What’s the Difference Between a Butterfly and a Moth

Written by Nancy Miorelli

We’ve been having a lot of fun and games on our Facebook Page! Literally. Games. Like our new bug quiz series!

Which of the lettered insects is a butterfly?

Which do you think is the butterfly?
Scroll to the bottom to find out.
PC: Nancy Miorelli

So have a quick look a the Bug Quiz and watch the video below about what the difference between a butterfly and a moth is. (Hint: People have been arguing about it for the past 250 years) In the video I say that you can type “MOTH” to recieve the free PDF. That only works on the video inside facebook . If you just want to download the pdf from here – look no further!!

How To Tell Butterflies from Moths

Some bad characteristics

  • How the wings are held
  • Colors
  • Time of day at which its flying

Some good characteristics

  • Shape of antennae
    • Butterflies have clubbed/hooked antennae
    • moths generally have feathery antenneae or string like antennae
  • Number of apparent legs
    • Some butterflies (brush footed butterflies) look like they’re only standing on 4 legs
      • the other two are highly reduced and used for cleaning the tounge.

a) Antennae
b) legs of brush footed butterfly
PC: Nancy Miorelli

What Are Butterflies Anyway?

While it’s been argued about a bunch, the most recent research suggests, through a combination of genetic, molecular, and morphological data, that all butterflies belong in a single group (superfamily) and that they broke off from moths.

The butterflies (highlighted) – Papilionoidea – broke off from the rest of moths and are their own specialized group.

Butterflies consist of almost 20,000 species, which are divided among 7 families, in the big superfamily group of butterflies (Papilionoidea). Previously the skippers (Hesperiidae) and the “American Moth Butterflies” (Hedylidae) were left out of the larger butterfly superfamily, but have been placed back into the butterflies. So currently, there is only one supefamily (Papilionoidea) and it contains all the butterflies. The rest of the 160,000 or so species in the order Leipidoptera (butterflies and moths) are moths.

The families of butterflies.
PC: Nancy Miorelli
Hedlyidae by James Sullivan

The Answer to the Bug Quiz

A. It’s a skipper which has been included in the butterfly superfamily of Papilionoidea.


  1. Mitter C. et al. 2017. Phylogeny and Evolution of Lepidoptera. Annual Review of Entomology 62: 265-283
  2. Whalberg et al. 2005. Synergenic effects of combining morphological and molecular data in resolving phylogeny of butterflies and skippers. Proceedings of Biological Sciences  272(1572): 1577-1586.

About SciBugs

Entomologist, Science Communicator, and Crafter Twitter: @SciBugs
This entry was posted in Taxonomy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What’s the Difference Between a Butterfly and a Moth

  1. Pedro Saul says:

    Very interesting this article


  2. Nanvy says:



Discuss with Us

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s