“What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly?” I ask Hannah as we look at this picture of a silk moth that we took in the mountains behind Santa Barbara last year. These moths are huge. There bodies average around the size of my thumb and the wing span is as long as my hand and fingers. They show up in the Santa Barbara County back country every winter. It’s called a Ceanothus Silkmoth. Hannah tells me that the moth has the wings of a butterfly and the legs of a butterfly but its antennae and its body belong to a moth. When I go to the website Butterflies and Moths of North America and look up the difference between butterflies and moths, it turns out that Hannah is mostly right. The one part she has missed is that moths are usually nocturnal. Amazing that a four year old can observe and correctly identify the unique points of difference between two species like that.
I guess it is pretty obvious that moths are hairy and have weird hairy antenna where butterflies seem so much more delicate. Is this why moths get a reputation for being creepy, while butterflies are considered beautiful and desirable? Not all moths are ugly, as this silkmoth proves, and the caterpillars of each are difficult to differentiate and often do the same sort of damage to plants while they are eating, so the idea that moths are pests while butterflies are not, isn’t always accurate either. Is it the sunlight and flowers that make butterflies so much more attractive to people? Being day time creatures provides butterflies with the perceived image of being so beautiful and good, where moths are often experienced culturally as a sign of evil. Is our prejudice against night creatures connected to our fear of darkness? Do we hold the butterfly above the moth because the moth inherits our fear of the dark?