Gorgeous Garden Bugs: The Joy of Moths

Get to know these beautiful moths, and you’ll realize these are good bugs for your garden.

I’m a moth addict. From summer to fall, I keep my porch light burning for hours every night, just so I can see who it brings in. I even decline nighttime invitations: “Gotta see who’s at the moth light tonight.” And I take pictures of every visitor, because even my cheapo camera sees better than my own eyes.

Io MothJudy (hokies43)
The enormous eyespots of an Io Moth are a form of defense to scare off predators.Judy (hokies43)

“Every moth is beautiful,” a bug-loving friend often says. You bet. It’s beauty that brings the anticipation and the addiction. With 13,000 species of moths flying over North America, you never know what you’ll see. Will it be an incredible twin-spotted sphinx moth tonight, revealing pink hind wings with bold, black-rimmed eyespots? Or a tiger moth, with its striking pattern of cream-colored lines on a dark-brown background, and the surprise of vivid red when it shows its colorful underwings? Maybe it’ll be a fuzzy-headed moth that looks like it’s wearing a feather boa. Take the time to admire the details of any moth’s markings—even those “ordinary” gray or brown ones—and you’ll soon discover a whole new world of beauty.

Flowers that open after sunset or release a fresh blast of fragrance after dark are calling to moths. And moths answer the call, providing pollination in exchange for nectar.Many of these blossoms are white or pale so moths can find them, which makes it easier for us to see our winged after-dark visitors, too.

But don’t be surprised to see lots more moths at your porch light than at your flowers. Many moths don’t eat. The huge, beautiful luna moth and other members of the giant silk moth family never touch a sip of nectar as adults. Neither do tent caterpillar moths or some other moth families. As you can probably guess, they don’t live long, either. A week, maybe a week and a half, is as long as most survive. The ghostly green luna moth and eastern tent caterpillar moths get only a few days. Still, that’s plenty of time for them to fulfill their purpose: find a mate and lay eggs for the next crop of caterpillars.

Garden BugsMary Zugelder
Not all moths fly at night. Hummingbird Clearwing moths join other garden bugs during the day. Mary Zugelder

Some species of moths are out and about during the day, feeding at our flowers right along with butterflies. To fool hungry birds and get protection, some of the day-flying moths mimic other critters. Ctenucha moths, with iridescent black wings and orange heads, have a great disguise. They look so much like wasps that I’m wary, too, at first glance. But I’m bolder about looking in on a hummingbird moth, also called a clearwing sphinx, when it’s hovering in a blur of transparent wings at a butterfly bush, dipping its proboscis into one blossom after another.

What fun to see these visitors! Consider spending an enchanted evening with the moths around you. Plant a garden of moth flowers around your favorite evening sitting spot, or in pots on the porch or patio. Moonflower vine is a particular favorite; sit nearby as the buds unfurl at dusk, and you’re likely to spot hovering sphinx moths almost as soon as the white trumpets flare into bloom. Other good picks include evening primrose, honeysuckle, white garden phlox, wild petunia and yucca.

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Sally Roth
Sally Roth is an award-winning author of more than 20 popular books about gardening, nature, and birds, including the best-selling Backyard Bird Feeder's Bible. Roth is also a contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. She and her husband share their home in the high Rockies with a variety of animals.