How to Tell a Moth from a Butterfly: Spot the Difference!

Have you ever been outside on a warm summer evening and seen a fluttering creature in the sky, only to wonder if it was a moth or a butterfly? While they may look similar, there are several ways to tell the difference between these two insects. In this article, we will explore the physical characteristics, habits, and behaviors of moths and butterflies to help you spot the difference.

Physical Characteristics

The physical characteristics of moths and butterflies are the most significant way to differentiate between the two. Some generalizations can be made about their appearance, but there are always exceptions. Here are some of the primary physical differences:


One of the most noticeable differences between moths and butterflies is their wings. Butterflies tend to have larger, more colorful wings with intricate patterning. However, some moths may have wings that are equally large and colorful, making it hard to tell them apart. One way to differentiate is to look at the way the wings are held when at rest. Butterflies typically hold their wings vertically above their bodies, whereas moths lay their wings flat against their bodies or fold them horizontally over their backs.


The bodies of moths and butterflies also differ slightly. Moths tend to have thicker, hairier bodies with broad, flat wings. By contrast, butterflies’ bodies are more slender and smoother, and their wings tend to be narrower.


Another key difference between moths and butterflies is their antennae. Moths generally have broader, feathery antennae, while butterflies have slender, club-like antennae. While there are always exceptions to the rule, and some moths may have slimmer antennae, and some butterflies may have feathery antennae; this is generally an excellent way to tell the two apart.

Habits and Behaviors

Nocturnal Vs. Diurnal

One of the most significant differences between moths and butterflies is their habits and behaviors. Moths are generally nocturnal, meaning they fly at night, while butterflies are diurnal and fly during the day. Exceptions to these rules include certain species of moths that fly during the day, such as the hummingbird moth, and butterflies that fly at night, such as the owl butterfly.

Larvae and Feeding Habits

The larvae of moths and butterflies have different feeding habits. Moth caterpillars tend to feed on a wide range of plant materials, from leaves to stems to roots, while butterfly caterpillars tend to be more selective in their feeding habits. Caterpillars of many butterfly species only feed on specific types of plants or have certain preferences for leaf types.


Moths and butterflies also differ in their pupation habits. Moths tend to spin cocoons from their silken threads to protect themselves during the pupal stage, while most butterfly species pupate without the protection of a cocoon. Exceptions to this are the Gossamer Wing butterflies that form small, silken cocoons around themselves.

Other Physical Characteristics


Butterflies tend to have a more distinctive, graceful flight, compared to the typically erratic and swooping flight of moths. This difference may be due to the fact that moths’ bodies tend to be thicker and more substantial than butterflies’, making them less aerodynamic.


While butterflies tend to have more colorful wings than moths, some species of moths boast bright, colorful patterns that rival those of butterflies.

Size and Shape

There is a considerable variation in size and shape with both species, and many species of moths and butterflies overlap regarding size, with some moths being larger than butterflies, and some butterflies being bigger than moths.

Examples of Moths and Butterflies

Moths Butterflies
White-lined Sphinx Moth Monarch Butterfly
Hickory Horned Devil Moth Painted Lady Butterfly
Luna Moth Swallowtail Butterfly
Polyphemus Moth Black Swallowtail Butterfly

How to Protect Butterflies and Moths

As pollinators, butterflies and moths play essential roles in many ecosystems worldwide. Unfortunately, both species are threatened by habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. Here are a few steps you can take to help protect butterflies and moths in your area:

  • Plant native flowers and plants that provide food for caterpillars and adults.
  • Avoid using pesticides and herbicides in your lawn and garden.
  • Support conservation organizations and initiatives that protect butterfly and moth habitats.


Although they share many similarities, butterflies and moths have distinct physical differences and behaviors. By understanding these differences, you can easily tell these species apart and appreciate their unique roles in ecosystems around the world.

Common Questions and Answers

  • Q: What do moths eat?
  • A: Adult moths do not eat because they do not have functioning mouths. Moth caterpillars, on the other hand, feed on a wide range of plant materials, depending on the species.
  • Q: How long do butterflies and moths live?
  • A: Most butterflies and moths have relatively short adult lifespans, lasting only a few weeks to a few months, depending on the species.
  • Q: Can you keep butterflies and moths as pets?
  • A: It is generally not recommended to keep these insects as pets because they require specific conditions and care that are challenging to replicate. Additionally, several species of butterflies and moths are protected by law and cannot be collected or kept as pets.
  • Q: Are moths harmful?
  • A: Most species of moths are harmless and do not pose any threat to humans or animals. However, some species, such as the gypsy moth, can be destructive to crops and trees.


Smith, D. (2019). Moths or Butterflies – What’s the Difference? Retrieved from

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2021). Moth. Retrieved from

National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Moths Vs. Butterflies. Retrieved from

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