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Moth Identification Guide (With Photos)

GreenMind publishes authoritative and detailed guides to the things you're curious about.

This guide will help you identify some of the coolest moths in North America.

This guide will help you identify some of the coolest moths in North America.

Identify the Moth You Found With This Quick and Easy 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 to identifying moths.

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. 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.

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 energy!

The spectacular luna moth, one of the species featured in this guide

The spectacular luna moth, one of the species featured in this guide

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 (although some moths also fly during the day)
  • Moths are often furry and have heavy bodies; butterflies have smooth, slender bodies
  • Many 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
moth-identification

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 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.

Close-up of a clothes moth

Close-up of a clothes moth

How to Use This Guide

For every moth species listed, this guide will tell you the following essential information:

  • Scientific name (taxonomy)
  • Caterpillar food plant
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees?
  • Is it rare?
  • Where is it found?

If you still have questions about identifying the moth you found, below you will find good internet sources that are species-specific and can give you more detail.

moth-identification

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.

  • Scientific name: Actius luna
  • Caterpillar food plant: Oaks, walnut, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, although it is not often seen
  • Where is it found? Throughout the eastern United States and Canada

Watch As This Luna Moth Hatches Out of its Cocoon

Take a Quick Poll!

moth-identification

Poyphemus Giant Silk Moth

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.

  • Scientific name: Antheraea polyphemus
  • Caterpillar food plant: Oak, birch, willow, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, this is one of the most commonly encountered of the giant silk moths
  • Where is it found? Throughout the eastern United States and Canada
A beautiful female Io moth

A beautiful female Io moth

Io Giant Silk Moth

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 can really sting. 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.

Cecropia moth

Cecropia moth

Cecropia Giant Silk Moth

The cecropia moth is one of the largest moths in North America. If you see it flapping outside a brightly lit window on a warm early summer night, you might think it's a bird or a bat. But for such an enormous insect, it is not often found as an adult. It's more common to encounter the caterpillar, which is equally huge and possessed of some of the most striking accoutrements in the insect kingdom. In addition to being up to six inches long and a bright leafy green, it has what look like colored medieval maces protruding from it's front sections. These studded balls are accompanied by spines and tubercles all along the larva's body. Finding one of these monsters might be the event of the summer!

The cocoons are attached lengthwise to a branch of the food plant, and are so tough that they often remain there for years after the moth has emerged and flown away.

  • Scientific name: Hyalophora cecropia
  • Caterpillar food plant: Oak, willow, walnut, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, although it is not often seen
  • Where is it found? Throughout the eastern United States and Canada
The enormous giant silk moth caterpillar.

The enormous giant silk moth caterpillar.

moth-identification

Yellow Woolly Bear Tiger Moth

This is 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 woolly bear.

  • Scientific name: Spilosoma virginica
  • Caterpillar food plant: Many "weed" plants found in disturbed areas
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No -- the yellow woolly bear is one of the most commonly seen moths
  • Where is it found? Throughout the eastern United States and Canada
The common, often-seen yellow woolly bear

The common, often-seen yellow woolly bear

moth-identification

Isabella Moth (Banded Woolly Bear Moth)

This moth is the adult form of the banded woolly bear, a furry caterpillar with red on either end of its dark brown body. Farmers 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.

  • Scientific name: Pyrrharctia isabella
  • Caterpillar food plant: Plantains and other low plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Very common, though the adult moth is not commonly seen
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States, Canada, and into Central and South America
The common banded woolly bear caterpillar

The common banded woolly bear caterpillar

Paonias excaecata, a kind of eyed sphinx moth

Paonias excaecata, a kind of eyed sphinx moth

Eyed Sphinx Moth

This is a cool moth that is not noticed by most people, but there are several kinds and some of them are 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.

  • Scientific name: Paonias excaecata
  • Caterpillar food plant: Vines including grape and Virginia creeper
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? No, these moths are common
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States, Canada, and into Central and South America


moth-identification

Tomato and Tobacco Hornworms

These big, strong moths are 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).

  • Scientific name: Manduca species
  • Caterpillar food plant: Tomatoes and tobacco plants
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Yes
  • Is it rare? Very common
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States, Canada, and into Central and South America; sphinx moths are a very large group, found around the world

Another Kind of Sphinx Moth: The White-Lined Sphinx

moth-identification

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!

  • Scientific name: Hemaris species
  • Caterpillar food plant: Vines, including grapes
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? No, these moths are often seen at flowers during the day
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States, Canada, and into Central and South America; sphinx moths are a very large group, found around the world

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

moth-identification

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.

  • Scientific name: Eumorpha pandorus
  • Caterpillar food plant: Vines, including grapes and Virginia creeprt
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? Not usually
  • Is it rare? This moth is not rare, but it is seldom seen
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States, Canada, and into Central and South America; sphinx moths are a very large group, found around the world
moth-identification

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.

  • Scientific name: Eacles imperialis
  • Caterpillar food plant: Maples, sweet gum, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? It can be common at times
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States and Canada, with related species throughout the West
moth-identification

Regal Moth

This big, gorgeous moth is closely related to the imperial moth. 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.

  • Scientific name: Citheronia regalis
  • Caterpillar food plant: Hickories, Walnut, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? The caterpillar is more often seen than the adult moth
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States and Canada, with related species throughout the West
moth-identification

Garden Tiger Moth (And Other Tiger Moths)

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.

  • Scientific name: Subfamily Arctiinae
  • Caterpillar food plant: Many low plants and "weed" species
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Many species of tiger moths are quite common
  • Where is it found? Moths in this group are found around the world
moth-identification

Hickory Tiger Moth

The adult moth (and several related species) are seldom seen or noticed, but the caterpillars are very often encountered when they crawl down from their trees and look for a place to pupate in late summer. Some people have allergic reactions to the fur of these caterpillars, though they are not actually venomous like some other caterpillars.

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.

  • Scientific name: Lophocampa species
  • Caterpillar food plant: Hickories, Walnut, and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? The caterpillar is more often seen than the adult moth
  • Where is it found? Throughout the United States and Canada, with related species throughout the West
Caterpillar of the hickory tiger moth

Caterpillar of the hickory tiger moth

moth-identification

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.

  • Scientific name: Dryocampa rubicunda
  • Caterpillar food plant: Maples and other trees
  • Will it seriously damage plants or trees? No
  • Is it rare? Not in most areas
  • Where is it found? Throughout the northern United States and Canada

These Are Only a Few of the Moths You Might See

This guide features a small number of the moths that are out there waiting for you to find them. While there are about 700 butterfly species in the US, there are well over 10,000 moth species -- most of them small and plain-colored, but many of them rivaling butterflies in beauty and form.

Please take the time to keep your eyes open for moths, and, as always, stay curious!

Resources

The following sources were used for this guide:

https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/hawk_moths.shtml

https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/sphinx-moths-hawk-moths

https://uwm.edu/field-station/giant-silk-moths-family-saturnidae/

https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/isabella-tiger-moth-woolly-bear-woolly-worm

https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/

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