Butterflies and moths have many things in common, mainly scales
that cover their bodies and wings. These scales are actually modified
hairs. Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera (from
the Greek lepis meaning scale and pteron meaning
Here are some other ways that help to identify butterflies
- Butterflies tend to fold 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
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.
Butterflies are primariy 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.
Cocoons and chrysalides are protective coverings for
the pupa. The pupa is the intermediate stage between the larva
and adult. A
moth makes a cocoon, which is
wrapped in a silk covering. A butterfly makes a chrysalis,
which is hard, smooth and has no silk
As scientists discover and study new species of butterflies and
moths, distinctions between the two is 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.
More fascinating facts about butterflies and 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
- 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.
- Butterflies and moths are holometabolous meaning that they
undergo a complete metamorphosis from egg to caterpillar and
from chrysalis to adult.
- The largest known butterflies in the world are the birdwings.
The Queen Alexandra Birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae)
from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea has a wingspan of 11
inches. It is the most rare of all butterflies. Click here for
a picture of the Queen Alexandria Birdwing. The Goliath birdwing
also from the rain forests of Papua New Guinea, is also one of
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. Click
here to compare photographs of the smallest and the two largest
- The most common butterfly is the Cabbage White found in Europe,
North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda,
- The largest known moths are the Atlas moths (Saturniidae)
with wingspans as large as 12 inches. Click
here to see a photograph of an atlas moth.
- The smallest known moths are from the pygmy moth family (Nepticulidae)
with wingspans as small as 3/32 of an inch.
to see a photograph of a pygmy moth.
Diversity- Lepidoptera - Information about
the Lepidoptera order, which includes butterflies,
moths, and skippers.
Conservation Initiative - “The Butterfly
Conservation Initiative is dedicated to the conservation
of threatened, endangered, and vulnerable North American
butterflies and the habitats that sustain them, with
a focus on recovery, research, and education."
and Moths of North America - “This site
includes dynamic distribution maps, photographs, species
accounts, and species checklists for each county in
the U.S. and each state in Mexico.“
and Moths of the World - From the Natural History
Museum, London “There are currently an estimated
112,000 to 165,000 described species of butterflies
and moths (Scoble, 1999) in 24,009 available or objective
replacement genus-group names within 131 families.
This online catalogue comprises 31,147 entries and
includes all published genus-group names.”
of the Monarch: Science Reference Guide - This is a
guide to Internet resources about butterflies, monarch
migration projects, and conservation Web sites.
Expressions: Butterfly Wing Scale Digital Image Gallery
Molecular - “… the butterfly wing scale
gallery contains digital images taken in brightfield,
darkfield, and oblique illumination modes, as well
as in reflected light. Each type of illumination results
in a different image and, when examined together, they
provide a more complete representation of the magnificence
and complexity of some of nature’s most splendid
Jeffrey. Butterflies through binoculars: the East. New
York, Oxford University Press, c1999. 242 p.
Jeffrey. Butterflies through binoculars: the West. Oxford,
New York, Oxford University Press, 2001. 374 p
Rick. The family butterfly book: discover the joy
of attracting, raising & nurturing butterflies. Pownal,
VT, Storey Books, c2000. 166 p.
Phillip Joseph. A world for butterflies: their lives,
behavior and future. Buffalo, NY, Firefly Books,
c2005. 320 p. http://www.aworldforbutterflies.com/
M.J. Geometrid moths of the world: a catalogue. Collingwood,
VIC, CSIRO; Stenstrup, Denmark, Apollo Books, 1999. 1016
Fred A. The monarch butterfly: international traveler. Ellison
Bay, WI, Wm Caxton, c1998. 232 p.
more print resources...
Search on "Butterflies," " Lepidoptera," or "Moths"
in the Library of Congress Online
Left - Salt
marsh moth. Photo: National Parks Service Web site.
Bottom: Monarch butterfly. Below: Photo courtesy of Vincent Cavallo.
Photo: Monarch butterfly caterpillar. From US Fish & Wildlife
leilus - photo courtesy of Mark de Silva, Mississippi Entomological
Museum, University of Mississippi.
Australian Department of the Environment and Water
moth. Photo: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Web
moth cocoon. Photo: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory Web
white butterfly. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service Digital Repository Web site.
Swallowtail butterfly. From the National Science Foundation Web site.
moth. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital
Repository Web site.