Magpie (Robert Thompson)

What are moths?

Breadcrumbs

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. These can easily be dislodged as a powdery dust, so it's best not to touch their wings.

Lime Hawk-moth (Paul Pugh)Lepidoptera found in Britain include over 2,500 species of moth but fewer than 70 butterflies. 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!

White Plume Moth (Mark Parsons)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.

Moths even have fascinating (and sometimes weird) names. You can find out more about these, and other amazing moth facts, by following the links on the left.