

In this in-depth guide, we will go over the difference between the butterfly and the moth. We will also discuss their varieties, features, and more. That way, you will easily be able to tell these fluttering insects apart. Additionally, we'll discuss which types of moths you should watch out for in the home. That way, you can discern a harmless butterfly vs a moth that will lay eggs in your closet. Let’s get to it!

What's the difference between a moth and a butterfly?

Moths and butterflies are both flying insects in the order Lepidoptera. You can usually tell them apart simply by looking at them. Butterflies tend to fold their wings vertically up over their backs, come in bright colors, and are most active in the daytime. Alternatively, moths often fold their wings horizontally, showcase neutral color tones, and are most active at night.

With that being said, these clues won’t always help you figure out whether you are looking at a moth or a butterfly. For instance, factors like antennae dissimilarities, habitat preferences, behavior patterns, and even clues like migrational tendencies can be used to help you make a clear distinction between these insects. Read on as we explore the topic of moth and butterfly differences in-depth!

What are some butterfly and moth similarities?

a stunning butterfly close up with wing colors of yellow, black and green

Want to be able to accurately tell the difference between a butterfly or moth in your home or garden? To determine the type of insect in front of you, it can be helpful to know what traits these creatures share. Here’s a helpful list of the characteristics butterflies and moths have in common!

Moths and Butterflies Can Both Have Scales and Hairs

Both moths and butterflies have scales that cover their bodies and wings. These scales sometimes also resemble small hairs to insulate their bodies. This means that butterflies and moths can both be fuzzy and they can both shed “dust” when touched.

Both Flying Insects Belong to the Order Lepidoptera

Butterflies and moths also both belong to the order Lepidoptera. This word comes from the Greek language, where “lepis” means "scale" and “ptera” means "wing". Therefore, both of these insects can fly, and they both are classified very similarly on the species chart due to their scaly wings.

Dietary Parallels

Butterflies and moths also both share similar dietary preferences. In the caterpillar or larval stage, butterflies and moths both feed on a variety of plant-based materials. Moreover, in the adult stage, many types of moths and butterflies can both feed on nectar. However, depending on the subspecies, butterfly and moth diets can be very different, which we will go over in a moment. The exception being a small handful of pest type moths such as the Clothes Moth and the Pantry Moth which don’t have mouths but their larvae definitely make up for it! . Clothes Moth Larvae will eat animal based protein in your woolens, silks, fur and textiles whereas the Pantry Moth Larvae will feast on any exposed grains, dried goods and even chocolate!

To summarize butterfly and moth similarities, they both can have scales and small hairs, they both belong to the same Latin classification order, and they both often share similar diets. Now for the differences between these insects!

What are the most noticeable butterfly and moth differences?

white butterflies with black wing tips flying onto lavender plants

It’s pretty easy to see that both moths and butterflies possess many differences. Bearing that in mind, it is fairly easy to tell butterflies and moths apart just by looking at them. Here are their main differences:

Different Wing Positions

Butterflies and moths have different wing positions when resting and in flight. At rest, butterflies tend to fold their wings closed. Alternatively, when moths rest, they fold their wings down over their bodies.

Anatomical Dissimilarities

Moths can be distinguished from butterflies by their frenulums. A frenulum is a wing coupling device that joins the forewings and the hindwings together in unison during flight. Butterflies do not have frenulums.

Habitual Discrepancies

Butterflies primarily fly during the daytime, meaning that they are diurnal. However, moths generally fly and are active at night, making them predominantly nocturnal. With that being said, the buck moth may be active during the day. There are also a few crepuscular butterfly subspecies that are active at dawn or dusk.

Cocoon Differences

Butterflies make a chrysalis while moths make a cocoon. The cocoon of the moth is often wrapped in a silky or sticky covering or casing. However, the chrysalis of a butterfly is usually hard and smooth with no sticky cover.

Size and Color Differentials

Butterflies and moths differ in their colors and patterns and sizes. Butterflies are often vibrantly colored with large wings. This is because many types of butterflies are mildly poisonous if eaten by birds, mammals, or reptiles. In nature, displaying bright colors like yellow, orange, and red are often ways for prey animals to signal their toxicity to predators. Butterflies can come in all colors including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, and everything in between.

a white golden Clothes Moth with ragged tipped wings

On the other hand, moths are generally not poisonous when eaten by predators. For this reason, moths are often consumed by mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. To protect themselves, moths tend to be smaller and rely on camouflage to evade these kinds of predators. Moths most often come in varying shades of gray, brown, black, tan, beige, or white. Although there are a few large and colorful ones.

Butterfly vs Moth Checklist

When trying to figure out if an insect in the order Lepidoptera is a moth or butterfly, look at the following features.

Butterflies are most often:

• Brightly colored
• Larger than moths
• Active in the daytime
• Near flowers or colorful shrubbery

Moths are most often:

• Active at night
• Near cracks and crevices
• Muted in color
• Smaller than butterflies

Are moths or butterflies dangerous?

Moths and butterflies are not especially dangerous to humans. Butterflies are most dangerous when in the caterpillar stage. A few species of caterpillars contain toxic substances. Moths, on the other hand, are rarely ever toxic at any stage. Bearing that in mind, certain pestilent moth species (such as Clothes Moths) can cause serious damage to property. Pantry Moths are also pests and can consume and destroy stored dry goods.

an Pantry Moth also known as an Indian Meal Moth

Preventing Pest Moths in the Home Without Harming Butterflies or Other Beneficial Insects

Butterflies are often welcomed near homes and gardens because they are such great pollinators. Moreover, some types of moths, such as the Luna Moth, Hawk Moth, and Hummingbird Moth, can also be great pollinators and garden companions. With that being said, pestilent moths, like the Clothes Moth, or the Pantry Moth, are not welcomed in homes or gardens. So, how can you keep the bad moths away without harming the beneficial moths or the butterflies?

Natural and Safe Remedies to Deter Pestilent Moths

There are actually a few helpful natural remedies that you can use to keep harmful insects away without bothering the beneficial ones. First, it is good to understand the habits of beneficial insects like butterflies. Butterflies won’t enter your home on purpose. If a butterfly gets into your house, chances are it is there completely by accident. The same goes for almost all pollinating garden moth species.

However, some pestilent moths can (and will) get into human residences intentionally. For example, Clothes Moths like to lay eggs in dark places within people’s homes. They seek areas with abundant food sources for their larvae, which eat silk, wool, leather, feathers, and an array of other natural keratin fibers. Similarly, Pantry Moths enjoy laying eggs in pantry and cupboard locations. Pantry Moths will enter homes and seek out quiet spots with abundant sources of dried grains, flours, and cereals for their larvae to eat.

As such, you can deter pestilent moths by hanging repellent herbal sachets filled with lavender, thyme, rosemary, cloves, and mint. You can also install cedar shelving, which will disrupt the pheromones of female pest moths looking to mate or lay eggs. MothPrevention Clothes and Carpet Moth Traps and Pantry Moth Traps are non-toxic and are produced using powerful pheromones which attract the active adult male moths. These traps are dedicated to catching pestilent moth types and help break their breeding cycles.

a pink wool sweater damaged by Clothes Moth Larvae, next to some bunches of dried lavender

While these natural moth repellents will keep pestilent moths away, they generally do not bother butterflies or garden moths in the slightest. This is for many reasons, the main one being that these garden pollinators don’t want to get into your house in the first place.

FAQs on the Differences Between Moths and Butterflies

Now that you know a little bit more about the main difference between moths and butterflies, let's go over some frequently asked questions about these insects.

Is a moth considered a butterfly?

Some moths and butterflies do look very similar. Also, they both belong to the same family of insects known as Lepidoptera. However, moths and butterflies are not the same things. Butterflies usually rest with their wings and an upright, closed position. However, moths rest with their wings folded flat, covering their bodies.

Are moths and butterflies the same insect?

Even though moths and butterflies belong to the same insect family, they are not the same kinds of insects. Both moths and butterflies are in the category Lepidoptera, within which there are over 180,000 different species of both moths and butterflies! In addition to this, many subspecies exist to further diverge each type of insect.

Butterflies and moths have many physical and behavioral differences as well. One of the biggest behavioral differences between butterflies and moths is that butterflies are most active during the day whereas moths are most active at night.

What is the easiest way to attract butterflies but not moths to a garden?

Butterflies love flowers! So, if you want to attract lots of butterflies to your garden, be sure to plant plenty of open-bloom hybrid and old-fashioned nectar-rich flowers. Yellow, pink, and purple varieties tend to attract the most butterflies. And don't worry, harmful and pestilent moths are not attracted to flowers. In fact, many of the problematic moth species (like Clothes Moths and Pantry Moths) are actually deterred by herbs and flowers. Consider planting mint, lavender, and thyme to keep the harmful moths away while still attracting the beneficial ones.

a Monarch butterfly sitting on bright orange flowers

About MothPrevention®

MothPrevention® speak to customers every day about their clothes moth issues - clothes moths are a species that are ever increasing and that can cause significant damage to clothes, carpets and other home textiles.

To date, we’ve helped over 150,000 customers deal with their moth problems. We have developed professional grade solutions including proprietary pheromones, not available from anybody else in the USA, and engineered in Germany to the highest production standards.

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