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Moths That Come to Lights
This article will help you identify the moths that are drawn to lights. Most people are aware that moths are attracted to lights at night, and you may have found them in the morning, still clinging to the screens or walls by lights where they landed the night before.
We will talk about why moths come to lights in a minute, but first, here are the main groups of light-attracted moths that are included in this guide:
Identification Chart for Moths at Lights
Bright striped upper wings, red or yellow hindwings
Often fly on foggy nights
Bark-colored upper wings conceal bright hindwings
Will suddenly fly away, showing hindwings
Large, sleek, often striped
Tend to stay put so you may find them in the morning
Giant silk moths
Huge, with eyespots and furry bodies
Look like bats when they fly around lights
Medium-sized, brown "miller moths"
Common brown moths
Little Brown Moths
Small, brown, hard to tell apart
Tiger moths form the large subfamily Arctiinae, and they often come to lights at night. Some of the more common tiger moths are nearly pure white, including Pyrrharctia Isabella, the adult form of the very common yellow woolly bear caterpillar.
If you have found a medium-sized white moth at your lights, see if you can nudge it a bit to show its abdomen and legs; yellow woolly bear moths have pretty red spots along the sides of the abdomen and yellow fur on the front legs.
There are many other tiger moths that you might see, and some of them are truly beautiful. The virgo tiger moth (Apantesis virgo) is representative of this group and often comes to lights, even on foggy nights.
It can be very easy to overlook an underwing moth, and that’s actually the point. Their upper wings are perfectly camouflaged as wood or bark, making them almost impossible for predators to find as they rest during the day on the trunks for trees. However, their drab upper wings are folded over strikingly beautiful hind wings or underwings, hence their common name.
When they are bothered by a predator, the moth flies quickly from its perch, flashing the brightly banded black and yellow or red wings that had been hidden. These colors are universal in the insect world, and they mean “caution – I might sting!” The moths are, of course, harmless, but the surprise flash of warning colors likely deters the bird or lizard that was threatening the moth.
All true underwing moths are in the genus Catocala, and many of these moths come to lights at night. If you find a large, wood-grained moth at your lights, see if you can get it to raise its wings or fly; if it’s an underwing moth, you will easily see its bright banded underwings.
Sphinx moths belong to a very large family, the Sphingidae, that occur around the world. Some of these moths are very large and very beautiful, while others are less noticeable. Many of them commonly come to lights.
One of the sphinx moths you are most likely to find at lights around your home is the white-lined sphinx, Hyles lineata. It has a pretty brown and white striped pattern and is very sleek and streamlined; in fact, the shape of a resting sphinx moth’s body is one good way to identify them. White-lined sphinx moths are quite common and can also be seen visiting flowers at dusk and at dawn, hence their other common name, the striped morning sphinx.
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Anytime you find a large-ish moth at a light, with streamlined wings that look a little like a jet, you are probably looking at a sphinx moth. There are many kinds and many “looks,” so begin with a Google image search for “sphinx moths,” and you may find your critter.
Fun Fact: Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” for the curved “tail” at the end of their bodies. Tomato hornworms grow into big, brown, streamlined sphinx moths that you will sometimes find at lights.
Giant Silk Moths
These spectacular moths are not often found at lights, but occasionally one or more will show up; this is a real event, and you should get your camera before they fly away. The most common of these big, stunning insects is the Polyphemus moth (Atheraea polyphemus), which has soft brown-shaded upper wings that cover simply enormous fake eyespots on the hind wings.
When a predator takes an interest in a Polyphemus moth, the insect snaps up the top wings, making it appear as if two big eyes had just opened and are staring back.
Luna moths also sometimes show up at lights. This huge moth is one of the most spectacular creatures in the entire North American fauna, with pale green-blue wings and huge sickle-like tails trailing off of each hind wing. These moths have relatives throughout the world, and they are all breathtaking. If one of these moths come to your lights, you are truly lucky
Cutworm Moths (Noctuidae)
These moths are the typical brown "miller moths" that can be very common around lights in the summer. Although they may look very much alike to the casual observer, there are actually hundreds if not thousands of similar-looking species in this group.
If you take a picture of one of these brown moths and carefully compare its features to those on the internet, you may find a good match. Search in the family Noctuidae (a huge group) and narrow your search using the subfamily Noctuinae (still a big group but smaller). Remember to consider the area you live in and the common plants that the caterpillars may be feeding on.
Cutworms are caterpillars that often hide in the soil during the day and come out to eat at night, sometimes attacking plants at the base and "cutting" down the entire plant.
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LBMs (Little Brown Moths)
Finally, we come to a category of moths that frustrates and even annoys experience moth-identifiers like me. "Little Brown Moths," or LBMs, is a short-hand designation for those very common and often very similar-looking little moths that occur at lights and in many other environments. LBMs are frustrating because they can be hard to identify, even though you feel you should know what they are.
Unless you are determined to really get a grip on identifying the 12,000 or so moth species that occur in North America alone, you do not need to worry about LBMs. The big and noticeable moths are a great place to start as you learn more about this amazing and beautiful group of insects. Have fun!
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.