Butterfly vs Moth – What is the Difference?

While butterflies and moths may appear similar at first glance, there are considerable differences between them to note. These range from anatomy to biology, behavior, feeding patterns, reproduction, and many others since there is a lot to discuss. The topic is also important, given that many butterfly lovers intend to become breeders.

With over 17,500 species of butterflies worldwide and an approximate 160,000 species of moths, separating them is key to avoid confusion. You wouldn’t want to grow your butterflies for several months, feed them, and caring for their environment, just to have some meaty moths as a result. It’s bad for business.

11 Main Differences Between Butterflies and Moths

So, while moths and butterflies share some similarities, aka the massive and colorful wings, body shape, and life cycle, they also have way more differences. And today, we will discuss all of them.


First, I would like to note that comparing the coloring of the wings isn’t necessarily a reliable metric. Sure, generally speaking, butterflies tend to be more colorful, while moths are overall duller with less color involved. But there are exceptions in both species, which makes this metric less reliable than some people might think.

With that out of the way, these 2 species’ appearances share both blatant and more subtle differences. The most obvious one is the face. Butterflies haves have bigger faces with bulgy eyes on each side of their probosci’s roll. The proboscis is their eating organ which they keep in a roll position. On the other hand, Moths have smaller faces with way smaller, black eyes and no protrusive eating organ.

Their bodies are also subtly different, as moths are fluffier thanks to their abundant body hair, whereas butterflies are slimmer and balder. The antennae shape also differs since moths have long hairs on their antennae, making them look like fancy mustaches, while butterflies have smoother, longer, and thinner organs.

Light Sensor

The following difference is only observable via the behavior. Unlike butterflies, moths are phototactic. This means that they primarily are attracted to light, and you may have noticed this behavior during nighttime when small moths crowd around a given light source.

Interestingly, there seems to be no obvious explanation, especially when considering that being attracted to light sources often gets the moths killed. It’s weird to think that Mother Nature has created a being with a characteristic that is a blatant disadvantage and detrimental to its life. Scientists do have some potential explanations, however, including orientation.

Since moths are nocturnal creatures, some scientists believe that they use the light of the Moon to navigate their environment. It seems that moths calibrate their flight patterns depending on the Earth’s rotation, making the moon “move” across the sky.

Another possible explanation is a self-defense mechanism and relates to the Moon again. Moths like to chill in bushes and tree branches in the shade. When danger is imminent, they will use the moonlight as a reference point to escape. Apparently, moths tend to fly towards the sky whenever they feel in danger because the night sky is generally the brightest during the darkest nights.

And then electric lights came about, and the moths’ whole world changed.

Color and Patterns

From a coloring perspective, butterflies tend to have the upper hand in terms of beauty and vibrancy. Butterflies are generally more colorful with brighter shades and warmer coloring patterns. This type of coloring makes sense from an evolutionary perspective since butterflies are daytime creatures. Their bright colors are perfect for blending in the vegetation around them and render them invisible to predators.

Butterflies also use their wings’ coloring to attract females and, sometimes, to inform potential predators that they are poisonous. Mid-flight, their wings’ coloring helps confuse predators since wing-flapping causes the colors to flash and create the impression of the butterfly appearing and disappearing constantly.

Moths, on the other hand, display generally duller colors. Just as with butterflies, their coloring stays true to their evolutionary prerogatives. The duller and darker colors are perfect for shielding moths from their enemies in the dark.

There are obviously exceptions to both categories since there are also duller butterflies and brightly-colored moths, especially diurnal species.

Pupa vs Cocoon

There is a lot of confusion when attempting to separate pupa, chrysalis, and cocoons. The differences, however, are easy to tell. Both butterflies and moths go through the pupa stage, separating the larva and the adult.

The pupa is the developing phase that takes place in the cocoon. It is basically synonymous with chrysalis, except we use the latter to refer to butterflies and pupa to refer to moths.

They also look a bit different since the chrysalis looks like a sack hanging from a tree branch with a leafy aspect. Pupas look like silk sacks because that’s exactly what they are. This this is where the next difference comes in.

All moths and some butterflies create cocoons, while some butterflies only create that more solid and smooth sack around the chrysalis.

Nocturnal vs Diurnal

Butterflies are ectotherms that already tell you where the creature fits on the nocturnal-diurnal scale. Butterflies use sunlight to propel their wings’ flying capabilities since they need an 85 degrees temperature to remain active and energetic throughout the day. This means that butterflies are almost exclusively diurnal, generally looking for places to hide and rest during nighttime.

Moths, on the other hand, operate during nighttime and will rest during the day. Moths also need warm environments to operate, and with nights being colder than the days, the moth has to improvise. This is why moths will generate their own heat by vibrating their wings to keep themselves comfortable during colder times.

Antennae Shape

The antennae are not for show. They play critical roles in smell, balance, and reproduction since both moths and butterflies use their antennae to detect female pheromones from miles away. The antennae’s shape will vary between the two species.

Butterflies have thinner, club-shaped antennas. Moths have feathery antennae that are very distinct and fluffy. They use it generally for the same purposes as butterflies. The crucial difference is that moths have a more developed sense of smell compared to butterflies.

Wing Shape

Several differences exist between moth and butterfly wings, including coloring, usage, resting position, etc. The shape is not really one of them since the wings’ shape differ even between different species of the same creature.

Like I’ve already mentioned before, however, one of the key differences rests in the coloring. Butterflies are generally more lightly colored, while moths are duller due to them being nocturnal, while butterflies are diurnal. The two insects also hold their wings differently while resting.

Butterflies bring their wings together and hold them vertically. This can render them near invisible from specific angles due to them diminishing their frame. On the other hand, Moths prefer to keep their wings spread out horizontally, taking up the maximum amount of space.

Body Shape

Butterflies and moths are similar in body shape with slight differences. The butterflies tend to be more slender-like with longer and thinner bodies, while moths are bulkier and shorter. Size-wise, these insect species also vary wildly. Butterflies can range between 1/8 inch and 12 inches, with moths falling pretty much in the same range.

It all depends on the species the insect belongs to.


Most butterflies will end their adult life inside two weeks, but not all species follow the same pattern. Some butterflies will live for months since they will hibernate during the winter.

The same goes for moths, pretty much, since some species live from several days to several weeks or even months.

Frenulum Organ

The frenulum is a wing-coupling device that’s only present in moths. Butterfly’s wings connect to its thorax muscles and are independent. Moth’s wings rely on the frenulum to coordinate the forewings and the hindwings.

Hearing Sense

This is where butterflies excel compared to other insects. Researchers have discovered that the butterfly’s ears are very sensitive to low pitch sounds, which is unusual. A popular theory on the topic suggests that this makes the butterfly more receptive to birds’ sounds when flying.

This allows them to identify the threat before it reaches them to seek a way out immediately.

Things get even more interesting with moths. Moths are nocturnal creatures and, since they’re insects, it goes without saying that bats are their most pressing concern. Since bats are their natural predators, moths have evolved a unique hearing tuned in to bats’ echolocation.

In other words, moths will hear bats using echolocation near them and will immediately change their behavior. Scientists have noticed that, generally, moths fly in straight lines.

Their flight pattern immediately changes when echolocation goes off near them, and they begin to fly chaotically, up-down-left-right and in a spiral. They do so to confuse their potential attacker, and everything is the result of their super hearing.


Moths and butterflies are unique creatures with different physical and behavioral characteristics. One could easily confuse them since they are very similar in some respects, albeit critically different in others.

If you’re planning to grow butterflies or breed moths, hit me up, and I might be able to help you with some information on the topic. You can leave a message below or go to the contact form, and I will reply asap.

Butterflies   Moths   Updated: August 27, 2021
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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