Wildlife

11 Wildly Colored Moths to Brighten Your Day

October 31, 2018

Photo © Janet Haas / TNC

As moths are drawn to a flame, people are drawn to moths. Exhibit A: the recent explosion of #MothMemes on social media.  From Facebook groups to Reddit forums, fans are sharing photos and starting conversations about Lepidoptera around the world.

Many butterflies and moths are brightly colored because they’re toxic. “The majority of the time, it has to do with chemistry,” said Akito Kawahara, Ph.D., the associate curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity. “As caterpillars they eat plant leaves, and they take the toxins from the leaves, and use [the toxins] to display to their predators.”

Moths that ingest toxins are toxic to all life, not just birds or small mammals. Try and eat one, and it’ll make you sick. “The plants are actually using toxins to protect themselves… and some insects have been able to overcome that,” said Kawahara. As an extra layer of protection, some vivid moths mimic the look of toxic ones, even though they’re not poisonous themselves.

There are more than 160,000 known species of moths (and counting). Many of them remain unknown. Their habits and behaviors remain cryptic. Get out and look for the moths in your neighborhood; there are probably gems hidden in a local tree or under your house shutters.

“The level that we’re at in terms of knowledge is nowhere near mammals. We don’t even know how many moths there are,” says Kawahara.

Here are 11 of the more striking species. If you live in the United States, you can probably find several of these near your home.

  • Rosy Maple moth

    Dryocampa rubicunda

    Photo © Ken Childs

    Known for its fuzzy pink legs and remarkable yellow body, you can spot this insect in the late afternoon and throughout the evening. As its name implies, the caterpillars use maple trees as hosts.

    Range: eastern United States
    Host Plants: maple trees

  • Cecropia silkmoth

    Hyalophora cecropia

    Photo © Margo Berke

    With a striking red and white body and an alluring red, white and dark brown wing pattern, the cecropia silkmoth has a frosted look about it due to the hair-like scales on its wings.

    Range:  east of the Rocky Mountains
    Host plants: trees and shrubs including willows, alders, birches, sugar maples and box elders

  • Luna moth

    Actias luna

    Photo © Ken Childs

    This somewhat-legendary moth has pale green wings, multiple transparent eyespots and two long curving tails. There’s a strip of pink (and sometimes yellow) coloring along the edges of its large wings. It actively flies at night.

    “Luna moths are likely not toxic,” says Kawahara. “Nobody actually knows why they’re pale green.” Scientists think the color is to make them look like a leaf and protect them from predators. “We have shown that luna moth tails spin while flying, and the spinning fools hunting bats,” he says.

    Range:  eastern U.S.
    Host plants: trees including white birches, sweet gums, hickories and sumacs

  • Southern flannel moth

    Megalopyge opercularis

    Photo © Jon Rapp

    The southern flannel moth is sometimes called the “Trumpapilla,” due to its bright yellow body which some say resembles President Donald Trump’s hair. It has creamy yellow body and wings, with an orangish base. Try not to touch one, as this little bug has stinging hairs hidden underneath its soft, dense hairs.

    Range:  southeastern U.S.
    Host plants: trees and shrubs including oaks, apple trees, and rose bushes

  • Achemon sphinx

    Eumorpha achemon

    Photo © Sharon Watson

    The Achemon sphinx’s large brown wings have prominent, squarish dark spots, and when the wings spread, they reveal impressive pink hindwings. It’s mostly visible in the evening, and because of its voracious appetite, it’s known as a pest at some vineyards.

    Range:  U.S., except Pacific Northwest
    Host plants: grapes, ampelopsis and more

  • Beautiful wood-nymph

    Eudryas grata fabricius

    Photo © Ken Childs

    Primarily white in color, the beautiful wood nymph has eye-pleasing pops of color on its body, including a reddish-brown band on the tip of its wings and reveals bright yellow underneath. When at rest, this bug rolls up its wings to make predators think it’ a bird dropping.

    Range:  eastern U.S.
    Host plants: Virginia creepers, hops, grapes, etc.

  • Io moth

    Automeris io

    Photo © Ken Childs

    This relatively plain-looking moth opens its wings to reveal grand yellow-and-pink hindwings with large black and blue eyespots. Eyespots are there to shock birds and other predators. To locate them, watch in the late morning to early afternoon. Look for young caterpillars, often found feeding together in one long “train.”

    Range:  eastern U.S.
    Host plants: willows, currants, pears, etc.

  • Harnessed moth

    Apantesis phalerata

    Photo © Ken Childs

    This wildly-colored moth has an extremely striking wing pattern, which is mostly black with cream-colored borders. When opening its wings, the harnessed moth reveals a pronounced yellow and pinkish or reddish hindwing.

    Range:  eastern U.S.
    Host plants: clover, corn, dandelions, plantains, etc.

  • Painted lichen moth

    Hypoprepia fucosa hübner

    Photo © Ken Childs

    The painted lichen moth has a noticeable wing pattern, with thick gray and yellow streaks and additional pops of color ranging from pink to red. According to the University of Milwaukee Wisconsin, these insects can do “fecal flicking,” which means they can fire their poop up to 30 body lengths away from themselves. Researchers think this skill helps the moth avoid predatory wasps and parasites which track down prey by the scent of its feces, or “frass.”

    Range:  eastern U.S.
    Host plants: mosses and lichens on trees

  • Oleander hawk-moth

    Daphnis nerii

    Photo © Paul Parsons

    An incredible green-and-black beauty, this moth was unfortunately introduced to Hawaii though most of its range is in Europe, Africa and Asia. You can find it at dusk feeding from flowers, such as honeysuckle and tobacco, or at night near a light source.

    Range:  Hawaii
    Host plants: periwinkles and oleanders

  • Scarlet-bodied wasp moth

    Cosmosoma myrodora

    Photo © Claudia Husseneder

    The scarlet-bodied wasp moth has an extraordinary red body and transparent wings edged in black to make it appear as though it’s a wasp. “Your chance of surviving greatly increases if you look like something really dangerous,” said Kawahara.

    Range: Southeast U.S.
    Host plants: hempweed

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6 comments

  1. Thankx. Makes me happy to live in the mid-Atlantic region. More chances to see these guys up close & personal!

  2. Wow! Those moths are stunning! I’ve always been a bit of a western chauvinist, staying mostly west of the Mississippi with the rejoinder that it’s crowded enough without me taking up extra space in the few public lands there. Those moths have me thinking, though, that it might be worth a trip East just to go on a moth hunting expedition! Is there a preferred time of year to see the biggest variety of moths?

  3. These are so beautiful, elegant and ethereal. Can imagine them in a new “Fantasia 2018″ in a piece, ‘Lark Ascending,” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Animation would not inhibit their beauty!!! Gees!

  4. I feel bad that the only one I have actually seen is the luna moth. They are all so beautiful = and most live here in the East! Hope the reason they arent sighted has nothing to do with the agricultural pesticide habits!

  5. These beautiful pictures and interesting comments made my day. I just stumbled into them by accident. Now they will be a regular on my visits to my computer.