Five Texas Moths for Enjoying Year-Round Moth Week

posted in: Moths | 11

National Moth Week is behind us.  We really enjoyed our Malt, Hops and Moths event at Alamo Brewery last weekend–but the fun doesn’t have to stop there.  The celebration of those night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, can take place ANY night of the week.  Just wait for darkness, turn on a light, sit back and enjoy the show.
Here’s five moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed
Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle
As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphingidae family.
Sphinx Moth
C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth
Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.
They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.
Black Witch Moth caterpillar
Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org
In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth
Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle
The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.
Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.
Polyphemus moth caterpillar
Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller
Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth
This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle
Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.
Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars
Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via www.urbanwildlife.net
Luna Moth
This beauty, Actius luna, is one of the most dramatic moths that take to the night.   The lime green beauties host on various hardwoods and are apparently found in our area, although I have never seen one.
Luna Moth
One of the most dramatic moths, the long-tailed glamourous Luna Moth. Photo bu Mike McCafferty, via Wikipedia
In their caterpillar stage, Luna Moths are equally impressive, with chubby green body sections punctuated by prominent gold-brown-orange pegs. Like many moths, they only live a week as adults.  For that period, they do not eat (they have no mouth parts).  Their singular goal is to reproduce.
Luna moth caterpillar
Luna moth caterpillar, reared and photographed by Shawn Hanrahan. Photo via Wikipedia
Good luck hunting moths.  Please let us know what you find.
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11 Responses

  1. Amy R.
    | Reply

    My husband just saw a huge Polyphemus in Katy, TX this evening. It’s wingspan was at least 6 inches. It was underneath a potted plant container. What a treat.

  2. Brian
    | Reply

    I feel pretty fortunate today. I had a Luna by the backdoor of my house in near Friendswood this morning. I’ve lived in the Houston area for about 40 years, and I have never seen one; didn’t even know what it was until I looked it up on the Internet. None of my co-workers, some who have lived in the Houston and Southeast Texas area for than 60 years have ever seen one, either.

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      You so lucky!

      • Brian
        | Reply

        I’d send you a picture, but not sure how; I don’t do Facebook, Twitter, or any of those others but could send it to you some other way (email, text, whatever.) you like. Let me know via the email I listed on my reply.

  3. […] Moth from the pool.  It was beautiful, with delicate pink flares on it’s wings – click here for a link if you want to know more.   Links to the Texas Butterfly […]

  4. Jeff R.
    | Reply

    Nice web page! I’m a Texas native and moth enthusiast, and have seen about 200 moths, about half in Texas. There are some “special” moths that I have yet to see (Luna, Promethea, Io, Imperial, and a number of Sphinx’s). Butterflies are good, but moths deserve more attention that they get. Anyway, nice to see your page 🙂

  5. Helen Mar Parkin
    | Reply

    Great post, Monika! We occasionally see Luna Moths in east Texas, as well as Black Witch and Sphinx moths. I’ll keep an eye out for the other species.

  6. Tay
    | Reply

    Thanks for this moth-related update, Monika. I enjoy your descriptions of these beautiful critters as much as I do the photos.
    Tay

  7. Mobi Warren
    | Reply

    Lovely post, Monika. Love all these guys/gals and like you, am still hoping to see a real live Luna moth!

  8. Ken
    | Reply

    I’m jealous. We don’t have anything nearly as spectacular in the Northeast. Really gorgeous. Ken

    • Monika Maeckle
      | Reply

      Of course you do, Ken! Check out the Moth Week page on Facebook. Most of the action is up your way. –MM

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