Big Butterfly Count 2021: How to spot the 5 key differences between a moth and a butterfly

Big Butterfly Count 2021: How to spot the 5 key differences between a moth and a butterfly


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The Big Butterfly Count begins today (July 16) and will run until August 8. Butterfly numbers have decreased significantly since the 1970s and therefore wildlife organisations are attempting to glean more information about these declines in numbers.

What is the Big Butterfly Count?

The Big Butterfly Count is a nationwide citizen science survey aimed at helping the Butterfly Conservation assess the health of the UK environment.

The survey was first launched in 2010 and is now the largest survey of butterflies in the world.

More than 111,500 people took part in the survey in 2020 submitting 145,249 counts of butterflies and day-flying moths from across Britain.

All counts taking part in the survey can be viewed on this interactive map.

The map shows the number of counts, participating citizen scientists and butterflies counted so far.

Those interested can also see the top five butterflies seen during the count so far.

To take part, you should simply count the butterflies you see during a bright, preferably sunny day, during the Big Butterfly Count over a period of 15 minutes.

Records are welcome from anywhere: from parks, school grounds and gardens, to fields and forests.

If you are doing your count on a walk, then simply total up the number of each butterfly species that you see during the 15 minutes.

The Big Butterfly Count has provided a list of target butterfly and day-flying moth species – and there is also an app to help you identify species.

How to tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly

Butterflies and moths are pretty similar – both belonging to the same group of flying insects known as Lepidoptera.

Butterflies are considered to have evolved from moths, which originally existed as daytime moth equivalents.

Colourful butterflies are believed to have evolved much later after flowering plants came into existence.

Key signs differentiating moths and butterflies


One of the easiest ways to differentiate between a moth and a butterfly is examine the antennae.

A butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end.

A moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged.

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Butterflies tend to fold their wings vertically up over their backs.

They also tend to have larger and more colourful patterns on their wings.

However, moths tend to hold their wings in a tent-like fashion which hides the abdomen and they have smaller wings in drab colours.


Moths and butterflies also can be distinguished because the former has a frenulum which is a wing-coupling device.

Frenulums join the forewing to the hind wing to enable both wings to work in union during flight.

Butterflies do not have frenulums.


Moths are generally nocturnal which is also shown by their attraction to light sources.

Butterflies are however primarily diurnal (daytime creatures).

Despite these general characteristics, some moths are diurnal and some butterflies at crepuscular which means they fly at dawn and dusk.


Cocoons and chrysalides are protective coverings for the pupa – which is the development stage for insects between the larval and adult stages.

A moth makes a cocoon which means the pupa is wrapped in a silk covering.

Butterflies however create a chrysalis which is a hard and smooth covering – with no silk.

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