Moths in the Native Plants Garden

Ailanthus weabworm moth on goldenrod

Ailanthus webworm moth on goldenrod
© Beatriz Moisset

Butterflies are beautiful. Butterflies pollinate flowers. Butterflies deserve our love. Consequently, Butterfly gardening keeps gaining popularity. All this is fine, but, what about moths? Most people think that moths are drab and plain and that they only fly at night. The attitude toward moths ranges from indifference to dislike. Aversion to moths can reach the point of irrationality; some see them as death messengers. Moths deserve better than that.

Pyrausta orphisalis, a day flying moth, on mountain mint

Orange mint moth, Pyrausta orphisalis on mountain mint
© Beatriz Moisset

Fortunately, the number of moth lovers keeps growing, with groups devoted to observing, collecting and studying their endless variety. If you have night-blooming plants, you may be in for a treat. Just welcome these visitors, watch them, and learn about them as a part of nature.

Pleromelloida conserta, a night flyer. Its colors and pattern blend well with those of bark, where it tries to hide during the day

Pleromelloida conserta, a night flyer.
Its colors and pattern blend well with those of bark, where it tries to hide during the day
© Beatriz Moisset

You may be interested to know that some moths, quite a few of them, fly during the day. Some are colorful and no less beautiful than butterflies. Others may not be so striking but they wear patterns of sober elegance. They contribute to pollination more than butterflies do. In fact, some plants rely entirely on moths for this function. Finally, moth caterpillars are great food for baby birds, rich in proteins and available at the right time, when birds are raising their broods. On the dark side, some caterpillars, especially those introduced from other continents, can devastate crops and ornamentals.

Moths are important components of ecosystems, altogether more abundant and diverse than butterflies. For each species of butterfly there are at least ten of moths. We should be just as eager to garden for moths as we are for butterflies, or even more so. Luckily, the native plant gardener is often doing exactly that without even trying. Moths are grateful for the native plants that sustain their caterpillars, as they have little or no use for introduced plants. If you are curious about what plant nourishes what moth the HOSTS website brims with information of this nature.

Let me talk about just one role of moths in the garden: that of pollinators. Just as butterflies, moths possess tubular tongues for sucking nectar. These drinking straws can be longer than their entire bodies and allow them to feed from long throated flowers. They carry these remarkable organs rolled up and tucked under their chins when in flight. Some need to land on the flower when nectaring; others simply hover in front of it just like hummingbirds. In fact some daylight-flying hawkmoths are called hummingbird moths.

Hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe on beebalm
© Beatriz Moisset

You may have seen a small copy of a hummingbird fleeting from blossom to blossom. Or you may have heard its buzz, also similar to that of this bird. If you haven’t seen a hummingbird moth yet, look for them on some of their favorite flowers, such as beebalm or milkweed. They are also attracted to butterfly bush but don’t let this fool you into thinking that this introduced plant is good for your garden. Please read “Butterfly Bush is Invasive. Do NOT Plant.” The article includes a list of better plant choices for butterflies and moths.

Hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, in Spain. © Israel Gutierrez.Flickr

Hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, in Spain. © Israel Gutierrez. Flickr

A relative of the hummingbird moth, known as hummingbird hawkmoth, lives in Europe, Asia and Africa. It is similar in looks and habits. The most extraordinary thing about this moth is that its migration dwarfs that of our monarch butterfly. Every year, it flies from northern Africa and southern Asia to almost all of Europe and a large part of Asia.

Hummingbird hawkmoth distribution map. Blue, summer. Green, year round. Yellow, winter © Carstor and Kulac. Wikicommons

Hummingbird hawkmoth distribution map.
Blue, summer. Green, year round. Yellow, winter
© Carstor and Kulac. Wikicommons

Every year, my niece in Stuttgart waits anxiously for the arrival of this globetrotter. It usually shows up in June and enjoys the valerian flowers in her garden. It was thanks to her questions that I found out about this migratory moth. Otherwise, I would remain as unaware as most of you about this marvel.

Carolina sphinx, Manduca sexta on four-o'clock Vicki de Loach

Carolina sphinx, Manduca sexta on four-o’clock
© Vicki de Loach

If you have morning glory, Datura, Nicotiana, or four-o’clock plants in your garden, be prepared for a treat. The Carolina sphinx visits these flowers in a regular basis after the sun sets. You can’t miss this large moth when it does its rounds; so pull up a chair, bring a cool drink and wait for its arrival. This moth has a different side I would be remiss not to mention.

hornworm.Manduca sexta. © Beatriz Moisset

Tobacco hornworm. Manduca sexta on tomato plant
© Beatriz Moisset

Its caterpillar and that of a close relative go by the names of tobacco and tomato hornworms. Bright green, fat and with a pointy “horn” at the rear end, they can grow almost as large as your pinky. If you haven’t guessed yet, they are the caterpillars that periodically ravage your tomato plants. Fortunately, if you maintain a healthy garden, the natural pest controls are in place, capable of preventing these caterpillars from doing too much damage. A parasitic wasp lays its eggs in them and kills them rather horribly. You can read the whole sinister story in “Bugs in the Garden. Hornworm: Friend or Foe? Friend and Foe.”

Tobacco hornworm covered with cocoons of a parasitic wasp hornworm.Manduca sexta © Beatriz Moisset

Tobacco hornworm, Manduca sexta, covered with cocoons of a parasitic wasp
© Beatriz Moisset

I will leave the stories of moths that pollinate cactus and yucca flowers for other time. For now, I hope you have developed a new curiosity for moths that may lead to love and the desire to make your garden moth friendly.

A few more moths:

Eight-spotted forester, Alypia octomaculata  © Beatriz Moisset

Eight-spotted forester, Alypia octomaculata
© Beatriz Moisset

Selenia © Beatriz Moisset

Selenia © Beatriz Moisset

Yellow collared scape moth on goldenrod Beatriz Moisset

Yellow collared scape moth on goldenrod. © Beatriz Moisset

Thyatira lorata, resting during the day, trying to be inconspicuous © Beatriz Moisset

Thyatira lorata, resting during the day, trying to be inconspicuous
© Beatriz Moisset


See also:

The Ultimate Guide to Butterfly Gardening. Gardening for butterflies and moths
Pollinators the night shift
Moths as Pollinators

© 2013, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Marilyn says

    What a fascinating post, especially reading about the migration of the hummingbird hawkmoth. After reading this article, I was happy learn that my black walnut tree can host luna moths.

  2. says

    Beatriz, I am so happy that you wrote this because although butterflies are the popular “poster child” for beautiful garden wildlife, moth species way outnumber butterfly species (at least in New England), and we have some amazingly beautiful moths that most people have no idea are even flying out there in our woods and fields… Luna moths and Cecropias are almost surreal in their beauty, and are actually fairly common but you have to have a good eye to spot the adults, they tend to be nocturnal and do not visit flowers for nectar..Moth caterpillars have their own variety of ingenious camouflage tactics which makes them endlessly interesting for everybody who encounters them..hear hear for moths, the Cinderella of the Lepidoptera families :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Fall Frenzy

    • says

      Yes, poor moths get no respect from some quarters. I am glad to see that the numbers of moth lovers have been growing recently. Moths are more numerous, include far larger numbers of species and play important roles in ecosystems. In a way, we could consider butterflies as modified moths, just a small branch in the Lepidoptera group.
      It is amusing how some people refuse to believe that some of the colorful day-flying ones are moths, not butterflies. With some very beautiful ones, people could learn to love them easily enough.
      Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Monarch Butterfly, a Case of Mistaken Identity

  3. says

    Thank you so much Beatriz for reminding us that moths play such a vital role in pollination and other ecosystem services. So much has been made of gardening for butterflies, that many of us forget about their more numerous cousins. We need to remember the moths, though, in planning our wildlife gardens to attract the widest variety of species.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..What to Plant Under Black Walnut Trees

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