Moths and Butterflies: How to tell them Apart

This article is the second in a two-part series on butterflies. These fascinating insects can be quite difficult to differentiate from their cousin, the moth. This article tells you all you need to know to spot both species in the wild, and explains why they are important economically and ecologically.  

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES?

As we learned in the previous article, the ‘pupa’ stage of a butterfly’s life involves a casing called a chrysalis (often called a cocoon). For butterflies, this casing should be called a chrysalis, whereas cocoons are the casings found in the pupal stage of a moth’s life. Read on for more moth myths!

WHAT IS A MOTH?

Moths are also Lepidoptera and the similarity means that they are often confused with butterflies. Although people often think of moths as brown and boring, it might surprise you to learn that there are nearly six times as many species of moth as there are butterfly.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

  • Moths tend to fly at night, so daytime sightings are likely to be butterflies
  • Butterflies usually have club-shaped antennae whereas moths have straighter antennae
  • As we read above, the pupal stage of a moth’s life involves the formation of a silky cocoon; the pupal stage of a butterfly’s life involves the formation of a hard chrysalis.

WHY DO BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS MATTER?

1. TO THE ENVIRONMENT
  • Like all insects, when butterflies feed they transfer pollen from plant to plant and this increases the chances of genetic variation by allowing plants which are separated by large distances to cross-pollinate. This increases the stability of the ecosystem, making it more resistant to pressures like climate change.
  • Many birds of prey and bats eat butterflies, and lots of parasites rely on butterflies and caterpillars to survive, meaning that butterflies are an integral part of the food chain.
2. TO THE ECONOMY
  • Some people travel to find rare butterflies, and the money generated by this tourism can be especially useful in the remote regions where rare butterflies are found. To take one example, in the past five years, 22 new species have been discovered in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains National Park.
  • Moths and butterflies can produce useful materials for humans: silkworms are actually a type of caterpillar, and the silk they make is their cocoon for the pupal stage of their life. Humans use silk for a wide range of products, from clothing to parachutes to wound dressings.

PREVIOUS ARTICLE: HOW DO CATERPILLARS TURN INTO BUTTERFLIES?

If you enjoyed this article, you can read the first article of the series. There, you can find out more about the pupa stage during with the caterpillar’s metamorphosis takes place.

ALICE DOYLE

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