Types of Moths

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picture of an emerald moth

Like butterflies, moths belong to the family Lepidoptera, yet they display some of their own unique physical and behavioral characteristics, and often those characteristics help organize discussions of the different types of moths common in the United States.

The “large moths” button to the left provides a great sample of moth species to highlight that point.

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, are considered 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.

picture of a 
chickweed Geometer moth
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. The yellow and red wings of the Chickweed Geometer moth tells another story.

In terms of population size, Smithsonian Institution estimates place the number of moth species in the eleven thousand range. For comparative purposes, the approximately six hundred butterfly species found in the United States means 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. Here’s a brief run down of a handful of the more easily recognized moth families.

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.

The White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata) in the picture provides another example of hummingbird moth diversity and color.

Hummingbird moth diversity translates into their occupying a variety of areas across the United States, from fields and forests to residential gardens.

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

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.

Problem Moths in the Home and Garden

picture of a tropical ermine moth
Unlike butterflies, many moth species get labeled as yard pests because their larvae have the potential to defoliate shrubs and trees. Ermine Moths and Tent Caterpillar Moths (Family Lasiocampidae) fit that bill.

The caterpillars of both groups build and live in large, silk tent structures attached to tree limbs. Different species inhabit different areas around the United States. Homeowners need to determine on a case by case basis how to handle any tent caterpillar presence in the yard.

picture of a tent caterpillar tent
The moth with the orange wings is a tropical ermine moth that is common in the eastern United States, especially areas of the South. The second picture shows a tent caterpillar tent filled with caterpillars.

picture of a clearwing 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 and they can be a problem because their larvae develop within trees and garden plants. Around the garden, some species such as Squash Vine Borer, for example, can cause damage. See adult clearwing moths in the garden is a good indication of potential infestation.

picture of a woolly bear caterpillar tent

Tiger Moths: Family Arctiidae – This family is known for its woolly bear caterpillars.

Despite the differences in population levels, all the moths and butterflies undergo a similar metamorphosis, from egg to caterpillar to pupa (chrysalis) to adult.

Stinging Caterpillars

picture of a western sheep moth caterpillar, hemileuca eglanterina

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.

Most people remain unaware of the darker side of the caterpillar world, the world of stinging caterpillars, and it need be noted that the pain associated with unanticipated engagements with stinging caterpillars make for life time memories. Those victims unaware of the stinging caterpillar phenomena might assign blame for the bite to the mythical ‘spider bite’ category.

A discussion of stinging caterpillars begins with the approximately ten Hemileuca species, a genus of moths collectively called Buckmoths, and they belong to the same family (Saturniidae) as the Giant Silkworm and Royal moths.

Many such as the Elegant Sheepmoth have colorful wings and/or bodies. Stinging spines on Hemileuca caterpillars make identifying them an important health issue. The top pictures provides some basic identification clues.

Their bodies are usually hairless with the exception of patterns of small spines encircling the body segments.

picture of a puss caterpillar Megalopyge opercularis)

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, as the picture shows, on picnic tables.

Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants, along with shoes and socks, prevents unwanted stings for individuals who wander around puss caterpillar territory.