Most lay-people would recognize that there are only two types of beautifully winged insects, and that is the butterflies and moth species including the well known migrating monarch and the destructive gypsy moth. Fellow lepidopterans (those that study such species) would share that there is a third and middle party (species), the skipper.
In short, butterflies love butter, skippers skip-rope or mans a boat, and moths perform “Dancing with the Stars” around the flames,...just kidding. In reality, they all have some similarities and differences.
The similarities between the magnificent trio is that their taxonomic order name is “Lepidoptera” (scaly-winged), they all have exoskeletons, limbs that are jointed, and colourfully or drab pigmented scales that cover their membranous wings. Their flight patterns are all over the place, and not in a single line like birds. From egg, to pupa (caterpillar), to smooth chrysalids (butterflies) or hairy, spiky, or leaf-covered, cocoons (moths), to the full fledged winged-insect, is one example of the three’s life-cycle. They are very different from ants, beetles, and others in the insect world.
Moths are nocturnal, meaning they are actively working at night, however there are some species that are seen during the daytime. Most have drab earthy colors for camouflaging purposes, though there are some species with obviously colorful figures. Moths can have splendid caterpillars. Their filamentous or feathery, antennae fans out plume-like with no knobs/clubs at the end. When they are at rest, their wings are flat, showing their huge-bodied thorax and abdomen. Shady-places are their preferred resting places during the day, away from the sun (i.e., shady building sides, under leaves, in the forest, on tree trunks, etc.,...).
Butterflies are diurnal, working all day, from dawn to dusk. They are the most colourful, and have antennae that have knobs or clubs on the end, akin to the old-fashioned rabbit-eared television antennas. When resting or sleeping, their wings are extended upward, in a vertical position above their narrow bodies (the thorax and abdomen). Visibly seen on any flower or plant or tree (undersides even) in the daytimes.
The skipper is categorized in the middle with both characteristics of moth and butterfly. Skippers’ bodies are smaller than the duo and have small curvy or hook-like extended antennae. Many varieties of colours and patterns are found in different skippers’ species. Their flight route is erratic and they dart around from flower or place-to-place. Two short wings (the forward and hind) hold in near vertical position above the large abdomen-like body, akin to the modern day jet-fighters. Flowers, plants, and trees are where they rest.
All over the world, there are about 200,000 species of the trio, and 10,000 are found in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. However, there are more moth species than butterflies and skippers. The largest moth is the Atlas moth (12”-wingspan) and the smallest is the pygmy moth (1/10”-wingspan). And the largest butterfly is the goliath birdwing (11”-wingspan) and the smallest it the pygmy blue (¼”-wingspan).
The three pollinators migrate near and far, and the well known and studied migrating butterfly species is the monarch that travels a great distance of 2,500 miles, in the fall, from Southern Canada to central Mexico. Other skipper, moth, and butterflies’ species are not as studied much with their migration patterns and distances.
Pollinators such as colourful diurnal butterflies and jet-fighter shaped skippers, as well as nocturnal moths are very beneficial to flowers, and feed the insectivorous bats, birds, and other omnivorous/insectivorous mammals that dine on them. Next time you see them in the day time, or dancing under the moon or streetlights, you would now know the difference between the trio.