All About Garden Moths: Important Pollinators

Learn essential facts about garden moths and how to identify them. Plus, see photos of some of the most beautiful moths you might find in your backyard.

When it comes to an insect popularity contest between butterflies and moths, butterflies get most of the attention. Butterflies are usually, but not always, larger and more colorful. Plus, most moth species fly at night when we’re not as likely to see them. This isn’t a reason to ignore garden moths, though. Some are important pollinators, and all are a food source for birds and other wildlife you want to attract.

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You can find thousands of moth species in North America, but we wanted to highlight a few of the most impressive ones. To attract them, plant their caterpillar host plants and make sure you never spray pesticides. You don’t want to harm the helpful bugs in your yard.

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Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsROLF NUSSBAUMER

Io Moth

This large, widespread garden moth has a wingspan of more than 4 inches. Males have pale yellow forewings and females have a reddish brown. Both have a striking “eyespot” on each hind wing, which helps deter predators. Host plants include hackberry, willow, mesquite, redbud, currant and blackberry.

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Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsSUPERSTOCK/ALAMY

Scarlet-Bodied Wasp Moth

This gorgeous garden moth has a bright red body with black-lined, clear wings. You might have trouble believing it’s a moth because it looks more like a wasp. This mimicry behavior helps keep predators at bay. It’s found in coastal areas from South Carolina through Florida and across the Gulf Coast into Texas. Hemp vine is its caterpillar host plant.

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isabella tiger mothGlass and Nature/Shutterstock

Isabella Tiger Moth

These medium-sized garden moths are a pretty pale yellow, and females have orange hind wings. Common across the continent, you’re most likely to encounter this garden tiger moth species in its caterpillar phase when it’s known as a woolly bear. These furry, reddish brown and black-banded caterpillars are often spotted on the move in the fall. They spend winter as full-grown caterpillars, and are specially adapted to survive freezing temperatures.

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsPERRY VAN MUNSTER/ALAMY
Isabella tiger moth caterpillar

Isabella tiger moths emerge as adult moths in the spring. Attract them with host plants such as asters, birches, maples and elms, and by leaving fallen leaves in your garden.

Quiz: How many types of caterpillars can you identify?

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsMARY HOLLAND

Rosy Maple Moth

It doesn’t get prettier than this garden moth species, with its pale pink and yellow color scheme. It’s found over much of eastern North America, from southern Canada down to Florida and east Texas. Its caterpillars feed on the leaves of maples and oaks.

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Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsTODD FINK/DAYBREAK IMAGERY

Royal Walnut Moth

These giant garden moths have a wingspan of over six inches, with the females larger than the males. The upper sides of its wings are reddish brown with random pale yellow spots. It’s found from the Midwest to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. As its name suggests, walnut is its caterpillar host plant, along with hickory, pecan, butternut, sweet gum, persimmon and sumac. The caterpillars are 5-inch green giants with orange horns known as hickory horned devils.

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David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, as well as a nationally recognized media personality and speaker. He is the author of the book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife.