Moths

Male Emperor Moth - Iain H Leach

Moths and butterflies are insects which together form the order called Lepidoptera, meaning 'scaly-winged'. The patterns and colours of their wings are formed by thousands of tiny scales, overlapping like tiles on a roof.

There are around 2,500 species of moths in the UK, with more establishing every decade following migration from continental Europe. People may think there are simple rules for telling moths from butterflies, but none of these "rules" holds completely true and most of the differences are myths. Moths and butterflies share the same basic biology and have far more similarities than differences. You could say that a butterfly is just another kind of moth.

As there are so many species of moths, experts split them into two groups, the larger (or macro-) moths and the smaller (or micro-) moths. There are around 900 macro-moths in Britain. Many micro-moths are very small indeed, although confusingly a few of them are larger than the smallest macro-moths. 

Moths vary greatly in appearance as well as size. For example, the big Hawk-moths have narrow swept-back wings for fast, powerful flight, while the plume moths have delicate feathery wings. Other shapes are characteristic of different moth families. Colours and patterns also vary, some very bright and bold while others have wonderful camouflage. 

Moths are very diverse in their ecology too, and live in some surprising places; not just gardens, farmland and woodlands, but also marshlands, sand dunes and even mountain tops! You can also see moths at any time of the year, with different species active in different months, including mid-winter.

Butterflies and moths are one of the most threatened groups of wildlife. In the last 100 years, nearly 70 species have become extinct (4 butterflies and 65 moths). Our recording programmes show that around two-thirds of species are declining and over 170 species are threatened and listed as Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan