Is this a butterfly or a moth?

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Photo by Zyada on Flickr.

Moths and butterflies are both members of the order Lepidoptera, and while some may think it’s easy to guess which is which, the answer may actually surprise you.

Butterfly or moth? (Photo on Flickr by Vicki DeLoach)

Butterfly or moth? (Photo on Flickr by Vicki DeLoach)

Just because a Lepidoptera has brightly colored wings doesn’t make it a butterfly, and just because one has a dull gray color, doesn’t mean it’s a moth.

The best way to determine the difference between the insects is to look at their antennae.

Butterflies have little tiny bulbs at the end of their antennae that make it appear a bit like a club.

Moths on the other hand, have feathered ends to their antenna making them look “saw-edged”.

Butterflies also typically fold their wings vertically over their backs while moths hold their wings out in a way that hides the abdomen.

Moths also have a frenulum which connects forewings to hind wings so that they fly together in flight, according to the U.S. Library of Congress. Butterflies don’t have frenulums.

When a moth makes a cocoon to transform from larva to adult, it is wrapped in a silk covering, while butterflies make chrysalis, which is hard and smooth, the Library of Congress said.

Another clue to moth/butterfly discernment is when you saw it. If it was spotted during the day, it was most likely a butterfly.

While there are exceptions, most butterflies are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. Meanwhile most moths are nocturnal – and hopefully you know what that means.

Learn more about butterflies and moths

CCTV America’s Digital Team interviewed science writer and butterfly expert Rick Borchelt about butterflies and moths. Click on the icons in the photo below to hear his thoughts:

Photo by Tara DeSantis.

Rick Borchelt, Science Writer and butterfly expert. Photo copyright Tara DeSantis 2015.

Rick Borchelt, Science Writer and butterfly expert. (Photo by Tara DeSantis)

According to Borchelt:

  • Yuca moths have evolved so that it can never survive without the yuca plant, and the yuca plant can never survive without the yuca moth.
  • There is one type of carnivorous butterfly
  • Many butterflies have very specific habitat and food requirements.
  • Habitat destruction can significantly harm butterflies.
  • People should never touch a baby butterfly’s wings.
  • Not all moths eat clothes.
  • No butterflies have a sting or anything that can pierce human stings.
  • Some moths can chew, such as wool moths.
  • Insecticides in gardens and yards can harm butterflies and moths


Enthusiasts go on a butterfly hunt at the National Arboretum:

A DC butterfly expedition

Science writer and insect expert Rick Borchelt leads a team of butterfly enthusiasts on a hunt for butterfles.


Butterflies and moths have scales that cover their bodies and wings that are actually modified hairs. Their order name of Lepidoptera comes from the Greek word ‘lepis’ meaning scale and ‘pteron’ meaning wing.

Scales of a sunset moth. Photo by Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel, Flickr.

Scales of a sunset moth. Photo: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel on Flickr.

Scales of a sunset moth. Photo by Macroscopic solutions, flickr.

Scales of a sunset moth. Photo: Macroscopic solutions on Flickr

Sunset moth. Photo by Frank Vassen, flickr.

Sunset moth. Photo: Frank Vassen on Flickr.


The Luna moth is born without a mouth and lives its whole weeklong life without ever eating (even though it can sense a female from miles away).

Luna Moth. Photo courtesy of Peter Iacono.

Luna Moth, Ohio. Photo by Peter Iacono.

The Atlas moth can have a wing span of 12 inches (30 centimeters), with a total surface area of 62 square inches. Their cocoons are used for purses in some places and the tips of their wings are said to resemble snake heads.

Atlas moths can have foot long wingspan. Photo by Zyada on flickr.

Atlas moths can have foot long wingspan. Photo by Zyada, flickr.

Many creatures in the insect world disguise themselves or use mimicry to appear scarier. This moth looks like it has eyes.

Photo courtesy Peter Iacono.

Photo by Peter Iacono.

This spicebush baby looks like a snake, but it’s actually a caterpillar.

This is one of a couple of caterpillars that look like snakes. It's called a spicebush baby. Photo by John Flannery, flickr.

Photo: John Flannery on Flickr

Check out this “death head moth” that has a pattern that looks eerily similar to a human skull.

Photo by Eric Gagnon.

Photo by Eric Gagnon.

And be sure to check out the completely otherworldly, cuddly, and slightly little creepy Venezuelan poodle moth