Spotlight on Moths: Important Garden Pollinators

Learn essential facts about moths and how to identify them. Plus, find out how to tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly.

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

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. Meet the colorful moths you can see during daytime.

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsROLF NUSSBAUMER
Io moth

Io moth

This large, widespread 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.

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsSUPERSTOCK/ALAMY
Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth

Scarlet-bodied wasp moth

This gorgeous 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. Follow these tips to throw a party to attract moths.

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsPERRY VAN MUNSTER/ALAMY
Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar

Isabella tiger moth

This medium-sized moth is a pretty pale yellow, and females have orange hind wings. Common across the continent, you’re most likely to encounter it 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. They 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

Rosy maple moth

It doesn’t get prettier than this 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. Next, learn 5 interesting facts about hummingbird moths.

Spotlight On Moths | Birds & BloomsTODD FINK/DAYBREAK IMAGERY
Royal Walnut Moth

Royal walnut moth

This giant has 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. Check out 5 silk moths that might be in your garden.

How to Tell the Difference Between Moths and Butterflies

Use these general tips to help differentiate the two.

Moth

  • Thick, furry body
  • Thread-like or frond like antennae
  • When resting, wings fold down over their body so the wing tops are visible

Butterfly

  • Thin, smooth bodies
  • Smooth antennae ending in a bulb or “club”
  • When resting, wings fold over the body so under-sides are visible

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.