14 Difference Between Butterflies And Moths

Butterflies and moths have many things in common, including scales that cover their bodies and wings. In other words, there is no real taxonomic difference between butterflies and moths. Both are classified or belong to order Lepidoptera (from the Greek lepis meaning scale and pteron meaning wing). This order contains over 100 families of insects worldwide, some of which are moths and some of which are butterflies. However, there are some differences in physical and behavioral characteristics that are easy to learn and recognize.

Butterflies vs Moths

Basis of ComparisonButterfliesMoths
NatureButterflies are Diurnal – active at dayMoths are nocturnal – active at night
WingsButterflies fold their wings back when at rest.Moths flatten out their wings when at rest
Pupal StageButterflies make chrysalis that is hard, smooth and does NOT comprise silk (butterfly undergoes metamorphosis within a hard chrysalis)Moth larvae spin a silken cocoon from silk.
FrenulumsButterflies have no frenulums.Moths have a structure called the Frenulums, which join the forewing and hind wing.
AntennasButterflies have long, slender antennas with club-shaped tips.Moths have stout and fuzzy antennas with a feathery or comb-like appearance.
ColorsButterflies sport more vibrant colours.Moths display duller, earthy hues.
SizeButterflies are generally larger compared to moths.Moths are generally smaller compared to butterflies
Species and DistributionButterflies only make up between 6-11 per cent of order Lepidoptera.Moths make up between 89-94 per cent of order Lepidoptera
WingsButterflies have four unconnected wings.In moths, the fore wing and hind wing on each side are connected by a joint called a frenulum. 
BodyButterflies have thin bodies.Moths have thicker bodies.
WingsButterfly wings aren’t actually colored, but the tiny scales on the wings scatter light, making them appear colored.Moth wings also scatter light, but may contain some pigment molecules, too.
ForelegsForelegs reduced, missing terminal (end) segments.Forelegs fully developed.
FactsThe largest known butterflies in the world are the birdwings. The largest known moths are the Atlas moths (Saturniidae) with wingspans as large as 12 inches.
Other FactsThe smallest known moths are from the pygmy moth family (Nepticulidae) with wingspans as small as 3/32 of an inch. The smallest known butterflies are the blues (Lycaenidae), which are found in North American and Africa.

Key Takeaways

  • Both moths and butterflies are actually in the final act of a four-stage life cycle that Lepidoptera share. This cycle begins with the egg, passes through the caterpillar (larva) and the chrysalis (pupa) stages, and finally ends with the adult stage, generally called the imago, which can be either a butterfly or a moth.
  • There are many more species of moths than butterflies. Butterflies and skippers (hooked-shaped antennae) make up 6 to 11 percent of order Lepidoptera while moths make up 89-94 percent of the order Lepidoptera.
  • In general, moths tend to be duller and less vibrant in colour, with less intricate and striking patterns when compared to 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 primarily diurnal, flying in the daytime. Moths are generally nocturnal, flying at night.
  • Moth antennae tend to be leaf or feather shape. Butterfly antennae tend to be long, bare and eject from the head in a club shape. 
  • Both moths and butterflies are caterpillars in the larval stage, and many moth caterpillars can be described as fuzzy, although not all. No butterfly caterpillars are considered fuzzy.
  • Many moths use a series of loops called a retinaculum  and a fringe called a frenulum to connect their front and rear wings. Butterflies don’t have these structures.
  • In the pupa stage, moths create a cocoon, which is wrapped in a silk covering. Butterflies create a chrysalis, which is hard, smooth and is not silky. Not all moths create a cocoon though. 
  • The largest known moths are the Atlas moths (Saturniidae) with wingspans as large as 12 inches.
  • 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.
  • Butterflies and moths also tend to hold their wings differently when they rest. You’ll often see moths with their wings draped down their backs or spread out to the side. Unless butterflies are warming themselves in the sun, they typically hold their wings upright and folded together, perpendicular to their backs.