British moths - fact and fiction

Tiffany Daneff / 11 June 2012

British moths are unfairly billed as nature’s Cinderellas, overshadowed by their flamboyant butterfly cousins. In light of their dwindling numbers, perhaps it's time to sort the fact from the fiction.

Prominents and Kittens, Ambiguous and Doubtful, Eggars, Emperors, Tent-dwellers and Autographs: no, not some new indie rock bands but a smattering of the enticingly named branches of the much maligned moth family. Moths, says Richard Fox, resident moth expert at the charity Butterfly Conservation, are much misunderstood and, of more concern, their numbers in the UK have declined by a worrying third over the past four decades.

Butterfly Conservation is running annual Moth Nights, which are growing in popularity in the UK. They combine moth recording – in your garden, if you like – with local events aimed at raising awareness.

Butterflies and moths

It’s time to blow away a few moth myths. For a start, they are not simply a dull, brown, nocturnal poor relation of the beloved British butterfly. Nor are they all intent on eating holes in our favourite jumpers. 

Related: How to get rid of clothes moths

In fact, there is little between butterflies (who get a much better press) and moths. The difference, Richard says, is more cultural than scientific. We choose to classify them differently because we like to think that they are different but, in fact, they’re not – although, as always, there are exceptions to the rule.

Myth #1: butterflies are more beautiful than moths

Are butterflies more beautiful? Not really. Just look at the Elephant Hawkmoth (boldly striped cerise and olive-green), the Light Emerald (green, naturally) or the Garden Tiger (striking orange and black spots). Size then? Yes, there are lots of tiny, dingy brown moths but there are plenty as big as, and sometimes bigger than, butterflies.

Myth #2: moths are nocturnal

Perhaps the lack of interest must be tied up with their nocturnal habits. Nope. Contrary to what you might think, there are more day-flying moths in Britain than there are types of butterfly.

Myth #3: moths and butterflies are completely different

Both species belong to the group Lepidoptera, which is classified into families, of which six are called butterflies. ‘People are always asking how they can tell the difference and there are a few rules we can give but none of them work absolutely because butterflies are moths,’ Richard explains. Indeed, in some languages the words for butterfly and moth are the same.

So why do we generally know so little about moths and perhaps care even less? Especially as there are 56 species of butterflies in Britain against a far mightier army of 2,500 moths.

Perhaps this disregard harks back to the age-old superstition that moths are the souls of the dead or related to witchcraft – a belief that stems from some spectacular markings, of which the Death’s-head Hawk-moth and Mother Shipton (with the silhouette of a witch on the wings) are the most obvious examples.

Recording moth numbers

More dependable insights have come from the National Moth Recording Scheme, launched in 2007, to log their spread and diversity. People are asked to contact a county recorder with sightings in a bid to track species.

In 2010, Butterfly Conservation published the first atlas showing the distribution of moths across the country. This revealed anew their fantastic variety – and their importance to our ecology.

It’s moths and their caterpillars that are the main food source for birds and bats. Many garden birds, along with the rare grey partridge and stone curlew, rely on them. Moths are important pollinators, especially for night-scented flowers. Clearly more research is needed into their importance and why their numbers have decreased.

So the next time something flutters around your light, think twice before rolling up a paper.

Moth myths

  • All moths are nocturnal
  • Moths are drab
  • Moths are always furry
  • Moths are not butterflies
  • All moths eat clothes

Moth facts

  • There are more day-flying moths in the UK than there are day-flying butterflies
  • Moths are ‘positively phototactic’ – they’re attracted to light
  • There are just as many beautiful and colourful moths as there are butterflies. Colour does not determine one from the other. Many of our most common butterflies are brown (Meadow Brown, Speckled Wood)
  • Of the 2,500 species of moth, only two common species are responsible for eating clothes (and they attack only animal fibres such as wool)
  • According to Butterfly Conservation, blue tit chicks in Britain consume 35 billion moth caterpillars a year
  • You'll be lucky to see 15 different butterflies in your garden, but if you live in the south of England you could see 300-400 different moths!

How to tell the difference between butterflies and moths

You can try these rules to distinguish the two but, while they generally work, they are not foolproof as both belong to the order Lepidoptera.

  • The antennae – butterflies tend to have matchstick-shaped antennae (straight with a blob on top); moths usually have long tapering antennae, sometimes heavily feathered (especially in males for use in finding mates)
  • Resting wings – butterflies tend to fold their wings upright on their backs like a book; most moths fold their wings flat like a jet fighter

Mapping moths

More than 11 million sightings of moths were used to generate the maps of 868 species in the Provisional Atlas of the UK’s Larger Moths.

The oldest record in the database is of a Death’s-head Hawk-moth seen in 1769 in Northumberland.

The maps reveal that some species are spreading northwards, presumably in response to climate change: the Red- necked Footman has moved 242 miles (390km) north in Britain since 1982 and the Pale Pinion 186 miles (300km).

New species from Europe are colonising Britain. They include Tree-lichen Beauty, established in 2000 and now found in Kent, Essex, London and Surrey. Clancy’s Rustic has spread rapidly since it was first seen in Kent in 2002 and is thought to be breeding in southern coastal counties.

Other species are in sharp decline. The V-moth’s range has dropped by 77% in Britain, the Double Dart by 48% and the Figure of Eight by 30%. One of the biggest surprises was the Lappet moth, a fantastically camouflaged species that resembles a dead leaf complete with stalk, considered by naturalists to be widespread; the atlas revealed that it has declined by 75%.

For more details of Moth Night, visit To buy the Atlas (£20) and for details of how to join in the National Moth Recording Scheme, see

Find out more

Butterfly Conservation has lots of info on moths and organises vital moth counts (, 01929 400209)

The Cockayne Collection of British and Irish Butterflies and Moths at the Natural History Museum. Visits by appointment only or search online at

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