Every year the Horniman Museum runs various family events around the Big Butterfly Count. Sometimes I get involved. On Wednesday 27 July I took hordes of net-toting children along the nature trail, the old Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway line. Despite early rain we found six butterfly species, so I won my bet with Natural History Keeper Joanne Hatton. She still owes me.
On Thursday I was asked to talk about the difference between butterflies and moths in the museum’s hands-on base, where the young enthusiastic audience would be able to handle small glass-topped cases with real butterfly and moth specimens from the collections. My theme was ‘What is the difference between a butterfly and a moth?’
We looked at brightly coloured species, but these were both butterflies and moths. We looked at drab camouflaged species, but these were both moths and butterflies. We looked at small species (both again) and large species (yes, both). We looked at antennae, wing angles at rest, foodstuffs, life histories, feeding mechanisms, flight, and scales.
And before they knew it I was telling them that it didn’t really matter anyway — they’re actually all moths as far as entomologists are concerned. Butterflies, it turns out, are just a small group of pretty, obvious, day-flying moths, which humans have arbitrarily lumped together in a group and given a special name.
That told them. I’m expecting the complaints to start trickling in any time now.