Underappreciated beauties of the animal world

Saddleback caterpillar moth by © Maria de Bruyn.


By Maria de Bruyn

As a young girl, I learned that moths were insects that needed to be eradicated because they would eat holes into our family’s woolen sweaters and other clothing. That nugget of information, along with the unpleasant odor of moth balls, did nothing to endear them to me.

In later life, I discovered moths have a varied diet, as explained in this video. It wasn’t until around 2011, however, that I began to appreciate moths as interesting wildlife when I joined Project Noah. This involved unlearning certain assumptions and absorbing lots of new information.

For example, not all moths are drab white, brown or gray creatures that fly around at night. Many are active in the daytime, some fluttering along the ground and others visiting blooming plants. Some light-colored moths can be quite striking with their different markings. In my view, the Virginia tiger moth’s shoulder ruff even makes it look like it is wearing gala evening attire.

Top left: morbid owlet moth. Top right: yellow-washed Metarranthis moth. Bottom left: fall webworm moth. Bottom center: banded tiger moth. Bottom right: Virginia tiger moth. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

Other moths sport rusty red and orange tints in their color patterns. They vary in shape, some being butterfly-like, others looking like beetles and some having “hairs” and “horns”. Their diets vary according to species. The slug moth below favors fruit trees and shrubs including cherry, apple, blueberry, chestnut and hickory trees. The ailanthus webworm moth feasts on an invasive tree in our area, the tree of heaven.

Top left: tiger moth. Top center: friendly probole moth. Top right: ailanthus webworm moth. Bottom left: orange-headed Epicallima moth. Bottom right: yellow-shouldered slug moth. Top photos by ©Maria de Bruyn. Bottom photos by ©John Petranka.

Moth caterpillars can be quite interesting and colorful, too. Some are quite large like that of the Carolina sphinx moth; it is called a tobacco hornworm. The five-spotted hawkmoth has a caterpillar known as the tomato hornworm, which is not beloved by gardeners growing that fruit.

Top left: milkweed tussock moth caterpillar. Top right: tomato and tobacco hornworm moths. Bottom photos: emerald moth caterpillars camouflaged with bits of plants on which they are feeding. All photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

If a caterpillar has spines or bristles, it’s better not to touch it. Many species, like the saddleback caterpillar seen at the start of the column, carry venom which can cause painful stinging rashes and swelling (rated by some as 8 on a scale with 10 as most painful). Some people may have more serious symptoms, including severe headaches, asthma complications and gastrointestinal pain, which could last several days and require medical attention.

It can be fun to look for caterpillars since some of them use interesting camouflage techniques. The emerald moth caterpillar attaches bits of whatever plant it is on to its body so that it blends in with the plant. This is a technique that may fool birds looking for caterpillars to feed their nestlings in the spring and summer.

Top left: evening “mothing” set up for seeing and identifying moths. Top right: tulip tree beauty moth. Bottom left: waved sphinx moth. Bottom right: splendid palpita moth. Top left photo by ©John Petranka. All other photos by ©Maria de Bruyn.

If you enjoy photography, participation in National Moth Week (July 22-30) can be fun. In this international project, you can upload your photos to various websites and receive a participation certificate. Some websites, like BugGuide, can help you identify which species you have seen if you are unsure.

To increase chances of seeing moths, go outside when it is dark and shine a light on a smooth background. I have turned on my backyard light and gotten nice views of moths on screens, walls and trees. Fellow nature enthusiast and odonate expert, John Petranka, uses a white sheet with lamps to attract moths. The right-hand lamps in the photo above cost about $12 each and need 120V power. The left-hand lamp can run on 120V or a 12V battery.

If you readers decide to participate in Moth Week, I hope you get some really lovely images! Many thanks to John Petranka for use of his photos in this column. 

John Petranka, an editor and reviewer for The Dragonflies and Damselflies of North Carolina website, also contributes to the NC Biodiversity Project. His wildlife photos have won awards in the Wildlife in North Carolina magazine photo competition.

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