Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, July 20, 2015

Gardening for the Marvels of the Night

When planning your garden have you ever considered plants specifically for moths? Butterflies get a lot of attention in gardening circles. The peril of the monarch butterfly has been in the news frequently and brought the subject to the forefront. Butterflies are beautiful pollinators and adding nectar and host plants to attract them is easy to do. For butterfly enthusiasts, there are endless resources including books, classes, articles and blog posts on how to attract butterflies. There are butterfly gardens at nature centers, botanical gardens, parks, zoos, schools and many other public facilities encouraging the public to create similar environments at their homes. Yes, I love butterflies but they are only one family in the insect order Lepidoptera. The other 96% are MOTHS.

Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea)
 
Often ignored or completely neglected, moths are hugely important in the garden. Not only are they critical pollinators but they are also important in a balanced ecosystem providing food for lots of baby birds. This week is National Moth week (July 18-26) dedicated to the awareness of this magnificent member of the Lepidoptera family. I encourage you to take some time to observe the diversity of moths in your region, learn about their life cycle and study up on the habitat needs of moths so that you can provide for them in your garden.

Virginia creeper sphinx moth (Darapsa myron)

There are three times as many moths species as butterflies and they are extremely diverse and interesting. Since most moths are nocturnal they are rarely abundent unless we see them by artificial light or conspicuously resting during daylight hours. This week try leaving a porch light on and see how many moths you attract after dark. You may be surprised who shows up. We left the lights on at our front door recently and got some tremendous results.


In one evening we attracted some impressive visitors. This is what caught my eye from inside the house and invited me to open the door to see who arrived. Two Luna moths, one at our front window and the other hanging from the door frame were my first observations.
 
Luna Moth

Luna moths are probably the most endearing moths; I suspect since they are so large and look very much like a butterfly.  They are also strongly attracted to UV wavelengths and therefore are often seen at house and street lights. There is some concern that light from man-made sources deters lunas from mating and therefore has a negative impact on their populations in urban areas. 

Luna Moth (Actias luna)

Their silk moth family name Saturniidae is based on the eyespots that contain concentric rings reminiscent of the planet Saturn. Members of this family are large and some of the showiest moths around with striking colors and shapes. Moths included in this group are the Cecropia, Polyphemus, Promethea, Luna, Io and Imperial moths.

The regal moth (Citheronia regalis) is another very large moths and was also at our front doorway. It has a wing span of 5.5 to 9.5 cm. and the caterpillar (larvae stage) is equally as large, growing to almost 14 cm. They host on a variety of trees including walnut, hickory, pecan, persimmon, sweetgum and sumac.

Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis)
Their gray and orange stripe pattern on the wings is stunning and I was taken by its adorable fuzzy striped head. I really wanted to reach out and give it a little tickle.
 

Another intriguing moth, found clutching to the window, is this Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis). This moth has just one brood a year and hosts on several conifer and deciduous trees including pine, oak, box elder, maples, sweetgum, honeylocust, red cedar, sycamore, basswood, bald cypress and sassafras. Adults emerge before sunrise and mate after midnight the following day. The female then lays her eggs at dusk and the caterpillars hatch in about two weeks. Pupation takes place underground overwinter.

Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis)

The forest dwelling Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) is one of the smallest of the silkworm moths with a wing span of just 2 inches. The caterpillar often called green-striped mapleworm, eats the foliage of maple and oak trees. Young caterpillars feed in groups and then become solitary as they mature. They are fierce feeders in their larvae stage sometimes defoliated trees. As adults however, they do not eat at all, relying on their fat storage to survive. Three generations are produced in the South and the last generation will overwinter in its pupa stage underground emerging the following spring.

Rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda)
The unmistakeable Giant Leopard Moth is another example of the gorgeousness of moths. Just look at those metallic accents. You can read more about this species on my post profiling this moth here.

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia)

Moths in their adult form are essential pollinators. They are the night shift if you will, taking over pollination services from butterflies who fly during daylight hours. It is easy to create a habitat that supports moths.Here are a few essential elements.

Plant a variety of flowers
Most moths in their adult form need nectar for energy. Certain blooms have more available nectar so by choosing these plants for your garden you create a better feeding station for moths. Native plants are more nectar rich than hybrids or cultivars. In general moths are attracted to cluster blooms and flat open flowers that provide for easy landing preferably in white or dull colors. Double blooms have little to no nectar availability. Blooms that service moths typically open in late afternoon to early evening specifically for these nocturnal flyers many of which are highly fragrant. Some plants are solely dependent on moths for pollination and thus their survival. The yucca moth for example is the sole pollinator for the yucca plant. It is a good idea to have blooms available from early spring through late fall. Datura, Four o'clock, flowering tobacco, honeysuckle, morning glory, evening primrose, and Jasmine are a few examples.

You need host plants
Certain plants provide the necessary food for the caterpillars. Some species will forage on a wide variety of plants while others are restricted to a few plants and some only to one type of plant. Many trees are hosts for moths such as oaks, maples, hickory, sweetgum, cherry, pine, sassafrass, persimmon and willow. Moths in their larvae form can be as spectacular as adults. Take a look at a few we see in our garden.

Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

white flannel moth (Norape ovina)

American Dagger Moth (Acronicta americana)
Wolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella)
Virginia Tiger Moth (Spilosoma virginica)

Stop being so tidy!
As a general rule you can't keep an immaculate garden and expect to support wildlife. So now you have an excuse to be a lazy gardener. Moths in the adult and larvae stage need leaf litter, old stems, logs and plant debris to hide from predators. Don't cut back your expired plants until spring. Many moths overwinter in the ground in their pupa stage and need undisturbed places to do so. 

Luna Moth resting in brush and leaf litter during the day

Dare to go organic
Herbicides and pesticides are harmful to moths in all stages. Organic gardening is beneficial to all wildlife plus eliminating these chemicals will also increase the number of beneficial insects in your garden.


This week, challenge your preconceptions about moths and get to know these marvelous insects. You may even be inspired to create a welcoming habitat in your garden by including some nectar and hosts plants specifically for moths.

21 comments:

  1. Terrific post about some very important garden critters. Happy National Moth Week!

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    1. Thanks, you to Dorothy! I hope you see lots of incredible moths.

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  2. beautiful moth images. love the luna moth.

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    1. Their lime green color is really fantastic, isn't it!

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  3. Karin: These are stunning images of stunning moths! Did you find all of these and photograph them in one night? I know we have some unusual moths here, too, but I don't think they're as colorful as yours. Wow!

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    1. The two lunas, regal, imperial and rosy maple moths were at our door in one night. Last year we had a regal and imperial hanging on the side of the house at the same time too. I think it is the peak time for these silkworm moths to be in their adult stage. They really are a sight to see.

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  4. Great post. I never do think about moths - except for hummingbird moths, and are the really moths. Great images, especially of the Luna. Did you take all these?

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    1. Hummingbird moths are indeed moths even though they are diurnal. Often they are the first moth people are introduced to in their garden and they don't even realize it mistaking them for a hummer or bee. Yes, I took all these images here in our garden.

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  5. Beautiful collection of moths and images. They are so colorful and pretty. The Luna Moth is one of my favorites. I might have to leave my outside light on to check them out. Enjoy your day and the week ahead!

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    1. The Luna seems to be an overwhelming favorite! It is a beauty and the eye spots are intriguing. I hope you have a great week too enjoying your garden!

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  6. I rarely see the moths even though I plant for them, but you have such a beautiful collection in your post. I guess going out in the evening might be on the agenda. I should see the plants I have to draw them in, and if they are working.

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    1. I often seen moths in the early evening hours but they are typically the smaller less colorful variety. If the plants are going to seed they are obviously being pollinated but its difficult to measure which pollinator serviced the blooms. All these moths were found during daylight hours resting. I would love to catch them in action. Of course some moths don't eat as adults so they are just around to create the next generation. They are certainly fascinating!

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  7. I see little brown moths all the time but need to pay more attention to them. I used to have a large Tina James onathera in my garden that bloomed at night. The moths loved it. Maybe I need to plant another one. :) Excellent post!!

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    1. The little brown moths are fascinating too. Some curl up and look like a leaf, some look like a tootsie roll and others have some really cool patterns. Often the more boring looking adults are the most beautiful caterpillars and vice versa.

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  8. What a wonderful way to see what buzzes around in the night. Your nocturnal visitors are just amazing. I'm afraid I would only gets bats at my house, since I live way out in the country.

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    1. We are out in the country too and probably why we have such a variety of moths. We have lots of different trees which serve as host plants. We also see bats flying around at dusk which I love since I am hopefully they keep the mosquito populations under control. Of course you wouldn't want a bat taking up residence in your house.

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  9. Wow Karin you have a bunch of beauties there...I wonder who would show up here....I'll have to check it out some night.

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    1. Yes, definitely Donna! I would love to hear who shows up in your neck of the woods.

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  10. Very nice post, Karin! We do forget about these beauties. I will definitely leave the light on soon! ~Julie

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    1. You may be surprised who shows up Julie. Late summer into fall is a good time to find these larger silk moths.

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  11. Wow Karin...This is a wonderfully informative post for Moth Week. I loved seeing your photos and your advice is so spot on for those of us trying to provide habitat.. wonderful! ... Michelle

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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