Telling the difference between a butterfly and a moth is not as simple as you might think. Wild asked butterfly expert Steve Woodhall to shed light on the issue.

The difference between butterflies and moths seems to be a much debated topic. Steve Woodhall, one of the authors of Gardening for butterflies, says there are many misconceptions regarding the differences. “All the so-called rules have too many exceptions.”

Myth 1

Butterflies fly by day, moths by night…
There are many classic butterflies that are nocturnal, and there are actually more diurnal moths than there are butterflies.

Myth 2

Butterflies have knobbed antennae (feelers), moths have filamentous or feathery feelers…
There are many moths with knobbed antennae and several butterflies with filamentous antennae.

Myth 3

Butterflies are brightly coloured and have naked bodies, moths are dull coloured with hairy bodies…
There are many dull butterflies and many hairy ones; and many moths are brilliantly coloured with naked bodies.

“They are all Lepidoptera, an order of insects. Diptera are flies, Hymenoptera bees and wasps, and Odonata are dragonflies and damselflies. Unlike these, where there are clear and understandable differences between, say, dragonflies and damselflies, there is no clear divide between butterflies and moths.”

Amidst all the confusion, Steve says thanks to DNA analysis they now think at least three families previously thought to be moths fit better inside the butterfly category (superfamily Papilionoidea). “For now, we lepidopterists have searched for a catch-all term for Lepidoptera and we have chosen ‘buttermoths’! We are engaging with groups around the world to ensure the name spreads.”