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Butterflies and Skippers and Moths, Oh My!

Hello fellow lepidopterists! 

Butterflies, skippers, and moths are all closely related insects. In fact, some might argue that there are very few differences between butterflies and moths in a scientific context. However, there are enough that the two groups can be distinguished from each other. 

This is an example of a behavior called "puddling" where butterflies drink muddy water to obtain vital nutrients and minerals. Here we have a comma butterfly. Note the straight antennae and the four visible legs which help identify this as a butterfly in the family Nymphalidae.

Butterflies can range in size from a wingspan of less than an inch to almost ten inches across! The tiniest butterflies can be found in the family Lycaenidae, and the largest can be found in the family Papilionidae. Moths have a similar size range, the smallest have a wingspan of less than half an inch and the largest can have a wingspan of up to one foot across! Skippers are a little more controlled in their wingspans, with the smallest being approximately one inch and the largest being approximately two inches. 

So wingspan may not be enough to help us distinguish between the three groups. Is there anything else we can learn from their wings? Butterflies like to keep their wings held straight up over themselves or out flat while at rest. Moths generally tuck their wings behind them like a cape or a cloak. Some might say their wings look more like a roof over their abdomen. Some skippers have a very distinguishable resting pattern: usually they hold one pair up and another pair out which makes them look a little like an arrowhead or fighter jet. Butterflies and skippers generally have brighter colored wings with lots of color while moths usually have dull colored wings, often with grays or browns as the main coloration. There are plenty of exceptions to this, of course. Tiger moths can have incredibly flamboyant hind wings. The mourning cloak butterfly has primarily black wings with hints of yellow and blue. 

Wing color can be used as a preliminary screen, as we’ve discussed. Now let’s look at the antennae. Butterfly antennae are most often long with a club shaped tip. Moths usually have fuzzier antennae that resemble feather dusters or antennae that are straight with no club at the end. Skippers have antennae that resemble a butterfly’s more closely than a moth’s. Skipper antennae generally have a little club at the end of a straight and thin antennae. Antennae can generally be used to differentiate moths from skippers and butterflies, but it might be more difficult to use them to distinguish skippers and butterflies. 

A skipper feeding on a yellow flower. Note the clubbed antennae and classic resting position of the wings.

Skippers have a generally fuzzy, shortened face, and they all kind of look the same. Sure, the colors might be different, but the overall shape is incredibly similar between species. This can really only be applied to the skipper group as butterflies and moths can have various head shapes between species. 

Another piece of the puzzle is the time of day in which each group is active. Generally speaking, moths are more active towards the evening, through the night, and into the early morning, whereas butterflies and skippers are more active towards late morning into the early evening. So if you catch something flying around at night, it’s most likely a moth, and if you catch something flying around during the day, it’s probably a butterfly or skipper. 

Butterfly, moth, and skipper are common names given to a wide range of insects in the order Lepidoptera. Because of this, it can be difficult to distinguish between the three. Using wing coloration, antenna type, and the time of day each group is most active can help in figuring out what sort of insect you’ve encountered. 

Thanks for reading!

~Let’s Go Find a Bug

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