Check Out Moths for National Moth Week – Tennessee State Parks

July 25, 2022 | Permanent link

Happy National Moth Week!

It’s a time we set aside to recognize and celebrate the incredibly diverse world of moths and the roles they play in the ecosystem.

Butterflies are highly valued for their beauty and pollination efforts when adorning our fields and gardens. Because their habits are largely diurnal (or diurnal), they are much more likely to be encountered and liked by us.

Most moths fly under the cloak of darkness and thus pass through our lives largely unnoticed, unless perhaps they are lingering in the light of a porch the night before. And yet, there are many more species of moths present than butterflies! For the approximately 147 species of butterflies found in Tennessee, there are at least 1682 species of moths. They may be seen as mere pests by some, but their colors and patterns can rival even the most beautiful butterflies.

pandora's sphinx

Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), Putnam County

zebra shellfish

Zebra Concylodes (Conchylodes uvulalis), Putnam County

imperial butterfly

Imperial butterfly (Eacles imperialis) at Edgar Evins State Park

So what exactly are moths and why are they important? Moths, along with butterflies, are insects of the order Lepidoptera (a word meaning “scaly wing”). How to tell a moth from a butterfly? Generally speaking, butterflies are more likely to be active during the day, while most moths work at night. However, there are more daytime active butterflies than nighttime active butterflies. Some of these moths are cleverly disguised as other creatures!

orange spotted sphinx

An orange-spotted Smoky Moth (Pyromorpha dimidiata) mimicking a beetle, at Chickasaw State Park

vine borer

The vine borer (Vitacea polistiformis) looks a lot like a paper wasp! Edgar Evins State Park.

Carmenta

A clearwing beetle (Carmenta) nectars safely with her butterfly disguise

Pale-winged Hummingbird

A Clearwing Hummingbird (Hemaris diffinis) nectars alongside a bumblebee

Moths generally have feathery antennae while moths are knobby.

Many moths sit with their wings outstretched while butterflies hold their wings upright.

Butterflies are often fuzzier while butterflies are smoother and more streamlined.

Beggar

Beggar (Eubaphe mendica)

Like butterflies, moths undergo true metamorphosis, a life cycle that has 4 distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

Most butterflies lay their eggs in large masses on their chosen host plant. Various trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and flowering plants will serve as a food source, depending on the species. Some are so picky that they only feed on one type of plant.

Moth caterpillars are just as varied as their adult counterparts – some of which take on non-caterpillar-like shapes. There are many caterpillars of moths well armed with irritating hairs, noxious poison or prickly spines.

buck moth caterpillar

The Buck Moth (Hemileuca maia) caterpillar is not only well-coated, but also covered in spines that give a very painful and memorable sting! Montgomery Bell State Park.

Some have incredible camouflage to help prevent capture by one of their many predators.

prominent unicorn

This Prominent Moth (Coelodasys unicornis) unicorn caterpillar has an amazing leaf edge disguise

Unlike butterflies, moths do not form a chrysalis at the time of pupation. They weave a cocoon of silk, sometimes from a single strand that stretches for miles. They will often overwinter in their protective cocoon, usually hidden in leaf litter, before emerging the following year. Some butterflies have several broods per season.

Adult butterflies run the gamut from extremely colorful and vibrant to remarkably well-coupelled.

beautiful wood nymph

The Beautiful wood nymph (Eudryas grata) is disguised as bird poo!

So why should we care about moths? On the one hand, they are excellent bioindicators. The diversity of moth species present is a good indication of the overall health of the ecosystem. The butterfly species will reflect the local plant community and tell you whether or not pesticide use is having a negative impact on the local ecosystem.

Moths are also an incredibly vital food source for a wide range of species, especially breeding birds. Moth Caterpillar Summer Blast provides everything a baby bird needs to grow and thrive in one convenient, squishy package. In fact, these caterpillars provide the bulk of a baby bird’s diet. This seasonal abundance is one of the main reasons birds migrate hundreds or thousands of miles to breed in the eastern United States.

Although there are many moths that do not feed as adults (such as giant silk moths, for example), there are many others that are essential pollinators for a variety of flowering plants. .

white-spotted sable

White-spotted Sable moth (Anania funebris) feeding on a blackberry flower, Roan Mountain State Park

Dart butterfly on goldenrod

A Dart Moth (Feltia) nectars on goldenrod under cover of night, Pickett CCC Memorial State Park

If you want to learn more about the diversity of moths that can be found in your own garden, there are simple ways to do so.

It can be as simple as leaving your porch light on and seeing what comes up. You can take it a step further and hang a sheet with a bright light on it. UV or black lights are particularly effective.

butterfly leaf

The white sheet acts as a reflector and also gives butterflies a place to land. Make sure it’s a cheap sheet with a low thread count or they’ll have a hard time grabbing it. When night falls, turn on the lights and let the show begin! You will be amazed at the variety of moths (and other insects) that can be present in your garden. (Just be sure to turn it off before sunrise to give the bugs time to disperse. Otherwise, it’ll be an all-you-can-eat buffet for birds at first light!)

You can also try applying moth bait. Simply mix old bananas and brown sugar, let it ferment for a few days, then paint it on tree trunks or rocks.

If you want to turn your efforts into a community science project (which I strongly encourage you to do), photograph your findings and submit them to a free database such as iNaturalist or BugGuide.net.

You can make your garden more moth-friendly by:

  • Reduce or eliminate pesticides
  • Reduce light pollution
  • Plant a diversity of native plants, trees and shrubs
  • Leave dead leaves for overwintering butterflies

butterfly in the leaves

Butterflies like this Sallow (Pyreferra) need dead leaves for their overwintering habitat

Check out the official National Moth Week webpage for more moth information and resources.

Here are some moth programs coming to our state parks this weekend for you to enjoy:

Moth Viewing Party, Edgar Evins State Park

Buggin’ Out, Harrison Bay State Park

Moth Week Celebration, Cedars of Lebanon State Park

Moonlight and Moths, Rocky Fork State Park

butterfly party at the EESP

Guests amazed by the discovery of moths at Edgar Evins National Park

I leave you with a few more moth sightings for your viewing pleasure.

Good mother !

showy emerald

Showy emerald (Dichorda iridaria)

prominent double teeth

Prominent double-toothed (Nerice bidentata)

Prometheus

Prometha silkmoth (Callosamia promethea)

button slug

Buttoned red cross slug (Tortricidia pallida)

scarlet-winged lichen

Scarlet-winged Lichen (Hypoprepia miniata)

basswood tortrix

Basswood tortrix (Pantographa limata)

Oak with pink stripes

Pink striped oak (Anisota virginiensis)

golden butterfly

Golden Moth (Basilodes pepita)

isabelle tiger butterfly

Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), adult woolly bear caterpillar

About the Author

picture of holly

Holly Taylor got her start with Tennessee State Parks as a seasonal interpretive ranger in 2006, working six years at Edgar Evins State Park before working as a wildlife presenter for Natural History Education Company of the Mid-South. She took time off to stay home with her son before returning to TN State Parks as an assistant to state naturalist Randy Hedgepath in 2018. She graduated from TTU in 2009 with a BS in conservation biology and also serves as Chapter Coordinator for Cumberland. Tennessee Naturalist Program Mountain Chapter. She has a lifelong passion for the natural world and loves nothing more than sharing that passion with others.

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