Magnificent Moths

Black-Waved Flannel Moth
The fuzzy, stout body is typical of moths. This black-waved flannel moth (Lagoa crispata) is uncommon in New York. Photo: M. Schlesinger, NYNHP

It’s National Moth Week! So let’s learn a little more about them.

Moth or butterfly?

Moths and butterflies are members of the order Lepidoptera (Greek for scale and wing). Most butterflies have club-shaped antennae – a thin stem with a ball at the end – whereas moths usually (but not always) have feathery antennae like the luna moth above. Moths often have fuzzy, short bodies compared to the more slender, smoother body of butterflies.

Luna Moth
The Luna moth (Actias luna) is one of our largest moths. Photo: K. Smith, NYNHP

Are all moths small and brown?

Many moths are small and brown, tan or white. But many are much fancier; in fact you may have mistaken some colorful ones for butterflies. Sometimes the colors are hidden while the moth is at rest, but revealed when in flight, like the tiger moth. The silk moths are spectacular in size and color – such as the Luna moth above.

How many different kinds of moths are in NY State?

There are over 1,000 moth species in the state. A single State Park can harbor dozens to hundreds of different species of moths. Larger parks and those with rare habitats are great examples of places that support a diversity of different species of moths. To date, scientists have identified about 90 species in Watkins Glen and Taughannock State Parks, over 300 species in Minnewaska State Park Preserve, and nearly 500 species of moths each at Hither Hills and Napeague State Parks!

Sphinx Moth
The sphinx moth – or hawk moth – can be mistaken for a hummingbird. Look for them hovering over flowers. There are many species in this group of moths. Photo by T. Weldy, NYNHP

Where and how do you find moths?

Most moths fly at night. The easiest place to see moths is at a porch light or around the lights of campground buildings. For better viewing hang a sheet or light colored cloth up with a light next to it. The moths will land on the sheet (see below) so you can get a close up look without even touching them. Other moths prefer daytime or can be seen resting during the day.

Tim McCabe
Moth expert Tim McCabe from the NY State Museum examines moths that were attracted to the light during a survey in Taconic State Park. Photo by George Heitzman

Why are those moths in boxes?

A lot of moths are difficult to identify. So scientists collect and preserve specimens in order to look at them closely to identify them. Collections are also important as a permanent record of what species were found at a site. Each specimen is labeled with location, date, and species name. Then the specimens are placed in ‘safe storage’ in a museum such as the New York State Museum or a university collection where they can be used for other research or study.

Are there rare moths in State Parks?

Yes!  For example, four rare moth species have been found in Minnewaska State Park Preserve and over 30 rare moth species have been documented in Napeague and Hither Hills State Parks on Long Island. Some have fun names like fawn brown dart (Euxoa pleuritica), pink star moth (Derrima stellate), chocolate renia (Renia nemorali) and black-bordered lemon moth (Marimatha nigrofimbria). Most areas of the state have not even been surveyed for moths, so there is much more to learn. Currently, over 100 species of moths have been identified as rare in the state. See the NYNHP Rare animal list  for the listing of New York’s rare moths.

Quiz: What moth does this caterpillar become?

Woolly bear
The woolly bear caterpillar is the young phase of what moth? Answer at bottom of page. Photo by M. Schlesinger, NYNHP

For More Information:

Fun for all ages Moth Week  

Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars by Amy Bartlett Wright, 1983 (includes moths and butterflies).

A field guide to the moths of eastern North America by C. V. Covell, 2005.

Peterson first guide to butterflies and moths: a simplified guide to the common butterflies and moths of North America. P.A. Opler, 1994.

Butterflies and Moths of North America

New York Natural Heritage Program, Animal Guides

Butterflies and Moths, BugGuide

State Parks Moth Week Events

Quiz answer: The woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) becomes the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Moths are one of the few groups that have different names for different life stages of the same animal. This is one reason why scientific names are important; from the common names we might think this caterpillar and moth were not related.

Isabella Tiger Moth
Isabella tiger moth, Fyn Kynd, 2015, accessed from BugGuide, http://bugguide.net/node/view/1162577

Post by Julie Lundgren, NY Natural Heritage Program

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