It’s true that moths and butterflies can look pretty similar. In fact they do have lots in common, they both belong to the Lepidoptera order.
They both have tiny scales covering their bodies and wings. To our eyes it seems like their wings are covered in fine dust - in fact that’s millions of tiny ridged scales, arranged in overlapping rows. These scales give them their colouring and markings.
There are 58 different types of butterflies in the UK, but an incredible 2,500 types of moths!
In Scotland, 34 species of butterfly are regularly seen and 1300 species of moths!
So how do we tell if it’s a moth or a butterfly?
There are a couple of easy ways to sort your moths from your butterflies! Look out for these clues!
First of all look at the feelers or antennae - a butterfly’s antennae have slender long shafts with little rounded bulbs at the end.
A moth’s antennae are feathery or tapering, without the rounded bulbs at the end.
Now look at the wings - notice how butterflies rest with their wings held upright over their backs.
Most moths rest with their wings spread out flat.
You might think that butterflies are brightly coloured, and moths are dull in colour, and only fly at night - think again, there are some brightly coloured moths, and some dull, brown butterflies. Mostly butterflies have quite a lot of ‘hair’ on their thorax. And believe it or not, there are more day flying types of moths in the UK than butterflies!
Take a look at this video and play the moth/butterfly game!
Moths and Butterfly Body Parts
Moths and butterflies are flying insects of different colours and patterns, depending on the species. They have 2 pairs of wings,
6 jointed legs, a pair of antennae, a pair of eyes, 3 body segments and an exoskeleton (a hard shell).
The 3 body segments are the head, the thorax (chest) and the abdomen (the tail end).
The wings and legs are attached to the thorax which contains the muscles needed to move and fly.
They also have a proboscis; it’s like a long straw which they drink nectar through.
Moths - Life Cycle
At first glance, moths seem like straightforward little creatures, but moths don't actually start out as moths! They have 4 stages in their life cycles, where they completely transform! This is called metamorphosis.
The female moth looks for a good place to lay her eggs. That’s going to be somewhere with loads of greenery, because once the larvae -
Jock prefers to call them caterpillars - hatch they are really hungry!
Over 2 weeks, depending on her species she could lay anything from 200-1500 eggs. She will die soon after laying her eggs.
Larva (singular) Larvae (plural) - Jock Calls Them Caterpillars
Inside the egg, the embryo can develop into a larva, (which we all know as a caterpillar) in as little as 2 weeks, and in some cases the egg remains dormant over winter.
When it hatches, the larva is said to be in its first instar. What this means is that as it grows the hungry
caterpillar gets too big for its skin, and needs to moult into a bigger one! The skin splits along its back and the caterpillar
crawls out in its new and bigger skin.
Once it sheds its second skin, it is said to be in its second instar, and so on. Different kinds of moth larvae will have
different numbers of instars as they grow, but most often they change their skin around 5 times.
The colours can be quite different, to camouflage it on whatever food plant it eats at that stage.
The job of a caterpillar is to eat! Ask any gardener and they will tell you just how much caterpillars can eat! In fact, they can eat an amazing 2700 times their own body weight, as they get ready for the next stage of their life cycle, the pupa.
This is where the caterpillar transforms itself into a fully grown adult moth. How amazing is that! The fancy word for this is metamorphosis.
When a moth caterpillar is fully grown, it sheds its skin for a final time, and now looks completely different. It has changed into a pupa. The pupa has a very tough skin which gives protection while the caterpillar goes through its metamorphosis. Butterflies also go through this process, but their protective skin is called a chrysalis. Some moth caterpillars spin a cocoon, which looks like a sort of sleeping bag, out of a type of silk, and then they change into a pupa inside the cocoon. The cocoon’s job is to protect the vulnerable larva while it pupates and then metamorphoses into an adult moth.
Inside, the larva is really busy, in fact this is the most intensive stage of the life cycle. All the energy from the food the hungry caterpillar has munched is now put to use, as inside the pupa the larva breaks itself down into a sort of soup, out of which develop all the structures it will need to become an adult moth.
This whole process can take 5-21 days, depending on the type of moth.
This may sound quite complicated but you will be amazed as you watch this fantastic
video showing how a Puss Moth caterpillar completes this whole process;
Adventure of Jock and Hector the Hairy Caterpillar
Watch this fantastic Doric tale of how Jock came to the rescue of Hector the Hairy Caterpillar!
You can learn more about Fox Moth (like Hector) by reading Butterfly Conservation's
Fox Moth information.
If you find a cocoon or a chrysalis, please leave it alone - a beautiful moth or butterfly is developing inside!
This is the last stage and where we see the moth flying around.
But first, the adult moth has to get itself out of its cocoon, and that’s really tricky!
At first it will have a bloated abdomen and shrivelled wings. It has to pump a blood like substance
into its wings to get them up to full size, so it can fly. When it first emerges, the adult moth will be wet,
so it has to dry before it can fly. This all takes a few hours.
Take a look at this incredible video of a female Emperor Moth emerging from her cocoon!
The purpose of adult moths is to mate. Often the male finds the female by following a scent she gives off ( called a pheromone). The male detects this using his antennae , which can be incredibly sensitive - he can locate her from up to 2 miles away!
Depending on the species, adult moths can live from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. In some rare cases, adult moths can live for 8-10 months.
But most moths won’t live till old age. We will look at why shortly and also how moths try to camouflage themselves. The female moths die off shortly after laying their eggs, thus completing the life cycle and starting it all over again.
Jock knows that caterpillars are always very hungry! Most caterpillars are vegan and will merrily munch on
plant leaves, though some do like seeds and flowers.
Some will eat any type of leaves; they're called generalist feeders, whilst others are very fussy and are called specialist feeders.
The female adult moth will lay her eggs on the caterpillar’s favourite food plant so it can start munching just as soon as it hatches!
On the menu could be leaves, flowers, seeds , buds, blooms, grass, even bark and twigs! Some will even eat other caterpillars - yuk!
Adult moths will feed on nectar and are important pollinators. Think of night flying moths as the pollinators night shift!
When we are asleep, moths are doing really important work pollinating plants.
That said, there are some adult moths which don't feed at all, living off the fat stores from all that food munched when they were caterpillars!
Those which do feed, do so through a proboscis, a sort of tube, which reaches deep into the flower as they suck up the nectar.
They use the nectar to power their wings. Some can also suck up tree sap, juices from decaying fruits, manure
liquids - their aim is to gain energy to help them find a mate and reproduce.
Pesky Moths - Clothes Moths
Okay, although Jock loves moths, it has to be said that there are only 2 types of moths found in the UK which cause problems in our houses. Jock has heard that us humans can get angry with the Common Clothes Moth (the main culprit) and the Case Bearing Clothes Moth.
These are hardly ever seen as they like quiet dark places and don't like the sunlight.
The adult moths don't actually feed. The female lays her eggs in natural fibres - that’s because they contain keratin, a form of protein which the larvae can digest.
When the larvae (caterpillars) hatch, off they set on a munch fest! On their menu could be clothes, furnishings, carpets. They don't like cotton or man-made fibres.
Especially in the old days, chemicals, like mothballs , were used, as they give off toxic fumes, but nowadays cedar balls, and lavender will help repel the adult moths.
Dry cleaning destroys pests. Clothes which have been attacked can be put in the freezer for at least 2 weeks to kill the larvae.
Sadly moths are in trouble in the UK, with numbers going down, and some species even becoming extinct.
That matters a lot! As well as being important pollinators, moths and their caterpillars are a really important food source for lots of other creatures. They’re on the menu for loads of types of birds, as well as bats, frogs, toads, lizards, hedgehogs and other insects including spiders, and even ants eat moth eggs!
So what’s going on with moths can therefore affect all these creatures.
It’s likely that some of the birds in your garden or park feed their chicks on caterpillars.
For example, robins, blue tits, great tits, wrens and blackbirds, and cuckoos even eat hairy caterpillars!
A blue tit chick can eat 100 caterpillars a day, and a nest of chicks may gobble 10,000 caterpillars before they fledge!
Researchers aren’t exactly sure why numbers are going down, and are trying to work out why this might be happening.
The likely causes include habitat loss - that’s when green areas are lost to growing towns and cities, as well as industrial development.
Street lights also cause light pollution, which can affect night flying moths.
Climate change is also affecting moths. In the UK, as average temperatures rise, moths which like cool conditions
can no longer live in the south. On the other hand, moths which like warm weather are now spreading into northern areas.
As we have already seen, moth life cycles are linked to when their food plants are available.
As climate change alters when plants put out young leaves this may mean adult moths have to change the timing of their egg laying.
Even what we do with our gardens could be affecting moths - with more gardens being paved over,
or with gravel and decking reducing the amount of plants around.
Get Smart or Become Dinner!
It’s not easy being a moth or a caterpillar with all those hungry creatures looking out for dinner!
Jock thinks moths and their larvae have been really smart in evolving some really clever ways to avoid becoming someone’s dinner!
Some of the tricks caterpillars use include:
I’m not here!
I’m a twig!
I’m bird poo!
I taste horrid!
See our examples below.
Adult moths have plenty tricks up their wings too! Colour and pattern are really important in avoiding predators.
I’m not here!
I’m bird poo!
I taste yucky!
I’m not even a moth!
See our examples below.
Note: Remember, all our activities need you to be with a responsible adult.
Where and when to find caterpillars?
The Wildlife Trusts have brilliant information to help you identify caterpillars
How To Identify Caterpillars.
Good places to find caterpillars include in grass, hedges, and on the undersides of leaves. Although some caterpillars do like nettles, please don't go looking in nettles as you can get nasty stings.
If you notice leaves with holes in them, the chances are you're on the right track. You may well find them in your garden, at home or school grounds.
Lots of caterpillars hide in the daytime and feed at night. Sometimes you might be lucky, and find them crawling quickly across paths. This is usually when they're fully grown and on the hunt for a good place to pupate.
Don’t handle caterpillars directly, use a flat leaf, and gently encourage the caterpillar to crawl on by softly prodding it in the right direction using a grass stem.
Non hairy caterpillars are quite soft and you don't want to hurt them. Hairy caterpillars can really irritate your skin, so don't pick them up!
If you want to go on a ‘moth safari’ there are a few fun ways to find or ‘trap’ moths. Of course
that doesn’t mean setting nasty traps for them or hurting them in any way!
Butterfly Conservation have a brilliant step by step guide to help you identify moths -
Identify A Moth.
Remember there are loads of day-flying moths, so keep your eyes peeled for them!
To give yourself the best chance of finding them, a nice calm, warm day is best.
Think about where moths might like to rest - try gently wiggling some leaves or hedges, grasses or flowers.
What about night flying moths?
We can use moths' attraction to light, and their sense of smell to help us look at moths!
First of all, we need to think about why moths are so attracted to light. You will have seen them circling
round madly when we leave an outside light on. Scientists aren’t totally sure about why,
but one idea is that moths evolved to use the moon and stars to navigate.
We can attract moths by a method called sugaring. The moths smell the sugar and find it.
Butterfly Conservation know loads about how to do this
Find Moths With Moth Traps (PDF).
Have a look at this brilliant video from Helen Rowe, where she shows us how to do sugaring for moths,
and the moths she found in her moth trap at the pond at Den of Maidencraig Local Nature Reserve in Aberdeen
Note: This recipe involves using a few drops of alchohol - make sure your responsible adult does this!
Check out Butterfly Conservation’s Things To Do section here, they know all sorts of ways to look at moths!
All About Moths (PDF)
A male emperor moth can smell a female 2 miles away - that’s because he can smell her pheromones!
How amazing is that for a tiny creature who doesn’t even have a nose as such!
For more information on how to start mothing, Butterfly Conservation have great information
How To Start 'Mothing' (PDF).
A Look at Some of Bennachie’s Moths
These clever caterpillars vary their colours for camouflage as they develop. You can often see the
caterpillars in August feeding on heather. They over winter as pupae, sometimes for 2 winters!
The adult male is day flying, look out for it in April-May.
Look out for the adults on heather moorlands and gardens - you can often see them when walking on Bennachie’s paths .
The larvae hatch at end of August, they feed on heather and a range of bushes. They over winter as a small larva,
then feed and grow during the spring. They can often be seen on heather in June before they
pupate and emerge as adults during July.
Fox Moth (like Hector!)
You can see adults in May/June. The males and females look different.
The caterpillars are hairy and appear from June-September. They are often seen and feed on heathers,
bramble and meadowsweet. They overwinter in the soil , emerge, don't feed again, pupate and the adult emerges in May.
From spring onwards they invade from Europe, sometimes in clouds of millions!
They can arrive at any time of year, if there is a mild southerly wind. They breed
here, several generations. They rarely overwinter in the UK as caterpillars.
You can often see them feeding at flowers in gardens in the summer.
Poplar Hawk Moth
An example of a night flying moth is the Poplar Hawk moth.
You may find these in parks, gardens woods, their caterpillars feed on poplars and willows.
Their unusual resting posture helps disguise their shape, and make them look less like moths.
Their larvae feed on bilberry, heather, willows. From April-June they spin silk and
stick leaves together for day time hiding places. They come out at night to feed.
They can be seen flying mid-July to early October.
Large Yellow Underwing
This is a large moth, 50 mm across, brown, but with yellow hind wings. It can flash
these if alarmed to give predators a fright, and the flickering effect makes it hard for the
eye to follow the moth in flight. The adults which are quite long lived can be seen
May-October. Eggs are laid from July onwards. They overwinter as larvae,
feed on grasses, docks, etc.
What Can We Do To Help Moths?
With moth numbers falling, they need all the help we can give them - remember moths are important
pollinators, with many beavering away while we are sleeping.
Things To Do - Gardening For Moths
We can help by growing plants in our gardens which give them the nectar they need for energy!
Growing a range of plants which flower at different times of the year helps as many species as possible.
Remember the night flyers, and grow flowers which bloom at
night and give off their scent in the evening to attract moths.
One day a man asks his caterpillar if he wants to go on a walk.
The caterpillar doesn't answer. So he asks again, "Hey caterpillar do you want to go on a walk?"
Still no answer from the caterpillar. So the man asks a little louder, "HEY caterpillar! Do you want to
go on a walk?" The caterpillar still says nothing. So the man yells "HEY CATERPILLAR, DO YOU WANT TO GO ON A WALK?"
The caterpillar looked up at the man and replied,
"I heard you the first time. I was putting on my shoes."
What is a caterpillar scared of? A dogarpillar!
What does a caterpillar do on New Year’s Day? He turns over a new leaf!
What’s the biggest moth in the world! A mammoth!
What do insects learn in school? Mothematics!
Why was the moth so unpopular? He kept picking holes in everything!
How do stones stop moths eating your clothes? Because Rolling Stones gather no moths!
With grateful thanks to David Hood for his expertise and guidance in creating these resources. Sincere thanks to Roy Leverton for his support and all his excellent photos.
Where not otherwise stated, the photos used are credited to Roy Leverton. Our sincere thanks also go to all those who kindly provided their fantastic photos and videos.