You may not think twice about them after turning on your porch lamps at dusk and seeing little powdery, brown moths flock to the light source.
But from the abundant owlet moths, which are typically the kind you’ll see flitting about your yard at night, to the mellow, yellow of a fluffy imperial moth, there are several species of eye-catching moths that can be spotted in your own backyard.
These variations in size and color serve as deterrents to predators, said Anthony Zukoff, a Department of Entomology research scientist with K-State’s Southwest Research Extension Center, via email.
“While some moths use camouflage to avoid predators, others use bright colors to deter would-be predators,” he said. “Bright colors can be a warning sign that the moth is toxic if ingested. Also, brightly colored patches on wings, sometimes called eyespots, can appear to be eyes and can act to intimidate predators.”
Zukoff said there are many North American moths that have large ranges of habitable areas. This means the caterpillars develop on a variety of plants instead of just one particular species.
“A moth in Kansas may be native to Kansas but also native to Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, et cetera,” he said. “Some moths are found across the entire country, so you could say they are simply native to North America. There are some moths that have extremely limited ranges, however. One very striking moth that does migrate and can be found in Kansas during the summer months is the Black Witch moth. It is large, dark and bat-like. This moth moves out of Mexico and migrates all the way to Canada.”
Below are some species that have been spotted around Manhattan by residents:
Distinguished by bright-green wings that taper into a trail, the luna moth’s wings can stretch to 4 1/2 inches. Its caterpillars feed on leaves from walnut, hickory, sweet gum and other trees. It’s rare to spot an adult moth as they only live for a week. Once they have emerged from their cocoons, the moths do not have a mouth or digestive system, so they don’t eat.
Cecropia moths are the largest found in North America, with a wingspan of 5 to 7 inches. They’re known for their red-colored bodies and dark colored wings that are marked with white, red and tan bands and spots. This species also doesn’t eat as an adult because their sole purpose is to mate.
The name hails from Polyphemus, a cyclops in Greek mythology who had one, large eye in the middle of his forehead. The polyphemus moth has distinctive eyespots on its lower wings. It can be found in all but the western third of Kansas, Zukoff said, but this moth is an example of one that can be found in most of North America. The caterpillars develop on several types of trees and shrubs, so their food source is plentiful.
Imperial moths can vary in their coloration, but they are usually a combination of mottled yellow and brown. Their wings can reach from 3 to 7 inches, and the females are usually larger than males, while males are typically more marked than females.
“The imperial moth in Kansas is restricted to the eastern portion of the state where prairie transitions to eastern deciduous woodland as the caterpillars develop on a variety of tree species,” Zukoff said.
White-lined sphinx moth
This particular moth is part of the Sphingidae family, more commonly known as hawk moths, sphinx moths and hornworms. They usually fly later in the day or night but also can be seen during the day occasionally. When massive populations build up, they emigrate to more northern areas.
“The white-lined sphinx is one of the most common sphinx moths in the state,” Zukoff said. “The caterpillars eat a huge variety of plants. This sphinx can sometimes become a pest of tomatoes, like the tomato hornworm.”
If you’re interested in trying to attract moths to your own yard, Zukoff said, there may be a few ways. He said one method is to set up a black light against a hanging, white sheet after dark.
“This is called ‘black lighting’ and it will attract many species of insects, including moths,” he said. “Another method people use to attract moths is called ‘sugaring.’ This is when a mixture of fermenting or old fruit is smashed and mixed with a sugar of some type and then smeared on tree trunks or fence posts. Planting night-blooming flowers will attract moths as well, especially hawk moths.”