Category Archives: Moth

We Don’t All Eat Leaves, You Know

Dateline: January 24, 2014*

Bella Moth Caterpillar

This week I was thrilled to find the caterpillar of a Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). While this larvae does eat some plant material in early stages, the diet as it grows, changes over to the seeds, so they bore their way into the seed pods. That’s why these caterpillars may be hard to find. Usually they are inside and not readily visible.  The seeds contain chemical alkaloids, which they consume to become poisonous or at least repellant to predators. Much like Milkweed provides this ability to the Monarch and Queen Butterflies.

Rabbitbells seed pod

I first saw a ripening pod and looked closely to reveal the telltale hole. I removed the pod and split it open to find the tiniest of tiny caterpillars.  If you look closely, you can see the seeds that it began munching away on.

Caterpillar is as tiny as the seeds, but you can see where it was munching on them

I shared a photo via social media and a fellow entomology enthusiast posted a photo of a much larger caterpillar and in his picture the larvae was creating the hole. Armed with this vision in my mind, I headed out to the Rabbitbells a.k.a., Rattlebox (Crotalaria rotundifolia), one of the larval hosts for Bella Moth. Eventually I was rewarded.  There, posed on the pod, was a near mirror image of what was posted.

Now, Theres one thats substantial heading in for additional food

This caterpillar was MUCH larger…as much as 5 times the size of my hidden friend from days before.

This brings up the point that not every caterpillar can be found on, or exclusively eating, green leaves.

Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops). Youll find the larval in leaf debris

Some time back, I can remember searching and searching the sumacs and wax myrtles for the larvae of Red-banded Hairstreak Butterfly (Calycopis cecrops).  I never had any success as I turned over leaf after leaf hoping to add to my photo collection of Lepidoptera larvae.  C. cecrops readily flies in droves at my place.

Mind you, I’d be searching until the cows come home since this Hairstreak species is the only Florida butterfly to utilize detritus as larval food. I really need to scout around the leaf debris if I’m intent on finding a photo opportunity. Another excellent reason to not be so quick to do gardening cleanup…there is life in gardening debris!

Litter Moth (Idia americalis) shown here on wood debris, the larvae feed on lichens

Many moth species use leaf litter and other similar larval hosts. Lichen is another popular food. As a matter of fact, there is a whole tribe of lichen moths (Lithosiini).  Lichen is a fungus that grows together with a photosynthetic partner in a symbiotic relationship. That partner is often alga.

Some bagworms feed on lichen

Bagworms, those odd case creators, also have members of their species who eat lichens.

So, when it comes to gardening, you may not be missing a butterfly or moth caterpillar sighting because you don’t see them conspicuously munching on the host plant leaves or flowers. Some are nocturnal diners who only come out in the dead of night. Or, they may just be at the base of the plant eating castoff portions that they need to survive.  Then again, they may be seeking refuge inside the “Rattlebox” cafe.

Many of these caterpillars are thought of as “pest” species… leaf-rollers and leaf miners likely make you cringe. Heck, they are yummy bird food (no personal experience here) or turn into pollinators so consider alternate scenarios before passing judgment.

Grape Leafroller (Desmia spp.) doesnt seem so offensive when it is in moth stage.

What have you found caterpillars eating?

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on January 24, 2014 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

What’s in a day?

Dateline:  May 4, 2011*

Bella Moth nectaring on Bidens alba

Generally, if you are a moth, I suppose sleep! But there are some exceptions to that rule and some are mistaken for butterflies.One in particular is a favorite of mine. The bella moth, (Utetheisa ornatrix), is quite beautiful and I’m supposing that’s how it got its common name. Unlike most moths, which are nocturnal, the bella moth is diurnal and flies readily when disturbed. A regular visitor to my yard, it is always found fluttering around during the day, although mostly in the section of my garden shaded by pine trees.

Again on Bidens alba, one of it’s favorite nectar sources

This species is found from Connecticut westward to southeastern Nebraska, and southward to southern New Mexico and Florida. It is more common in southern part of its range.
Shown here on its larval host in Florida, Rabbitbells

Rabbitbells (Crotalaria rotundifolia) is the larval host for the bella moth. The caterpillars start off eating the foliage but bore their way into the seed containing pods. Because most of our common Crotalarias are introduced weedy species and toxic to cattle, the bella moth plays a beneficial role by eating their seeds and suppressing their reproduction. The toxic seeds of this plant, which is native to the southeastern United States, are laced with pyrrolizidine alkaloids that also offer the bella moth protection from predators.
After eating the foliage caterpillars bore into the pods of Rabbitbells

In flight and at first landing this moth displays it’s beautiful pink lower wings which I long to catch on the camera. Because they always “fold up” immediately upon landing, I can’t share that wonderful part of the encounter with these beautiful pollinators, but they do add beauty to my beautiful wildlife garden. What diurnal moths are at your place?
Another favorite landing spot is on the blades of grass

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on May 4, 2011 at the defunct beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.


A Dozen Diurnal Moths

Dateline: August 13, 2015*

Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix)

Diurnal moths fly during the day rather than at night like the majority of moths.  Some are quite pretty and are often mistaken for butterflies.  One way to differentiate between the butterflies and moths is to look at the antenna.  Moths have feathered antenna and butterflies have clubbed ends.

So, here is a dozen diurnal moths that have visited my Central Florida yard from time to time.

Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix) uses Rabbitbells (Crotalaria rotundifolia) as a larval host in my garden:

Bella Moth nectaring on Bidens alba

Small Frosted Wave Moth (Scopula lautaria):

Frosted Wave Moth

Clouded Crimson Moth (Schinia gaurae) uses Southern Beeblossom  (Oenothera simulans) as a larval host at my place:

Clouded Crimson nectaring on Bidens alba

Red-waisted Florella Moth (Syngamia florella) uses Rubiaceae family of plants, including Buttonweed (Spermacoce spp) as larval hosts:

nectaring on Bidens alba

Diaphania Moth (Diaphania modialis) Host: Creeping Cucumber (Melothria pendula):

Diaphania Moth on Bidens alba (are you beginning to see a pattern?)

Coffee-loving Pyrausta Moth (Pyrausta tyralis) host: Wild Coffee (Psychotria nervosa ) :

coffee moth nectaring on Tickseed (Coreopsis sp.), the state wildflower of Florida

Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis) Hosts: grasses, lichens, and spike-rushes (Eleocharis spp.):

scape moth nectaring on Saltbush; Look at those feathery antenna

Litter Moth (Idia americalis) larvae feed on lichens:

Litter moth

Milky Urola Moth  (Argyria lacteella):

Milky Urola nectaring on Saltbush

Snowy Urola Moth (Urola nivalis)  lavae feed on grasses; Ligustrum:

snowy urola moth

Yellow-Banded Wasp Moth (Syntomeida ipomoeae) Host: morning-glory (Ipomoea spp.):

wasp moth nectaring on Bidens alba

Black-dotted Spragueia Moth (Spragueia onagrus) hosts: Saltbush (Baccharis halimifolia), Castanea pumila, Zea mays:

Spragueia moth resting on leaf of Bidens alba

Add some native larval host plants to attract these beauties and increase their populations your garden.

Larval host Resources:
HOSTS – a Database of the World’s Lepidopteran Hostplants
Butterflies and Moths of North America

*This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 13, 2015 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

The Worms Crawl In but Do They Swim?

This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 22, 2014 at the defunct national blog nativeplantwildlifegarden[dot]com beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com.

baldcypressmay2013This week I noticed that there was some webbing on a Baldcypress tree I planted a while back. At some point my property was likely home to many of these trees as is evident by decaying knees I see when the pond level gets low.  These majestic trees require wet conditions during part of the year so are often seen reflecting in the waters of swamps, ponds and rivers.  I’ve added a couple as a part of restoration efforts to return appropriate native plants to my property’s ecosystem.

Why are some caterpillars called worms?
Why are some caterpillars called worms?

I did a little research and found that these trees can be host to the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea) which is a generalist that can use any of a multitude of trees as a food source.  Bugguide notes there are possibly 120 hardwood species as potential hosts.  The topmost photo shows a grouping on Elderberry.  Webworms aren’t worms at all, but moth caterpillars. The adults are pretty little things…white or white with black dots, rather like a Dalmatian of the Lepidoptera set.

My goodness something poops a lot
My goodness something poops a lot

I noticed a single web and initially didn’t see any caterpillars, just a ton of messy frass (caterpillar poop). It started on the tip of just one small branch, but over a period of a week, it had spread to several branches. With my Baldcypress being so young, I was a little concerned that it might be losing too much foliage to survive.  My tree is a mere 6-foot or so and has really just started upward growth in the past year with initial years dedicated to working on underground root systems.

As far as Fall Webworms, according to Florida County Extension Services (pdf):

“The damage caused by this species is considered aesthetic. Typically it is late in the season when the webbing is noticed and the bald cypress would be defoliating soon anyway, so spraying won’t protect the trees. Also, with bald cypress which typically grows along ponds and waterways, the drift from spraying with some insecticides could endanger aquatic life, that means dead fish and frogs, etc. So, it is better to let nature take its course and do nothing.”

When I finally spotted the actual caterpillars, there were so many that my concern got the best of me.  Rather than let nature take its course, I decided to handpick off a bunch of the caterpillars. Despite being a bugaholic, I don’t like touching the critters without something between them and my skin, so I covered my hand with a plastic bag.

My my there are a lot of these guys
My my there are a lot of these guys

Now, what to do with my handful of critters…I really didn’t want to just squish them, figuring something somewhere may want a fresh LIVE meal.  AHHHHH!!!!  FISH!  maybe the fish would like a free meal.

I headed over to the pond and dropped a few into the water.  There was immediate activity as the mosquito fish converged on the wigglers.  Unfortunately the arrivals were mostly fry and the caterpillars were 4-5 times their size so the fish quickly headed off to find something to eat that was not quite so beefy.

Finally! A fish large enough to eat one of these buggers
Finally! A fish large enough to eat one of these buggers

I was a little disappointed when suddenly, one of the largest mosquito fish came over and snapped up a caterpillar whole. Just the end of the cat was hanging from its mouth as it chomped away.

It was slow going, with many of the fish sniffing, but less than interested.  I thought perhaps I would see the larger Blue Gill fish and Largemouth Bass, but they were nowhere to be found.  Still, an occasional larger mosquito fish was partaking in the bounty, so I headed back to the tree to gather some more tidbits.

Webworms are pretty smart creatures.  They spin a web around the entire gang and peacefully dine within the nice comfy confines.  Predators are reluctant to get caught in the webs, so the caterpillars are free to munch away without being disturbed.  That is until the BRAVE human comes along with protection from sticky webs in the form of the Wal-Mart bag on her hand.

Well, well, well, someone saw an opening and took advantage
Well, well, well, someone saw an opening and took advantage

When I got back to the tree, I saw a Southern Yellowjacket wasp (Vespula squamosa) had taken advantage of a break in the web to grab a caterpillar. He seemed to be munching on the caterpillar and I learned that they feed their larva masticated (chewed) arthropods.

It seems that

“wasps perform a valuable service in destroying many insects that attack cultivated and ornamental plants”.

Yellowjackets are pretty aggressive often proving dangerous with their vast numbers at nests and ability to sting multiple times, so they are not my favorite creatures. But, they appear to be a step up the food chain from the Webworms, so I have a newfound respect for them.  Still, if Yellowjackets nest close to the house they will be toast. Stings can be dangerous as they don’t let up when defending their nest.  My little guy seemed less than interested in me as she played with her food, but then again she was only preparing the meal for the young, not putting the dinner plate out at the living quarters.

(Hyphantria cunea)
(Hyphantria cunea)

Other natural enemies used in biological control of Hyphantria cunea are certain chalcid wasps that are parasitoids in the Pteromalidae family. It says that these attack pupae so in my case, they would be too late to save the foliage, although it would impact next years’ population of the moths who do the egg laying.

Still, not wanting to see my tree leafless this early in the season, I stripped another grouping of the Webworms and tossed them into the pond.  This group was still attached to some greenery contained in some webbing so it looked like a little raft of refugees floating and desperately trying to return to land as they wriggled in unison.  And the “sharks” were circling.

A “raft” of webworms float on the waters
A “raft” of webworms float on the waters

So, while Webworms may not be a favorite, they do feed other wildlife and heck, all that frass must be full of great fertilizing nutrients which will return to the soil to help my Baldcycpress grow to be a majestic tree like others in the neighborhood. That will give the Webworms more meals and they’ll be grateful that I won’t be able to reach up and grab them any longer.

Another Year of Wildlife Gardening Education

This week marks the start of my sixth year of writing about my wildlife gardening escapades.  I have no formal training or education in gardening; I just report the encounters and happenings as they occur before my very own eyes. I’m still learning daily about how everything relies on something else to keep a garden in balance.

Sadly, it seems that is going to stay in a defunct state.  It contained a wealth of information from some very talented writers. Unfortunately, the writers had no control over the website. I did manage to locate archives with resource links for the majority of my articles so over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be posting archives of my past articles on websites that I do have control over.

For my 5th anniversary blog, I will start with the very first article that I wrote…one of which I am most proud.  It stands the test of time.

This tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on October 8, 2010 at ( Click the date to view reader comments and find archive links to resources used.

When Choosing Plants, Think Food Chain

by Loret T. Setters

Caterpillars of Automeris io moth
Caterpillars of Automeris io moth

I do outreach events for the local chapter of The Florida Native Plant Society. This is our busiest time of year as the weather turns cooler and delightfully breezy.This past weekend we were at the local Home Depot, sharing our space with Audubon as we often do. I always bring a few live bugs or small garden critters to serve as a conversation starter in how to go about creating a beautiful wildlife garden. It gets kids interested in plants and keeps their attention while I talk to the parents about biodiversity.

I only had about five minutes to locate my “friends” in the early morning hours when things are wet and critters aren’t as plentiful, but I managed to gather a treefrog, a lynx spider and a white peacock butterfly, who was just emerging. Into their display cases they went with proper moisture and plant materials.

When things slowed down at the event, Larry, the president of the Kissimmee Audubon who is also a Native Plant Society member and I got to talking. He said that he was amazed at what I find in my yard to get the conversation flowing. He remarked that not many people could do as I did the week before and bring seven different species to an event without struggling to find them.

That hunt on a single area of Bidens Alba and some native mallow species took me about 15 minutes resulting in finding a praying mantis, two different butterflies, soldier beetles, a spider, and a treefrog. I added a grasshopper which I found on a citrus tree and I only stopped because I ran out of display containers.

Afternoon events are always easier to supply because the bugs are enjoying the sun and are plentiful. Our discussion continued in how planting for butterflies is good but having a lot of different plants in a garden to support all types of native insects is critical in being sustainable and providing for a more diverse array of wildlife.

Birds like all caterpillars, not just those of the butterflies. Consider planting some native plants that support moth caterpillars. You’ll feel less upset about the caterpillars being devoured. I don’t want to give the moths a complex by pointing out that some are not as pretty as a butterfly, but if I see a bird near my Cowbane (Oxypolis filiformis), I get a little uneasy feeling that perhaps he is eating a potential Black Swallowtail Butterfly. Alternately, if I see a bird on a Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) I enjoy the encounter without much concern that a possible looper moth is being digested. Ok, so I’m a little shallow.  😉

I guess the point is that not every critter is going to be something that you want to hug or photograph but they may be the food for something that you want to hug, photograph or observe in your own beautiful wildlife garden.

Clearly an onslaught of stinging caterpillars (Automeris io (shown above)) on an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) can be a frightening encounter. But if you wait a day or two to see a fattened anole playfully running up and down the branches of the tree you’ll have expanded your wildlife viewing experience. And you’ll be relieved to observe that the majority of the leaves may still be intact. In the world of native plants, nature tends to keep a balance.

Falling for Florida Flora

Happy autumn, everyone! The *feel* of fall doesn’t get in full swing here in Florida quite so early in the season, but I am starting to see subtle hints that it is on the way.

Lilium catesbaei growing in my neighbor's natural area, but touching my fence
Lilium catesbaei growing in my neighbor’s natural area, but touching my fence

One sure sign?  The Pine Lilies (Lilium catesbaei) are blooming.  They begin their show during September in my section of Central Florida. This beauty is listed as a Threatened Plant according to the Preservation of Native Flora of Florida Act.  I see them around my neighborhood each year and the first year I lived here I even had one bloom ON my property. Alas, that was before I knew about native plants and I moved it to get it away from the pine tree and out in the open where I could see it better…and of course, it never came back.

Dumb!  How far I’ve come since that time in 2006. Certain plants don’t transplant well and you need to learn to be happy with Mother Nature’s design.  It is important to realize that not every plant is a “bedding plant” and we need to learn that the manmade design looks consisting of bedding monocultures is often counterintuitive to the health and real purpose of plants, which is to feed fauna and keep air clean.

It’s not only ok to let the plants intermingle and grow together; it is Mom Nature’s design plan and a smart idea.  A sure way to notice insect activity and chew damage is to only provide one plant species in a given area.  Since every plant serves as a host for something, if you only have one variety surely your garden will look chewed upon.  Plant many different species together based on their soils and water needs and chances are they will all be hosting their insects at varying times so the entire area won’t be barren at once.

I spotted this one blooming right across the street next to the culvert
I spotted this one blooming right across the street next to the culvert

In a way, the Pine Lily has played an important part in my beautiful wildlife gardening education. Because I had that one single bloom appear on my property years ago, my curiosity was piqued when I spotted a newspaper notice for a meeting of the Florida Native Plant Society.  The name of the chapter in my county is “Pine Lily”, named after that very same flower.  I had no idea what native plants were back when I went to my first meeting. Thus began my journey and learning experience on the importance of native plants to their ecosystem and the delicate balance of nature between plants, insects and animals.

Fall Webworms
Fall Webworms

Another sure sign of fall? Fall Webworms (Hyphantria cunea) have arrived and are munching. This year they chose an Elderberry (Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis) as their cafe.  Last year they thought Bald-Cypress (Taxodium distichum) was the way to chow down.

They sure do poop a lot, that's what all the black dots are
These caterpillars sure do poop a lot, that’s what all the black dots are

I clipped one of the affected branches off and placed it in the water of the pond to let the fish dine.  I left the other group on the plant so the wasps can provide food for their young and to hopefully entice a Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) to stay a day or two before their flight to winter to South America.

Hairy caterpillars when they get a bit bigger
Hairy caterpillars when they get a bit bigger

The Pine Lily in one of the photographs was in my neighbor’s natural section but leaning on my fence.  I’m hoping that some seeds drop on my side so in the future I have a plant to call my own, once again.  I certainly won’t try to bully it into a different spot ever again. 😉


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

University of Florida Publication Number: EENY-81; E.E. Grissell (retired), Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry; and Thomas R. Fasulo, University of Florida

Barbecued Bagworm Moths

The caterpilllar uses silk, twigs, lichens and other bits of debris to form the case
The caterpilllar uses silk, twigs, lichens and other bits of debris to form the case

I had another interesting encounter with a bagworm moth.  You know, those debris covered caterpillars that we all at one time thought were cocoons or pupal cases.  Turns out they often are still in the feeding stage.

Still feeding, you can see the head sticking out from the case
Still feeding, you can see the head sticking out from the case

Bagworm Moths are in the Psychidae family of moths and most only feed in the larval stage.  I often have found them stuck on the aluminum posts that hold up the carport/patio cover. I always assumed that they were in the pupal stage and attributed the disappearance of it to an encounter with a hungry lizard or bird.

bagworm hanging on the side of the bbq
bagworm hanging on the side of the bbq

Well, as I gazed out the kitchen window that overlooks the patio I saw something walking on the barbecue.  Not all that unusual, the lizards routinely use it as a segue to keep out of the reach of nosey dogs.  However, this creature was substantially smaller and moved in an unusual fashion.

I headed out, camera in hand to find a bagworm moth caterpillar creeping along. I snapped a few photos and this short video and left it to fend for itself.

The next day, the bagworm was still on the barbecue.  Was it waiting for me to rustle up some veggieburgers?  I watched it again and it seemed to be feeding.  That’s when it dawned on me.  Many bagworm moths eat lichens.  Lichens attach to a variety of different substrates and I suppose my barbecue is prime real estate, as it doesn’t get used all that often.

When it turned it upside down it retracted completely inside the case
When it turned it upside down it retracted completely inside the case

The bagworm was gone the next day, perhaps moving on to better feeding grounds, or a comfortable place to change into an adult, or maybe it had an encounter with a hungry lizard or bird. 😉

Just another caterpillar
Just another caterpillar

Additional benefits of bagworms are they are a host for parasitoid wasps and tachinid flies. As we need these important pollinators, don’t be too quick to eliminate our bagworm friends from the food chain.


USDA Forest Service
University of Nebraska IANR

University of Florida Entomology Dept.

Are you what you eat in the Wildlife Garden?

The tale of a yellow caterpillar originally published by Loret T. Setters on August 19, 2011 at (

I found a yellow caterpillar of the Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly (Phoebis sennae) on my Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata). I was happy because I do a feature in the monthly issue of The Lily Pad, a newsletter that I write for The Florida Native Plant Society-Osceola County local chapter. The feature is called Before and After, where I feature an insect photographed in it’s larval state and then as emerged in adulthood. I was running out of “befores”.

While eating flower buds, a lovely shade of yellow
While eating flower buds, a lovely shade of yellow

I photographed my find and headed in to make sure I had identified it correctly. Now mind you, it was the third new-to-me caterpillar I found this week, one being an armyworm and the other, some sort of Owlet Moth (Noctuidae) larvae. I am still having a hard time pinpointing the owlet species and I’m sorry that I didn’t collect it when I had the chance. By the time I got back to it, it was long gone.

My Sulphur caterpillar looked similar to others posted at But some were a horse…ummm…cat of a different color. Insect ID’s aren’t always as simple as one might think. I checked a few different Websites with photos and read, with interest, anecdotal information that caterpillars may change colors based on the part of the plant that they eat. I found another site that specifically mentioned sulphur caterpillars as doing this. When they dine on the flowers, they are yellow, but if they switch to the leaves, after the flowers are spent, well, they turn green. THIS I HAVE TO SEE WITH MY OWN EYES!

Left with only leaves to eat, my caterpillar friend turns green
Left with only leaves to eat, my caterpillar friend turns green

I have often said that I only capture critters when it involves educational study that does no harm, and I felt that this qualifies. I immediately gathered the little yellow cat and a branch of the plant and placed them in a roomy display case (relative to the size of the cat). It was munching away on the flower. I added a small paper towel square dipped in water to maintain moisture and placed the container where it would get brief morning sun, but not so much as to fry the poor thing. The next morning I checked on my guest and (s)he was now munching away on the leaves, and was beginning to look a little “green”. I went out and got a fresh branch of the plant…who likes eating day old food? My charge dutifully climbed onto the fresh greens and I replaced the screening and rewet the paper towel square.

Day four even greener
Day four even greener

Day four, I checked again, and (s)he is even more vivid green. To me this is an interesting phenomenon. There are a lot of caterpillars that are “generalists”— that is, they eat more than one species of plant and I guess they would have color variations based on what plant they choose. An “aha” moment in my occasional problem with identifying cats.

Caterpillars go through various instars and changes to appearance may include coloring. Early instars may match the shade of the fresh young leaves and later instars may become darker to blend in with older leaf coloring.

Early Instar of Banded Sphinx Moth Caterpillar (Eumorpha fasciatus)
Early Instar of Banded Sphinx Moth Caterpillar (Eumorpha fasciatus)
Later instar of Banded Sphinx has quite a different color scheme
Later instar of Banded Sphinx has quite a different color scheme

Have you noticed this in your own wildlife garden?


Plant coloration undermines herbivorous insect camouflage, a research hypothesis (pdf) on plant coloration from Harvard Forest (Harvard University).