Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Of butterflies...and moths...and catfish

While sitting in the school carpool line a couple of days ago, I overheard an exchange between a mother and her young son as they headed back to their car from the playground. Nearing the fence, the little boy (about 5 years old) exclaimed, "Look, mommy, a butterfly!" and pointed excitedly at a small white butterfly. "No, no," the mother responded. "That's not a butterfly, it's a moth. Butterflies have pretty colors." The boy kept insisting it was indeed a butterfly, but his mother continued on with her misguided explanation of how butterflies are always beautiful and moths are plain. In this case, the 5 year old was correct. The butterfly he had been watching was a cabbage white butterfly.

Yikes! Instead of providing inaccurate information, just explain that you're not sure if it is a butterfly or what the difference between a butterfly and a moth is. This creates a perfect opportunity for some simple investigation together. Information sources are everywhere. Kids love searching through field guides or looking up facts on the internet. Don't make it up - look it up!

This reminds me of the time my family and I were viewing tropical fish swimming in one of the floor to ceiling aquariums at Atlantis in Nassau, Bahamas. A little girl standing nearby repeatedly asked her mom, "What kind of fish is that? And how about that one?" After a couple of minutes of not answering, the mother replied with an exasperated drawl, "Oh honey, they're aaall catfish."

So, what is the difference between a butterfly and a moth? (I'll deal with catfish in another post). Here are a few distinguishing factors:

  • Butterflies are active during the day; moths are active at night.

  • Butterflies have clubbed or knobbed antennae; moths have feathery, straight or branched antennae
  • Butterfly bodies are smooth; moths are plump and fuzzy

  • Butterflies rest with their wings held upright; moths rest with their wings held out horizontally
In general, butterflies are more colorful than moths. But that is not a criteria for distinguishing between the two. Here's an example of a beautiful moth called the Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe). They are common in North America and often visit my flowers in the summertime. This one came frequently to a basket of petunias I kept hanging by the back door.

Want to know more about butterflies and moths? Check out

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