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How Can You Tell a Moth from a Butterfly?

Large White Butterfly - Photo  Copyright 2003 Gary Bradley
Photo: G. Bradley

UK Safari Tip:
Need help identifying butterflies? Try this beautifully illustrated fold out chart - click here

Butterflies and moths both belong to a group of insects called Lepidoptera. Roughly translated from Greek the word means "wings of scale".

If you look closely with a strong magnifier at the wings of a moth or butterfly you'll notice that they are covered in tiny scales. It's these scales which produce the brilliant colours we see. As light passes through the scales, it is reflected in different directions, and in many cases, the resulting appearance is a brilliant and iridescent wing.

One way to tell moths and butterflies apart is to watch them when they are resting. Most butterflies rest with their wings held together above their back, while the majority of moths rest with their wings folded flat.

Herald Moth - Photo  Copyright 2001 Gary Bradley
Photo: G. Bradley

Also, if you look at the antennae of most European butterflies you'll notice that they have a bulbous tip. When you look at those of moths (below) you'll see that they are mostly feathery, and they get thinner at the ends.

A butterfly forms a chrysalis which hangs, while a moth forms a cocoon, usually on the ground, surrounded by silk.

Most butterflies have a proboscis, which is a bit like a coiled up drinking straw. This is used for feeding on nectar. Most moths do all their feeding in the caterpillar stage of life, so have no use for one.

Track Down More Info

UK Safari Moth Section
UK Safari Butterfly Section

  2006 G. Bradley. All Rights Reserved