Types of Moths Around the Garden and Yard

picture of an emerald moth

Without knowing it, people often enjoy seeing the different types of moths that tend to hang around the home and garden. Why don't they know? Mostly because people tend to have a stereotypical view of moths, and they do not realize the color and diversity present within the group. Here's a quick run down of some basic moth facts, along with a representative sample of some moths around the home and garden that might be mistaken for butterflies or overlooked as moths.

Moth identification starts by differentiating them from butterflies. Generally, but not always, moths are defined by thicker bodies and not club on their antenna. It's hard to use wing color as a good identification tool because many moths such as the Emerald Moth in the top picture, have very colorful wings. Additionally the types of moths found around the lawn and garden often display butterfly like behavior.

Smithsonian Institution estimates place the number of moth species in the eleven thousand range. The number far surpasses the approximately six hundred native butterfly species. Some of the most easily recognized moth families that frequent residential areas are presented below.

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Moth Pests

picture of a tropical ermine moth

Unlike butterflies, many moth species get labeled as yard pests because their larvae have the potential to defoliate shrubs and trees. Ermine Moths and Tent Caterpillar Moths (Family Lasiocampidae) fit that bill.

The caterpillars of both groups build and live in large, silk tent structures attached to tree limbs. Different species inhabit different areas around the United States. Homeowners need to determine on a case by case basis how to handle any tent caterpillar presence in the yard.

picture of a tent caterpillar tent

The moth with the orange wings is a tropical ermine moth that is common in the eastern United States, especially areas of the South. The second picture shows a tent caterpillar tent filled with caterpillars.

picture of a clearwing moth

If all moths were as easy to identify as clearwing moths, there would be little reason to fear trying to identify any of the eleven thousand native species. Clearwing moths (family Sesiidae) bring some ease to the moth identification process because their name matches up closely with a physical characteristic of having clear, or see through wings. Additionally, many species also have colorful bodies that mimic wasps and/or butterflies. Species can be found across the country in most residential areas.

Many clearwing moth species can be a problem around the yard and garden because their larvae develop within trees and garden plants. Around the garden, some species such as Squash Vine Borer, for example, can cause damage, making sitings of adults a good indication of potential infestation.

Stinging Caterpillars

picture of a puss caterpillar Megalopyge opercularis)

The story of the stinging caterpillar remains a difficult story to tell. On the one hand, the vast majority of the thousands of native caterpillars pose no stinging threat to humans. On the other hand a story of a handful of stinging caterpillars could potentially scare the reader away from the entire caterpillar world.

Case in point, the Asp. Warm and fuzzy would not be the proper phrase for describing the Puss Caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis), also known as an Asp. This larvae of the flannel moth feed on leaves from a variety of broad-leaf trees and shrubs in the Southeast United States, especially during the late summer and fall.

Body contact with the caterpillar results in a sting, producing a severe pain that can easily extend beyond a one hour time frame. Several medical reports state patients also experience shortness of breath, nausea and other symptoms requiring medical attention.

While puss caterpillars mostly remain on leaves, they sometimes wander on the ground and trees. Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, along with shoes and socks, prevents unwanted stings for individuals who wander around puss caterpillar territory.

picture of yellow tussock moth caterpillar

Caterpillars of other moth species also present themselves a cute and fuzzy like the yellow fuzzy caterpillar pictured. Tussock moths are so named because their caterpillars commonly share a fuzzy look, with tufts extruding from the body. Species can be found in residential areas from coast to coast and in instances of local population eruptions, they can cause tree and shrub defoliation.

Some species go by the familiar name woolly bear. Finally, some caterpillar species such as those of the White Hickory Tussock Moth, do sting.

Hummingbird Moths

picture of a hummingbird moth also called a titan moth

People who think of moths as the dull and boring relatives of butterflies might possibly never experienced the fun of watching hummingbird moths hover from flower to flower on a sunny day.

The Genus Hemaris in the Sphinx Moths family consists of four native North American species that go by the name Hummingbird Moth. The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), for example, a common visitor to gardens across the country, often gets typed as the typical hummingbird moth.

Hummingbird moths also come from other Sphinx Moth genera. with the hummingbird moth in the top picture, the titan moth (Aellopos titan) as a prime example. Unlike the nocturnal habits of many moth species, hummingbird moths are day moths that enjoy the sunshine and flowers.

picture of a The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) as it hovers around flowers

The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) in the picture provides another example of hummingbird moth diversity and color.Like all Sphinx moths, they are characterized by stout bodies that taper at the end. Their wings are a colorful pink and brown mix, with a distinct white line across the wings and white lines along the thorax.

picture of a hummingbird moth caterpillar

The tail at the end of the hummingbird moth caterpillar also catches the eye.

Wasp Moths

picture of a Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Another mimic in the moth world, wasp moths spend their days nectaring on flowers much like butterflies. The video shows a Texas Wasp moth and the picture shows a polka dot wasp moth.

Black Witch Moth

picture of a male black witch moth

picture of a female black witch moth

With a wing span that often reaches seven inches, the Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata) ranks as the largest moth found in the United States.

Native to the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and the northern part of South America, the Black Witch Moth makes an annual journey to many parts of the United States during the summer months, or those months that typically coincide with the rainy season in its home territory.

They are more commonly found in the South than the North, although their ability to make the long flight north to the Alaskan or Canadian border has been documented in local news stories. Hawaii also has an introduced population.

The top two pictures show a male and female respectively. The color variation in the pictures is an artifact of the lighting. The white band through the center of the female's wings is the key field identification clue.

© 2008-2016. Patricia A. Michaels