Moths of New Jersey
The Nighttime Butterfly
Most people become aware of moths when they fly into the outdoor light. The reality is moths use the moon or stars to orientate, and moths adjust their flying track to keep the light source at a constant angle to the eye. The artificial light of outdoor lights kills millions of moths yearly. Those caterpillars you see in the spring are not all butterflies, many are moths.
While moths are known for being mostly white or gray, there are others that are much more colorful. Both butterflies and moths ingest toxins from the leaves they chew on to get nourished. The more colorful the butterfly or moth, the more toxins have been ingested. The colors are a warning to predators that if eaten these Lepidoptera will not taste good.
There are over 360 species of moths in New Jersey! Moths are nocturnal, flying insects that primarily feed on flower nectar. They are the nighttime version of butterflies as they also sip or gather nectar. Butterflies are active during the day, so at night they find a hiding place and go to sleep and moths are active at night, finding places during the day to hide and rest. While some do chew clothing, the majority do not. Some, like the Luna, do not have mouthparts. They live off the food from when they were caterpillars and generally live about a week. Others do eat and mainly drink nectar. Moths are important to local ecosystems. Much like butterflies they serve as food for a variety of insect-eating predators and are effective pollinators for a wide palate of plant species.
The easiest way to tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth is to look at the antennae.
- The butterfly’s antennae are club-shaped with a long shaft and a bulb at the end.
- The moth’s antennae are feathery or saw-edged.
Some of the many moths of New Jersey:
Regal Moth: Host tree is Winged Sumac, Persimmon, Sweetgum
- The caterpillar resembles a ferocious dragon.
- The spines are not poisonous, nor very sharp, and somewhat flexible to the touch.
- These attractive adult moths are known as regal or royal walnut moths.
Luna Moth: Host trees White Birches, Sumac, Sweetgum
- Pale green wings, multiple transparent eyespots, and two long curving tails, with a strip of pink or yellow along the edges of its wings.
- It actively flies at night.
- The moth tails spin when flying which confuses bats and other predators.
Beautiful Wood-nymph: Host is hops, grapes
- Primarily white with a reddish-brown band on the tips of its wings.
- Underneath it is bright yellow.
- When at rest it rolls itself up to impersonate a bird dropping.
Cecropia Silk Moth
- Shades of browns and large eyespots only add to North America’s largest native moth’s prominence.
- Typically, 4.3 inches to 5.9 inches in size.
- Has rounded wingtips.
Painted lichen moth: Host is lichen and moss
- Its wing pattern is thick gray and yellow streaks with colors ranging from pink to red.
- These moths can ‘fecal flick’ their poop to thirty body lengths away from themselves, a defense tactic, believed to divert predatory wasps which track them by their frass.
- The larvae feed on lichen, algae, and moss on trees.
Lo moth: Host trees Pears, Willows, Currants
- Until it opens its wings this is an unassuming moth.
- Yellow and pink hindwings have large black and blue eyespots.
- They are active in the late morning and early afternoon.
If these nighttime butterflies are flocking to your outside light, these are a couple of ways to deter them. Use yellow light bulbs instead of white bulbs in your outdoor light fixtures. Moths seek the brightest light much like the moon. Or try dabbing citronella oil on your lights during the day. It is amazing the variety of moths in New Jersey and how they work to keep the ecology strong.