Types of Moths Around the Garden

picture of an emerald moth

Without knowing it, people often enjoy seeing the differenty 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.

Starting with some basic moth facts finds them, like butterflies, situated in the family Lepidoptera. Comparing and contrasting butterflies and moths starts with the physical similarities and differences. For example, while it does not hold for every example, moths are normally considered night Lepidopteras species, active during the evening and night. Butterflies, on the other hand, primarily get classified as the daytime Lepidoptera species.

Moth physical features, like having thicker bodies than butterflies, and the absence of a club (or ball) at the end of the antenna helps with moth identification. Colorful wings represents another general rule of thumb for differentiating between moths and butterflies. That generalization holds for many, but not all moth and butterfly species. A high percentage of butterfly species in the Hesperiidae family (skippers) and Riodinidae family (metalmarks), for example, have brown color wings. The Emerald Moth in the top picture demonstrates the colorful wings of many moth species. Additionally a the types of moths found around the lawn and garden often display butterfly like behavior.

Despite some physical and behavioral differences, all the moths and butterflies undergo a similar metamorphosis, from egg to caterpillar to pupa (chrysalis) to adult.

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In terms of population size, Smithsonian Institution estimates place the number of moth species in the eleven thousand range.

Giant Silk Moths (Family Saturniidae) are some of the most famous of the world moths because of the presence of the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas). Found in Southeast Asia, it is considered the world's largest moth.

With approximately six hundred butterfly species found in the United States, the number of moth species far surpasses the number of butterfly species.

Because of the population differences, the types of moths found in the United States fit into a larger number of families, approximately forty, compared to their butterfly relatives. Some of the most easily recognized moth families that frequent residential areas are presented below.

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.

Clearwing Moths

picture of aclearwing 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.

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

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.

Tent Caterpillars

picture of a tent caterpillar tent

Unlike butterflies, many moth species get labeled as pests. Tent Caterpillar Moths: Family Lasiocampidae fit that bill. The caterpillars of the family build and live in large, silk tent structures attached to tree limbs. Different species inhabit different areas around the United States. They are often considered pests because the caterpillar colonies are capable of defoliating the host tree. Homeowners need to determine on a case by case basis how to handle any tent caterpillar presence in the yard.

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.

© 2008-2016. Patricia A. Michaels