They are called Peppered moth (Biston betularia), Silver Y (Autographa gamma), or Crepuscular burnet (Zygaena carniolica). They are usually neither as colorful nor as well-known as their famous relatives, the Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) or the Peacock butterfly (Aglais io,). Nevertheless, moths are enormously important to our ecosystem. We explain why and how they can be distinguished from butterflies.
They buzz around us at night and make up a large proportion of the world’s lepidopterans species, these are butterflies and moths. Around 3,000 lepidopteran species live in Germany. However, only about 100 of these species are butterflies. Worldwide, there are 180,000 lepidopterans species and 25,000 butterflies; in Austria, there are about 3,900 moth species and 200 butterflies.
It’s all about the looks
It is very widely believed that butterflies and moths differ in that they are active either during the day or at night. In German they are even called “Tagfalter” (=”day butterfly”) and Nachtfalter (=”night butterfly). However, this is not quite true. In fact, some moths are also partially active during the day and do not only fly around in the dark. In the same way, there are butterflies that are active by day and night. Nevertheless, they can be easily distinguished by some other criteria – their appearance:
The antennae of butterflies end in a club, while those of moths are pointed, combed, or feathered.
In butterflies, the wings are usually closed when at rest. In moths, on the other hand, the wings are usually spread in the resting position.
The head of butterflies tends to be small and the body tends to be narrow. The bodies of moths are thick and short.
Moths tend to be brownish, white or black. Some of them, for example the birch moth, have a camouflage pattern. Thus, they cannot be seen on tree bark. Most butterflies are rather bright and even colorful. Moths can also be colorful, just as day butterflies are brown. Accordingly, color is not a good distinguishing characteristic.
Endangered beneficial insects
They are on the move at night, so it is not really noticeable: many moths also pollinate flowers – only at night. They are therefore no less useful than their day-flying colleagues and, unfortunately, just as endangered. Many species are in sharp decline or have disappeared completely. 800 moth species are on Austria’s Red List, which is about 20 percent of the species that occur. The reason for this is, for example, intensive forestry and agriculture with monocultures, fertilizers and pesticides. The habitat of the butterflies is also increasingly being taken away by sealing the soil and building construction. Ornamental gardens without food plants make it difficult to find food, and light pollution is also a major problem. Fewer moths also means fewer bats and birds: many songbird species and bats depend on moths and their caterpillars as a food source for their young.
Love songs and screeching sounds
Moths produce sounds in the ultrasonic range, which some species use to warn bats that they would taste bad if eaten. Bees or wasps protect themselves from their predators by their coloration, some moths screech. However, these sounds are not audible to humans. Some species even sing love songs when looking for a mate.
A gem for humans and moths
Protecting butterflies is not that difficult. An unmowed garden with native plants such as fruit trees, willows, knapweeds or mallows and a small vegetable patch with, for example, raspberries or carrots, unsprayed of course. So not only butterflies but also people have something to snack on and the latter can enjoy the splendid appearance of the pretty flutterers.
More about butterflies
The European Wilderness Society is part of the LIFE Apollo2020 project, a project dedicated to the endangered Parnassius apollo butterfly. On the project website, articles about butterflies and their protection are published regularly.
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