Moths vs butterflies? The differences between them.

Moths and butterflies come from the same family and they sure have a lot of similarities between them. However, one can pose a danger to your home and family, while the other is mostly harmless. In order to identify the pester, it’s always good to understand the major differences between butterflies and moths so that you can take appropriate actions before it’s too late.

In this article, we have compiled the main ways in which you can tell moths and butterflies apart and how they can harm you.

The lifecycle of moths and butterflies

  • Butterflies and moths both lay eggs as a way of reproduction.
  • The next stage is the caterpillar one, also known as the larval stage. You can differentiate the moth from the butterfly by the texture of their larvae - the moth one is fuzzy and soft, while the butterfly is smooth, bright with no hairs.
  • The following phase is called the pupa stage, which is the transition from the caterpillar to a grown moth or butterfly. The differences here become a lot clearer. The moth cocoon is covered in silk, while the chrysalis of the butterfly is smooth, with no fuzz and a lot harder to the touch. However, not all moths make cocoons. There is a sub-species called the tomato hornworm that creates a special chamber in the ground during this pupa stage.
  • Finally, we get to the final adult stage, which is also known as “imago”. The grown moth and butterfly come out of their pupa cuticle. In the beginning, the wings are wrinkled and moist, and the abdomen- swollen. Both species start pumping hemolymph to their wings in order to complete their metamorphosis and expand completely.

Read more:

How long do butterflies and moths live?

Physical Differences

Now that they are at the adult stage of their lives, it’s time to see what are the main physical differences between a moth body and a butterfly body:

moth with open wings

  • The body shape and appearance. This is where the difference between moths and butterflies become quite clear. Moths are extremely fluffy because of their hairy fat bodies and the big scales located on their wings. Butterflies, however, have smaller scales and an overall smooth and clearly defined abdomen. The reason for this difference is most likely because of their way of living. Moths have to keep warm during the night when they are more active, while butterflies need to collect sunlight, thus the lack of hair on their bodies.
  • Their antennae. This is actually the fastest way to tell them apart. Also known as feelers, the butterfly antennae are a lot thinner with tips in the shape of a club. Moth feelers mostly resemble the shape of a comb.
  • The frenulum. A frenulum is a device that only moths possess. It serves as a connection between the two different wings that they have - the forewing and the hindwing. It helps the moths during flight by keeping their wings working in unison.
  • The eyes. With a few exceptions from both species, butterflies usually have apposition eyes, while moths have superposition ones.
  • The wings. The main difference here comes from the fact that moths are nocturnal creatures and butterflies are not. During the night, there is no need for any bright colours and shapes, such as the ones butterflies possess. Colourwise moths are mostly black, white, brown and grey, sometimes with a strange pattern that helps them hide during the day while they sleep.

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While appearance is an easy way to distinguish both species, their behaviour is also something that you can rely on, just to confirm your theory of what is what.

Here are the main behavioural differences to help you tell moths and butterflies apart:


  • Eating habits. Moths store a certain amount of fat in their bodies while they are in the larval period. They are known to eat almost anything in this phase, starting from various plants, nectar from flowers, going through all sorts of clothes, furniture, hair, fur, and many more. After they go into their adult life, they mostly live on the fat, that they’ve stored in the previous stage and by sucking on various liquids in order to keep themselves alive. Butterflies are a bit more active in their adult stage, and they regularly drink on nectars and other liquids by using a tool called a proboscis.
  • Activity. This one is the easiest to notice. Butterflies are active during the day whereas moths can only be seen at night, with a few exceptions from both species.
  • Resting condition of the body. There is also a difference in the way in which moths and butterflies fold their wings while they are not flying. Moths try to hide their abdomen by putting the wings in the form of a tent, while butterflies fold them back, vertically over the body, flat, or sometimes in-between, similar to a jet plane.
  • Mating selection. Due to their nocturnal activities, moths use their strong scent in order to choose a mate, while the butterflies rely on their sight, thus the bright colours and patterns.

Image by: Edgar Pierce / License: CC BY 2.0

Moth and Butterfly Damage

Some of you may be wondering why is it so important to know the difference between the two species. Well, even if they aren’t as dangerous as cockroaches, bed bugs, ants, or other pests, moths can actually do a lot of damage to your property. You should know how to differentiate them in case of a possible infestation.

As we mentioned earlier, the moth larvae are capable of eating absolutely anything, leading to numerous holes in your clothes, bedding, furniture, and spoiled food. There are also rare cases in which the spurs located in the legs of an adult moth might penetrate the skin and cause an allergic reaction.

Butterflies rarely do any damage, even in their caterpillar stage. It is true that they eat a lot but their food of choice, as we mentioned, consists of fruit, flowers, wood, and leaves.

Check also: How to get rid of clothes moths

In conclusion

The easiest way to tell both species apart is the time in which you notice them being more active. It’s safe to say that adult moths and butterflies are not dangerous, however, moth larvae munching on your property can be a very serious issue that should not be taken lightly. That's why, keep an eye out for all the signs and visual differences we mentioned, and contact a moth control service immediately if you spot any indications of moth infestation.

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Consider that we give information about the difference between moths and butterflies, as well as what damages they can cause.

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