Common moths in Iowa

Moth balls. Moths flying out of old trunks in the attic. Moths escaping from bags of bird seed.

Dusty, brown, uninteresting moths.

The stereotypes about moths aren't really true, because there are many moths in the world, and in Iowa, that are actually quite neat. Learn about a few that you will be able to identify in Dickinson County, in Iowa and beyond this year. Moths typically like flowers that are in clusters and provide landing platforms, have white or dull colors, have open blooms in the late afternoon or night and are ample nectar producers with the nectar deep inside, such as morning glories, tobacco, yucca and gardenias. Find these flowers and you'll be able to find moths!

(Want to tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly? Click here for some helpful hints!)

Giant Silkmoths

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Polyphemus moth

The Polyphemus moth is in the family Saturniidae, which is full of giant silkmoths. These are the largest group of moths in North America, and the moths are generally quite big with wing spans between one and six inches. The Polyphemus moth in particular has a wingspan of 3-4 inches. It gets its name from the Greek myth about a cyclops named Polyphemus because the moth has purple eyespots on its hind wings.

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Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Its caterpillar feeds on leaves of broad-leaved trees including oak, birch, hickory, maple and willow. Moth caterpillars are pretty easily identifiable because of their feet, which they use to grab hold of branches that they sit on.

After the larval stage, moths typically spin a silken cocoon --- whereas butterflies go into a hard chrysalis --- and the Polyphemus moth spends the entire winter in its cocoon, emerging in May. It will come out of its cocoon in the afternoon, giving it time to expand and dry its wings before its evening flight period.

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Promethea moth

The promethean moth lives in deciduous forests, and like a typical moth the females are attracted to light, however, males are not. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of apple, ash, basswood, birch, cherry, lilac and other tree leaves, but adults do not eat. Butterfly and moths typically feed on nectar, however, some moth adults do not have mouth parts and don't eat at all. The caterpillar will eat enough to sustain the adult, usually for only about a week in the adult stage though.

One of the most well-known moths due to its long hindwings, the luna moth is a beautiful species that lives in deciduous forests and flies May-July. Its caterpillars feed on white birch, hickory, walnut, pecan and sumac trees, but the adults do not eat.


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Sweetheart underwing

Underwing moths are in the family Erebidae and are found on all continents except Antarctica. The family includes both drab moths and colorful species. The sweetheart underwing can be seen in Iowa from July-October. It will overwinter as an egg on tree bark and hatch in the spring, with caterpillars seen May-August feeding on poplar and willow leaves. It will then crawl down the tree and spin its cocoon on the ground, with the moths emerging there.

Hawk moths

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White-lined sphinx

Hawks moths, in the family Sphingidae, have streamlined abdomens made for rapid and sustained flight. The white-lined sphinx is sometimes confused for a hummingbird because of its ability for sustained flight while drinking nectar and for its rapid movement. It is found in deserts, meadows and gardens February-November, depending on the climate. It flies at dusk like many moths, but it also flies during the day to forage for nectar from columbines, petunias, honeysuckle, lilacs, clovers, thistles and Jimson weed.

Smoky moths

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Grapeleaf moth

Smoky moths, in the family Zygaenidae, break out of the mold and are typically day-flying moths. They often have a metallic sheen, and some are very brightly colored to warn predators that they taste bad since they contain hydrogen cyanide.

The grapeleaf moth flies both day and night and gets its name from the fact that its caterpillars can be pests on grape vines. It eats grapes, Virginia creeper and redbud.

Pollinator education

You can also learn more about the butterflies found in Iowa and Dickinson County with a series of blog posts beginning with "Skippers and Swallowtails." Then check out the Pollinator Education Series program on native bees 5:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at the Dickinson County Nature Center.

Plus, we're giving you a free downloadable field guide to take with you to help you identify some common butterflies and moths in Iowa. Just click on the photo below to download the PDF!

opens PDF file

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