Jul 18th, 2015

Let’s Celebrate Moths

This year’s National Moth Week is July 18 – 26 , 2015, and we would like you to join in the celebration! To help, we’re sharing some key characteristics to help you tell the differences between moths and butterflies. But first, what do they have in common? They both are insects belonging to the Lepidoptera order. In Greek, lepido translates to the word “scale” and ptera means “wings. ” Did you know moths evolved before butterflies did? Yep, they were here first. The earliest moth fossil dates back between 100 and 140 million years, whereas the earliest butterfly fossil dates back to only 40 millions years ago. According to the National Moth Week’s website “Moths are among the most diverse and successful organisms on earth” – so that’s kind of awesome – and they also claim that “Scientists estimate there are 150,000 to more than 500,00 moth species.” Wow, that’s a lot of moths!

Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) resting with his wings open. His body is stockier and hairier than a butterfly's and he has feathered antennas.

Notice the stockier, hairier body of the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas). His antennas are also feathered rather than clubbed.

There are some key differences that separate LepidopteraButterflies are typically active during the day whereas moths tend to fly at night (dusk till dawn). However, sometimes you will find some overlap where a butterfly is flying at night or a moth is flying during the day. Some other common characteristics among butterflies include bright colors, a clubbed antennae, a thin thorax, and the habit of resting with their wings closed. Moths tend to be more dull in their coloration, with filamentous or feathered antennae. Moths also have stockier bodies, are hairier, and rest with their wings open. Looking back at the Masters of Disguise blog you can see that some butterfly adaptations have allowed them to appear more moth-like with dull colors that mimic their environment. You can also see that some moths are brightly colored, such as the Atlas moth (Atticus atlas), who has bright pinks and pale blues on the topside of his wings.

A white peacock (Anartia jatrophae) butterfly resting with his wings open on a leaf. His clubbed antennas are easy to distinguish.

This white peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is actually a butterfly, not a moth. Look at the slender body and clubbed antenna. You will even notice some small hairs on the body. This is common among both butterflies and moths, though moths tend to be much hairier.

The best way to distinguish the differences between moths and butterflies starts during the pupa stage. Moths spin a cocoon, which is made up of tiny silk strands from the caterpillars mouth. During metamorphosis, the adult moth will lose this mouth piece. Butterflies have a chrysalis or chrysalid. This develops from the last layer under the caterpillar’s skin. When the caterpillar sheds this skin, the layer begins to harden to form a chrysalis.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) chrysalis hanging on the left and African moon moth (Argema mimosae) cocoon hanging on the right.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) chrysalis hanging on the left and a African moon moth (Argema mimosae) cocoon hanging on the right.

We currently have both moth and butterfly caterpillars in the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit as well as a portable emergence box with chrysalids hanging. Come to the exhibit to have a closer look at the differences between our moths and butterflies; just ask one of our curators to show you their hiding spots!

Luna moth (Actias luna) caterpillar hanging from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) leaf.

One of the many Luna moth (Actias luna) caterpillars hanging from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) branch.

If you’re looking for a fun summer family activity, night mothing might be just the thing. Here are some handy tips for spotting moths in your own backyard from the National Pollinator Week website:

  1. Use a light to attract moths! Any type of light will do, you can even use a flashlight.
  2. Provide a surface for them to rest on. White sheets or table cloths can be used as well as an outside wall. Make sure the light source is shining on the sheet or wall.
  3. Wait for the moths to come! You can use magnify glasses to see them up close or take photographs to observe them later as well.

You can find more fun, kid-friendly activities on the National Pollinator Week website.

Hilaire Ashworth is an Assistant Butterfly Curator in the Butterflies LIVE! exhibit. Here are a few more facts about her: Q: If you were a butterfly, which one would you be? A: Bat Wing (Atrophaneura semperi)! I love the vibrant red against the black and white wings. Q: What do you do in your spare time? A: I spend most of my spare time with my adopted street cat and organic gardening. However, I love rock climbing, hiking, and spending as much time outdoors as I possibly can.

You May Also Like