Find the answers to the top ten most frequently asked questions about butterflies and moths:
Butterflies and moths are very similar and are all part of the same group of insects, the Lepidoptera. There are no precise and easy ways to tell butterflies and moths apart, but some distinctions include the following:
- Butterflies fly almost entirely during the day, whereas many moths are nocturnal. However, some moths fly during the day, so if it is flying at night it's almost certainly a moth but if it's flying in the day it could be either.
- Most butterflies have antennae that are club-shaped whereas most moths have antennae that taper to a point (and are often feathered).
- Most butterflies rest with their wings held up above their bodies and most moths rest with their wings spread out flat.
- The most consistent difference is that nearly all moths have a tiny hook-like structure joining the hindwing to the forewing but butterflies do not. However, this is very small and difficult to see.
It is very difficult to identify a caterpillar by description alone. If you spot one it is more likely to be a moth caterpillar as there are 2,500 different types of moths and only about 60 species of butterfly. It is generally better to leave the caterpillar where you find it, as they require specific foodplants. One way to identify a difficult caterpillar is to rear it to the adult stage. For more information download the Brief Guide to Caterpillars.
There could be several reasons:
- There is good habitat. Different species of butterfly have different habitat requirements. Where the climate, situation and vegetation support a particular butterfly at every stage of their lifecycle you will see them in higher numbers.
- There are good nectar sources. Nectar provides the fuel a butterfly needs to fly. Some flowers produce more nectar than others and their plants will attract more passing butterflies.
- There has been a mass migration. Painted Lady butterflies are not native to Britain but they are a fairly common sight in Summer when they fly in from Europe. The number of butterflies migrating to this country can vary each year. In 2009 hundreds of thousands of Painted Ladies arrived unexpectedly in May.
Moths are less popular than their close cousins the butterflies but their bad reputation is based on myths and misunderstandings. Of the 2,500 moths that live in Britain, only two species will eat clothes. Clothes moths only eat fabrics derived from animal sources, such as wool, they are attracted to items left in dark, undisturbed places and they prefer dirty clothes to clean ones.
Although many people overlook them, moths are numerous and widespread, living in a wide range of habitats. They are a major part of our biodiversity and play vital roles in the ecosystem, affecting many other types of wildlife.
Moths are declining in the UK. Studies have found the overall number of moths has decreased by third since 1968. The situation is particularly bad in southern Britain, where moth numbers are down by almost half. Many individual species have declined dramatically in recent decades and over 60 became extinct in the 20th century.
The Moths Count project aims to encourage interest in moths throughout the UK and to establish an ongoing National Moth Recording Scheme to improve knowledge and conservation of the 900+ species of larger moths.
Most butterfly species in Britain spend the winter as eggs, larvae (caterpillars) or pupae. However, Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell hibernate as adult butterflies (as do some moths). Red Admiral butterflies are also starting to hibernate in small numbers due to climate change.
Butterflies usually hibernate in sheltered areas such as patches of ivy, tree hollows etc. However, it is not uncommon to find a Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell hibernating indoors. When this occurs, it is best to move them to an unheated out-building, such as a garage or shed, or to a very sheltered corner of the garden. Houses are unsuitable places for butterflies to hibernate in - heating during the winter will mislead a butterfly into thinking that spring has arrived.
Butterflies and most moths visit gardens to feed on nectar. Attract them to your patch by growing a range of plants that will provide nectar throughout the flight season - from early spring to autumn.
The top nectar plants for butterflies and moths include: Buddleia, Ice Plant, Lavender, Michaelmas Daisy, Oregano/Marjoram, Aubretia, Red Valerian and French Marigold. Also, Night-scented plants such as Honeysuckle and Night-scented Stock are particularly good for moths.
If starting from scratch you will need to remove turf from the area before sowing your seed mix. Ideally the soil should be weed free and not too fertile. The best time to sow seed is autumn, as winter frosts will aid germination. To enhance an existing grassy area simply allow grasses and wildflowers already there to grow.
Cut the meadow once at the end of the summer, after the majority of flowers have set seed. If the grass or other competitive species such as nettles have got off to a good start you could cut again at the start of spring, before the wildflowers have had a chance to grow.
Do not cut the whole area at any one time and never cut grass shorter than 5cms. Some butterflies, moths and other insects need the cover of long grass to use as a shelter during the winter. Leaving areas of long grass around the edges or on a small section of your meadow will provide a range of habitat conditions.
If your meadow is not flower-rich, you may need to consider adding to the mix by sowing additional wildflower seeds or planting wildflower plugs. It is important to use flowers which come from British, preferably local, sustainably sourced stock.
Butterfly Conservation believes it is acceptable to use nets to confirm identification but nets must be used with care as they can damage butterflies. It's best to get an experienced person to show you how to use your net skilfully if you intend to use one.
The butterflies and moths listed below are specially protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and it is illegal to catch, handle or harm them without a license.
- Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia)
- High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe)
- Large Blue (Glaucopsyche arion)
- Large Copper (Lycaena dispar)
- Marsh Fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia)
- Swallowtail (Papilio machaon)
- Barberry Carpet (Pareulype berberata)
- Black-veined Moth (Siona lineata)
- Essex Emerald (Thetidia smaragdaria)
- Fiery Clearwing (Bembecia chrysidiformis)
- Fisher's Estuarine Moth (Gortyna borelii)
- New Forest Burnet (Zygaena viciae)
- Reddish Buff (Acosmetia caliginosa)
- Sussex Emerald (Thalera fimbrialis)
10) My local council are mowing the roadside verges that were full of wildflowers. Isn't this destroying important habitat for butterflies and moths?
Some parts of road verges need to be kept short with regular cutting for safety reasons and this cannot be avoided. Most road verges will be cut at some stage during the year or every few years just to keep them open.
Many verges are full of flowers because annual mowing has prevented vigorous, competitive plants from dominating and scrub from eventually taking over. On very thin, stony soils this can be less of an issue, but the natural tendency to become scrub won't always hold back.
Ideally, any cutting should be left until the end of the summer when flowers have set seed and insects are getting ready to over-winter. But this is not always possible for safety reasons, or desirable as the most competitive grasses and plants will also have set seed and spread. So when summer cutting has to take place then the impact can be reduced limiting it to just parts of the verges, with the remainder cut at the end of the season.
Part cutting, especially when not very frequent and when the cuttings do not accumulate, can actually benefit grass verges by creating a range in vegetation structure. A part-cutting regime could also try and leave some of the taller vegetation such as dead umbellifer and thistle stems, standing against the hedge, as they are valuable over-wintering places for invertebrates
Cost implications should mean that Councils will not cut more than they really have to.
Many county councils in England - often assisted by long-running projects promoted by their Wildlife Trusts - have developed programmes to conserve and enhance the wildlife value of their verges. To find out about cutting regimes in your area, search for your council's website.