10 Types of Moths Every Homeowner Should Know
Big, beautiful, and mysterious, or tiny, brown, and annoying, these are the moths you’ve probably wondered about.
Moths present something of a mystery. Unlike their lepidopteran kin the butterfly, most moths are nocturnal. We typically only encounter them when they decide to nap the day away on the wall of the garage, or when their larvae chew up a favorite sweater. So, what’s the deal with moths, anyway?
Aside from the rare invasive pest species, the many different types of moths overwhelmingly benefit people and nature. Some provide pollination services at night when the day shift of bees and butterflies is resting. They also play an immeasurable role in moving nutrients up the food chain. Virtually all moths serve as an essential food source for insects, mammals, and songbirds. If you want to learn more about these amazing creatures, what follows is a good place to start.
1. Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
A favorite of pollinator gardeners, the hummingbird clearwing moth is unusual as moths go, in that it is active during the daytime. At first glance it has the appearance of a tiny hummingbird, or some may confuse it with a bumblebee. Rarely are these unique types of Sphinx Moths confused with other species. They have heavy, fuzzy bodies, and long, clear front wings that are bordered in black or brown. Males have a flared abdomen that gives them the appearance of a hovering hummingbird.
Hummingbird moths can be found in forest edges, open meadows, and suburban gardens. They dip their long proboscises into flowers to feed on nectar. Their caterpillar, the green “hornworm” variety, feeds on and lays its eggs in host plants including viburnum, honeysuckle, hawthorn, cherry, and plum. They spend winters in a cocoon hidden in the fallen leaves beneath their hosts.
Key Characteristics: Look for hummingbird moths feeding on the nectar of flowering plants in the daytime. They have fuzzy olive-and-black or yellow-and-black bodies, and fast-moving, nearly invisible wings that make a humming sound.
2. Fall Webworm Moth
Fall webworm moths are fairly inconspicuous white insects as adults. But their caterpillars, encased in protective silk webbing, are capable of completely defoliating trees and shrubs. The first wave of fall webworms begin spinning their expansive webs on branch tips of more than 200 woody species in early summer. Because they are capable of producing two or three generations per year, by autumn they become very abundant and destructive. But these pests evolved along with our North American forests, which mostly rebound from the damage the following year.
Because of their similar web-spinning and foliage-eating habits, fall webworms are sometimes mistaken for eastern tent caterpillars. However, the eastern tent caterpillar looks completely different at both the caterpillar and adult stages. Also, the tent caterpillar has a more restricted diet, and sticks mostly to the crotches and forks rather than branch tips.
Key Characteristics: Fall webworm moths are nocturnal, mostly white with orange markings on the body and a wingspan of about 1.5 inches. The caterpillars vary significantly in coloration from pale yellowish to dark gray, cream-colored stripes along the sides with pairs of yellow spots, and long and short white bristles.
Related: 8 Stinging Caterpillars All Home Gardeners Should Be Aware Of
3. Cecropia Moth
Possibly the rarest moth on the continent, the cecropia moth is North America’s largest, with a wingspan of up to 7 inches. This nocturnal species is found in the hardwood forests east of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and the United States. Like many other moths, cecropia moths do not feed as adults, but simply emerge from their cocoons in the early summer, mate, and die within two or three weeks.
Cecropia is a member of the Saturniidae family which includes about 1,500 types of giant moths. Adult females choose from a variety of suitable host tree species to lay their eggs, including ash, birch, box elder, alder, elm, maple, poplar, cherry, plum, willow, apple, and more. After hatching from its egg and feeding all summer on the leaves of its host, the green caterpillar of this giant silkworm moth spins a tough, brown, silk cocoon, and then overwinters as a pupa attached to a twig of its host tree. Cecropias only have a single brood per year.
Key Characteristics: Cecropia moths have a wingspan of 5 to 7 inches. Their bodies are furry and red with white stripes. The wings are reddish-brown, edged in light tan, with crescent-shaped white marks and eyespots on the upper tips. The caterpillar is blue-green with two rows of red, yellow, and blue tubercles.
4. Brown House Moth
If you’ve ever encountered small, brownish types of house moths in your cupboard, they’re likely the brown house moth. The adults are not dangerous, but rather mostly just annoying. They are attracted to dry organic debris in humid locations, like dust behind the toilet or crumbs on the floor of the pantry. Their offspring chew up fabrics and paper, as well as high-carb dry goods like rice, oatmeal, and pasta.
The best way to control brown house moths is with a deep cleaning, followed by monitoring. Use a vinegar and water solution to clean areas where you’ve seen eggs or larvae. Freeze clothes and other items that show signs of moth damage. Keep floors, baseboards, and carpets clean and dust free. Add cedar oil sachets to closets to prevent moth infestations. After the cleanup, monitor problem areas with sticky traps.
Key Characteristics: Brown house moths average .25 to .5 inches long, with a wingspan of .5 to .75 inches. They are normally bronze-brown with dark flecks on the front wings. Larvae are about .25 inches long, off-white with a brown head.
5. Io Moth
The io moth is a fantastic moth found throughout eastern North America, known for the big “eye” markings on its rear wings. This member of the Saturniidae family, mostly nocturnal types of large moths, lives in forests, brushy areas, and suburban yards. Like the cecropia, io moth adults do not feed. After emerging from their cocoons, they mate, lay eggs, and die.
Io moths need hackberry, willow, mesquite, redbud, currant, blackberry, or pear to use as host plants. Adult females lay their eggs in clumps on stems or leaves of the host. When the tiny caterpillars hatch, they eat the foliage, feeding first in groupings or “trains,” and then feeding individually when they are larger. They spin papery cocoons where they pupate into adulthood in the leaves, duff, or mulch below the tree. In the North, they have a single brood, while the South may see up to three broods from late winter to early fall.
Key Characteristics: Adult io moths measure 2 to 3 inches. The forewings are either yellow or purplish brown with darker banding. When the yellow rear wings are revealed, you’ll see the two large blue and black eye marks with white center dashes.
6. Polyphemus Moth
The Polyphemus moth gets its name from the giant cyclops of the same name in Greek mythology. The cyclops has a single large eye in the middle of his forehead, while the moth displays two large eyespots in the middle of its hind wings. Polyphemus moth is widely distributed from southern Canada to Mexico, including all of the lower 48 states except Arizona and Nevada.
Many types of big moths like the Polyphemus moth do not feed as adults. This species prefers to lay its eggs on oak, willow, maple, or birch trees. Upon hatching, the caterpillars spend their solitary lives eating, starting with their own egg shells. The older Polyphemus caterpillars consume entire leaves before cutting the leaf petiole at the base so it falls to the ground, concealing from predators the evidence of their feeding.
Key Characteristics: Adult wingspan measures 4 to 6 inches across. The upper surface of the wings are reddish to yellowish brown, normally with lighter forewing margins, and a pink or black and pink submarginal line. Rear wings have clear oval eyespots ringed with yellow, blue, and black. Young caterpillars have a zebra-like black and white pattern, transforming to a nearly uniform green as they age.
Related: 3 Container Garden Combos for Attracting Pollinators
7. Twin-Spotted Sphinx Moth
The twin-spotted sphinx moth is a common nocturnal species that is attracted to porch and landscape lights. It lives in forested and brushy areas and moist terrain around lakes and rivers, and is also found in treed suburban areas. Its range extends from Nova Scotia to northern Florida, west to the Great Lakes region, Manitoba and the western Dakotas, as well as the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest.
Twin-spotted sphinx moths need host plants such as apple, cherry, plum, ash, elm, poplar, birch, and willow to host its young. The caterpillar exhibits the green “hornworm” body type that is typical to the hawkmoth family.
Key Characteristics: With a 1.75 to 3.25 inch wing span, twin-spotted sphinx moth is one of the larger hawkmoths. The upper side of the male forewings are gray with black and white markings, while females are yellow-brown with dark brown and white markings. Males and females have red hindwings with pale yellow borders and a blue eye spot.
8. Common Clothes Moth
Common clothes moth, or webbing clothes moth, is one of several types of household moths known to target fabrics. Their worm-like larvae feed only on keratin-containing animal fibers such as wool, fur, silk, feathers, felt, and leather. Occasionally cotton or synthetics may be damaged, if they are heavily stained or blended with animal-based fibers. Clothes moths may go undetected, since they prefer dark, undisturbed locations like closets and attics; but they lay 40 or more eggs at a time, and the hatched larvae can quickly cause serious damage.
Clothes moth caterpillars are creamy white and measure up to .5 inches long. They spin tubes or masses of webbing as protection while they move around and feed. They leave behind threadbare garments, patches of webbing, and tiny fecal deposits. When an infestation is discovered, thoroughly inspect all suspect garments and locations. Launder, dry clean, or discard infested fabrics, and deep clean the entire space. Apply an insecticide if necessary to control advanced infestation.
Key Characteristics: Typically these moths go unseen or unnoticed. They are small, tan colored moths that abhor light. Watch for threadbare sections, particularly in the folds of stored clothing. Webbing or white larvae may be present.
9. Isabella Tiger Moth
The name Isabella tiger moth may or may not sound faintly familiar. For most Americans, the wooly bear or wooly worm caterpillar was a childhood favorite. If you ever wondered what that black and brown fuzzy caterpillar would become, now you know. The old story goes that the length of the brown band foretold the severity of the coming winter. The brown band lengthens with age, so it’s possible for an early winter to force a younger (shorter band) caterpillar into hibernation sooner.
Isabella tiger moth lays its eggs on a diverse array of host plants, including grasses, asters, birches, clover, corn, elms, maples, milkweed, and sunflowers. In most of its range, two broods emerge each season, the latter of which pupates overwinter.
Key Characteristics: The adult Isabella tiger moth measures 1.75 to 2.5 inches across the wings. Males are mostly an orange-yellow to yellow-brown color, while females exhibit more of a pinkish-orange hind wing color.
Related: 10 Types of Bees All Homeowners Should Know
10. Luna Moth
Widely considered our most beautiful North American moth, as well as one of our largest, the luna moth is unmistakable. It’s also somewhat mysterious. Although the luna moth is not threatened, it is a rare find due to its short adult lifespan of just over a week. Like other giant silkworm moths, this nocturnal giant does not eat or drink as an adult. Instead it spends its final nights securing the future of the species.
Luna moths live in an area from Nova Scotia to Saskatchewan and eastern North Dakota, south to Florida and the Gulf Coast to eastern Texas. If you want to attract luna moths to your yard, plant one or more of the host plants: white birch, American persimmon, sweet gum, hickory, walnut, or sumac. And do not rake your fallen leaves, since that is where they hunker down to pupate.
Key Characteristics: Luna moths have a wingspan of 3 to 4.5 inches. Their wings are lime green, with clear eye spots on all four wings. The outer wing margins are deep pink for the southern spring brood, but yellow in the southern summer brood(s) and northern brood. The hindwings have long, curving tails. Their body is white, and its caterpillars are lime green.