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Moth Identification Guide

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Moth Identification -- Identify the Moth You Found With This Guide

Did you see a moth and want to know what it is? Some moths have beautiful colors, and some are very plain and blend in with their surroundings. Once you start to notice moths, the next step is to learn to identify them. This guide is a good first step.

Often you don't notice all of the moths that are around you every day. Or maybe you found a caterpillar, and now it's hatched into an adult moth. This guide will help you identify some of the coolest moths in North America. From the spectacular green luna moth to the fast, strong sphinx moth, you will see some beautiful insects here. I hope you find the moth you're looking for, and I also hope that this beginner's guide will lead you to a deeper investigation into the nature that's all around you. Maybe you'll become the neighborhood expert on moths and other insects. Remember -- nearly every scientist camping in the jungle and studying exotic animals for a museum began as a curious young person with a spark of curiosity.


Moth Identification -- What is a Moth?

And how are they different from butterflies?

Moths are insects in the order Lepidoptera. they undergo complete metamorphosis, which means the adult lays eggs that hatch into larvae (caterpillars), which grow, pupate (often in a cocoon), and then hatch into an adult to complete the process.

There's no one guaranteed way to tell a moth from a butterfly, but you can nearly always do it by looking at a few key features. Here are some basic differences -- if your insect matches at least two of them, then you can be pretty sure which one it is.

  • Moths fly at night; butterflies fly during the day
  • Moths are furry and have heavy bodies; butterflies have smooth, slender bodies
  • Moths have branched or feather-like antennae; butterflies have thin, often clubbed antennae
  • Moth caterpillars often spin cocoons; butterflies do not
  • Moths rarely visit flowers; butterflies often do

A Word About Clothes Moths

I found a moth -- will it eat my sweaters?

First of all, adult moths do not eat sweaters. In fact, many adult moths don't eat anything at all -- all of the eating is done by the caterpillar, which exists only to eat and build up fat and energy for the adult stage. So if you found a moth, unless it's a little brown moth flying in your house, then relax -- it's not going after your woolens.

But the caterpillars of a very small number of moth species do eat wool and other organic fabric. The moth of this species is very small, dull brown, and not often seen. If you are finding holes in your sweaters, and you may have noticed a little brown moth or two flying around your house (even in winter), then you do have a sweater-eating moth problem.

The caterpillars of the clothes moth live in little silk nests among wool and other organic fibers. They eat the wool, grow to be about a half-inch long, and then make a cocoon and hatch into the adult. The adult doesn't eat wool -- the caterpillar is the culprit.

To get rid of clothes moth caterpillars, you need good old fashioned moth balls and a large plastic bag. Put the sweaters and the mothballs in the bag, seal it up, and leave it for a few weeks. The caterpillars will all be killed by the naptha fumes of the mothballs. Problem solved.


Meal Moths

Here's another kind of moth that makes itself a pest in your house. The meal moths act a little like clothes moths, except they eat flour and cornmeal instead of wool and silk. If you find one of these things flying through your house, especially in the pantry or kitchen, then you can be pretty sure there's a meal moth infestation going on. Have a look in your stored grains and flours -- you may find clumps, which are the webbed-together little nests of the caterpillars.

The solution to a meal moth infestation is easy: throw out the infested flour and grain. Buy more, and keep it in air-tight containers. The adult meal moths won't be able to get in to lay eggs and start a new infestation, and they'll fly away to find another house to bother.


Luna Moth

The luna moth is one of the most beautiful insects in the world -- if you find one, you're lucky! They are sometimes found on walls around lights in the morning, where they landed after being attracted to the light during the night. Luna moths occur through most of North America. They belong to the group of giant silk moths (Saturniidae). Like all Saturniidae, the adults do not feed -- the caterpillars do all of the eating, and they get pretty big and fat in the process. The name of this moth comes from the Latin word for "moon." This is because the early entomologists thought that the curved sickle tails looked a little like a crescent moon.

Watch As This Luna Moth Hatches Out of its Cocoon

This is pretty cool -- a luna moth hatches out and the still-shrivelled moth crawls out. Must see!


Poyphemus Giant Silkmoth

The polyphemus moth is a giant silk moth species, and is one of the most common of its group. Like all Saturniidae, The polyphemus moth doesn't eat as an adult -- that job is up to the caterpillar, which is a big, fat, green larva that eats tons and tons of leaves. The polyphemus moth is huge, but it has brown shaded wings that blend in with dry leaves. The underwings, though, have huge, startling eyespot markings. The moth flashes these when it's disturbed, which might scare away a bird or lizard that's about to eat the moth.


Yellow Woolly Bear Tiger Moth

Here's one of the tiger moths, a group of pretty, medium-sized moths that occur throughout the world. In North America, tiger moths occur just about everywhere. This species, a pure white-winged tiger moth, is often found at porch lights. Why moths are attracted to lights is not definitively know, though it's thought that they mistake the light for the light of the moon, which they may use for guidance when they fly at night.

The caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth is the common, and commonly found, yellow wooly bear.

Take a Poll -- Do You Like Moths?


Eyed Sphinx Moth

This is a cool moth that most people don't get a chance to see, but they're actually quite common. The wing pattern repeats some other, unrelated species in this guide -- brown, camouflaged upper wings and a big, startling eyespot on the hind wings. This strategy might scare away a predator that's trying to make a meal of the moth.

List of Scientific Names for the Moths

If you're ready to go beyond the common names and insects and start to learn their official, scientific names, then good for you! Here's a list of some of the moths in this guide along with their scientific names for you to learn.

Luna moth -- Actias luna

Polyphemus moth -- Antheraea polyphemus

Tomato hornworm moth -- Manduca sexta

Garden tiger moth -- Arctia caja

Rosy maple moth -- Dryocampa rubicunda

Yellow Wooly Bear Moth -- Spilosoma virginica


Isabella Moth

This moth is the adult form of the wooly bear, a furry caterpillar with red on either end of its dark brown body. Famers used to say that you could tell the severity of the coming winter by the width of those bands, but of course that's just folklore. The caterpillars leave their food plant and go looking for a place to spend the winter, and for some reason they often wind up crossing roads. So if you're driving in the country in late summer there's a fair chance you'll see one of these furry little guys hustling across the asphalt.


Tomato Hornworm Sphinx Moth

This big, strong moth is related to the Eyed Sphinx Moth. They're known as sphinx moths because of the way the caterpillar rears up the front of its body when it's alarmed. Early entomologists thought that looked like the pose of the Great Sphinx in Egypt.

Another common name of these moths is "hornworms." In addition to rearing up like the Great Sphinx, they also usually have a curved horn on the tail. It looks a lot like a stinger, but it's just a harmless decoration. But predators might be fooled into thinking that it's dangerous, and give the caterpillar a pass.

Yet another common name for this group is "hawkmoth." That's because the adults fly with a strong, swooping flight like a hawk. They fly at dusk or at night, though a few fly during the day (see Bumblebee and Hummingbird Sphinx Moth).

A Beautiful Sphinx Moth Visiting Flowers


Imperial Moth

Related to the giant silk moths, the imperial and regal moths are just about as big and share some characteristics. This insect, the imperial moth, is absolutely huge. If you see one flying around a light you might mistake it for a bat. It's also becoming increasingly common in the midwest and northern areas of its range, so you might find one at your porch light some night. If you do, way to go! These are beautiful, special insects that no many people ever get to see.


Io Moth

Okay -- if you find this moth, just be happy that you found it as an adult and not a caterpillar. That's because the caterpillar of the io moth stings. It has spines on its body that can sting you with the power of a honeybee, so be careful how you handle it!

The io moth is one of the giant silk moths, along with the luna moth and the polyphemus moth. But it's a good deal smaller than those. The io moth, like the polyphemus and the eyed sphinx, has huge dark eyespots on its hind wings; when it's frightened, it pops up the upper wings and the eyes open up. It's a pretty startling effect, and it's easy to imagine a lizard seeing that and scooting away, leaving the moth unharmed.


Regal Moth

This big, gorgeous moth is closely related to the imperial. The caterpillar of this insect is truly spectacular -- one of the biggest in North America. It sports huge curved, red horns on its back, and when it's disturbed it rears back and clicks its mandibles at you. It's called the "hickory horned devil," and if you find one, way to go! This is perhaps one of the coolest-looking insects in North America.


Garden Tiger Moth

This beautiful tiger moth has a pattern that's similar to several other tiger moths. The bold stripes and bright red/black of the wings follow the pattern of "warning colorization" that is often seen in nature, and very often seen in butterflies (for example, in monarchs and painted lady butterflies). Tiger moths are able to ooze or "bleed" nasty-tasting fluid from the joints in their legs. They advertise this icky taste by having bright colors that predators learn to associate with unpleasant experiences. Tiger moths like the garden tiger are doing the opposite of moths that try to blend into the background.


Hickory Tiger Moth

I included this moth because it's one of a group of tiger moths that look different from the others. The lovely brown and cream spots on this species help it blend in among dry leaves, which protects it from predators like lizards and birds. This is known as "cryptic coloration" and many insects use it as a way of surviving in the wild. Compare this to the bright colors of other tiger moths, such as the garden tiger moth, which advertises its icky taste by having bright, "stay away from me" colors.


Bumblebee and Hummingbird Sphinx Moths

Sometimes you'll see a bumblebee or a hummingbird visiting the flowers in a garden or a field. Often, those aren't birds or bees at tall, but a species of sphinx moth that has developed to copy, or mimic, those animals. Since birds don't often chase and eat bumblebees or hummingbirds, looking just like one is a good way to stay alive in the wild. If you were to catch one of these moths, you'd see that they are indeed moths, but have bodies and wings that really do look like the animals they're trying to copy. In fact, it's very likely that they've fooled you at least once or twice!

Watch The Hummingbird Sphinx in Flight - See how much it resembles the real thing?


Pandorus Sphinx

This sphinx moth is related to the tomato hornworm moth, but it has a different wing pattern. The swooping lines of brown, green, and purple make the Pandorus sphinx moth one of the most beautiful moths in North America. Unfortunately, the adult moth is almost never seen by most people. It flies at night and comes to lights, but it's not very common. It's more likely that you'll notice the caterpillar than the adult moth. The caterpillar lives on grape vines, and can be a bright velvety orange with dark spots along the side. Instead of a horn, the full-grown caterpillar has a glassy black bump weird! If you find one of these caterpillars, you should try to raise it to see the adult moth in all its glory.


Rosy Maple Moth

When I was a kid we used to call these "Kool-Aid moths." I'm not sure why, but the bright pink against yellow colors of the wings do have a kind of a Kool-Aid look. In any case, these bright little moths are often noticed in the morning resting near porch lights. They're closely related to the regal and imperial moths, and in fact the caterpillar looks a bit like a miniature version of the big spectacular caterpillars of those species.

Hope You Found Your Moth!

If you don't see your moth in this guide, don't give up! Remember, there are literally thousands of moths out there, There are lots of great resources out there for finding your moth. Some are online, and some are in book form. Here are two books that I own and use a LOT.

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