What’s the Difference Between a Moth and a Butterfly?

blue and pink butterfly sitting on a dandelion

Moths and butterflies have very different reputations. When a butterfly floats past, onlookers are in awe of its whimsical, delicate beauty. Some even believe there is spiritual significance if a butterfly lands on them. Moths, on the other hand, are more often perceived as pests or nuisances that hover near porch lights and chew through your curtains or every sweater in your wardrobe. 

Maybe you’re not one to discriminate; you think moths and butterflies are the same. Honestly, that’s a much fairer assessment since they have much in common. Still, are you wondering what’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly? There are actually plenty of differences between them for us to appreciate, so without further ado, let’s dive in.

How Do Moths and Butterflies Compare?

Again, it is not unusual to think that moths and butterflies are the same thing. They are different, but they are strikingly similar.

To show you what makes them distinct, let’s first review the main characteristics that moths and butterflies share.

Classification and Anatomy

One of the main reasons that moths and butterflies share so many similarities is that they are insects in the taxonomic order Lepidoptera, which makes up about 7% of all life on Earth. As insects, each creature within the Lepidoptera order has six legs, two pairs of wings, a pair of antennae, and a body with three segments: the head, thorax, and abdomen.

The name Lepidoptera is derived from the Greek words for “scale” and “wing,” as all moths’ and butterflies’ wings are covered in “scales” of flattened hair to form their unique patterns. Other features possessed by all Lepidopteran creatures (moths and butterflies) that not all insects have include:

  • A metamorphic life cycle: eggs > larva (caterpillars, not worms) > pupa > imago (adult/full maturity). 
  • Membranous vein systems spread throughout the wings.
  • A proboscis is a feeding tube that mature butterflies and moths use to drink nectar.
  • Tongue-like sensory organs on the legs to taste.
  • Recurring molts for larvae.

Active Seasons

“Butterfly season” begins in early spring and ends in late fall in Alabama, so it shall begin very soon. Yes, it is only January now, and spring technically starts with the vernal equinox in the middle of March. However, here in the Heart of Dixie, the warm, breezy, springtime-like weather tends to roll in ahead of schedule, and the harsh heat of summer stretches into October. “Moth season” is about the same.

What’s the Difference Between a Moth and a Butterfly?


The common preference for butterflies over moths is based mainly on looks, and the most apparent difference between them is the appearance of their wings. Butterflies rest with their brightly colored wings closed. Moths, on the other hand, rest with their muted (and sometimes dull)-colored wings hovering over their backs; it looks like a tented cape or similar to how a person might look with opposite ends of a scarf thrown over each shoulder.  

Unlike butterfly wings, a moth’s front and hind wings connect with a unique structure called a frenulum so they can flap uniformly during flight rather than separately, like a butterfly’s.

Another significant difference is that the smooth body of a butterfly is much slimmer than a moth’s. A moth is usually stouter around the thorax and abdomen and looks even plumper due to a fluffy coat of fine hair.

One final distinction we’ll explore today concerning visible differences between moths and butterflies is the antennae. Moths’ antennae look like feathery little combs, while butterflies’ antennae look like thin, smooth, club-tipped cables.

Life Cycle

You’re likely familiar with metamorphosis, the life-long, transformative life cycle and development process experienced by butterflies, moths, and approximately 80% of all insect species. To check out a deeper analysis of butterfly metamorphosis, stay tuned; we’re diving deeper into the topic on our blog in a couple of weeks!

Pupal Stage

Moths and butterflies have one major difference in their pupal stage—moths pupate in cocoons, while butterflies pupate in chrysalises! As we’ve already explained, moths are like much fluffier, silkier butterflies. And the same goes for their pupal stage. Cocoons are silky and fluffy, and chrysalises are smooth and solid.

Behavior and Habitat 

One well-known distinction between moths and butterflies is that moths come out at night; butterflies are active during daytime. For the most part, this common belief is accurate to reality, but some species diverge.

Are Moths and Butterflies Pests?

As you can see, it’s no competition. Moths and butterflies are similar creatures, but both possess fascinating, unique features. 

Since we’re pest control experts, you may wonder why we discuss such interesting and (seemingly) harmless beings. After all, they deserve appreciation for their role in nature as pollinators. 

We’re here to tell you that butterflies and moths can be pests in places that harm people’s livelihoods despite our appreciation for their role in nature as pollinators. It’s not only moths that are pests, though that is a common misconception since butterflies don’t fly into human homes as often as the moths attracted to your porch lights.

First, moths aren’t looking to ruin your favorite clothes; they just want to munch on the plant matter in the fabric’s fibers. Second, it’s not the winged adult moths doing damage. It is their larvae; caterpillars have insatiable appetites leading up to their pupation. 

Lastly, butterfly caterpillars can do as much damage as moth caterpillars. However, instead of chewing holes in your favorite clothes, they can consume your whole garden or overtake a farmer’s crops and ruin their harvests. On a larger agricultural scale, this can cause widespread food shortages.

Solutions for Caterpillar Control

As you can see, it is unwise to allow the population of caterpillars on your property to grow large enough to destroy it with their hefty appetites. Whether you’re an industrial or domestic farmer, working with textiles, or simply need to protect your possessions or garden at home, our experts have safe and effective solutions for you!

At Vulcan Termite and Pest Control, we have proudly served families in Alabama since 1965, and we would love to help yours, too! Call us at 205-663-4200 or contact us online today to learn more about our affordable, effective pest control solutions.

Thanks for reading! To learn more about the pests and other creatures found here in Alabama, check out our pest blog.