A hummingbird moth flies toward a purple flower
(Image credit: AGD Beukhof)

People have been planting nectar rich plants for butterfly gardens for quite some time, often forgetting that another Lepidoptera is the moth. Moths don’t get quite as much love as their colorful counterparts, likely because there are many different species of moth more identifiable as pest caterpillars. What can be said is that different kinds of moths play different roles in the garden but generally all are an important food source for birds, mammals and other insects as well as being excellent pollinators. Read on to learn about the various moths and their role in your garden.

About Common Garden Moths

There are around 160,000 species of moth in the world compared to a scant 17,500 species of butterfly. In the U.S. alone there are almost 11,000 species of moth. You may not notice them as much as butterflies simply because their colors are usually drab and they frequent the garden at night.

Moths and butterflies seek out nectar, but their offspring may be the bane of the gardener, ravaging tomatoes and other fruit. Different species of moths seek out sustenance in the form of nectar while still other moth varieties drink from rotting fruit, tree sap, bird droppings or even animal dung.

Almost all moth varieties have scales covering their wings, a coiled feeding tube (proboscis), and threadlike antennae rather than the club tipped antennae of butterflies. Generally moths are less colorful than butterflies, although there are some varieties with unique colors and patterns. Most moths fly and eat at night, but not all. One of the most colorful moths in the world is a day-flyer, the Sunset moth from Madagascar.

Moth Classification

Moths share many of the same general characteristics but to aid in identifying them they’ve been divided into two groups: the macro or large moths and smaller or micro-moths. These two groupings are then divided into five moth families.

The Arctiidae family is native to North America, Canada and Europe. Many species in this group have bright colors of yellow and red and feed on host plants like foxglove and plantago.

The Noctuidae family makes up the bulk of moths globally, numbering at about 25,000 known species. These moths are dull in color and are found in commercial crops and home gardens. Cutworms, fruit worms, underwing moths and ear moths are some of the types of moth in this family.

See little green inchworms on your apple tree? These are likely the larvae from the Geometridae family, which consists of around 15,000 species. They feed on apples, rowan trees, birch and willows. The brimstone and peppered moth are two examples of this family.

The spectacular and large luna, giant silkworm and emperor moths are members of the Saturniidae family With furred wings. Members of this family are the largest, and their larvae generally colorful and/or patterned.

The Sphingidae family contains about 1,000 species of large moths with solid bodies and streamlined wings. Examples from this group include the hummingbird hawk moth and army green moth.

Types of Sphinx Moths

The hummingbird hawk moth mentioned above is often called the sphinx moth. Why? When the larvae feed upon the host plant they are often found in a position that resembles the Egyptian sphinx.

As adults, these moths hover over flowers to consume nectar at night. Host plants that attract this moth species are called sphingophilous. The flowers have a sweet aroma which is evident at night when the bloom opens. The sweet scent lures the sphinx moths in, where they then hover above the flower, dip their proboscis into the deep nectar at the base of the bloom, and drink their fill.

Generally members of this family are beneficial pollinators except at their larval stage. An example of a Sphingidae member that is particularly reviled by gardeners is the horn worm, notorious for wreaking havoc on precious tomato plants. Other members include rustic sphinx, tetrio sphinx, tersa sphinx, Carolina sphinx and five-spotted hawkmoth.

The rustic sphinx feeds on ornamentals such as gardenia, sunflower and lantana, while tetrio sphinx moths prefer frangipani and members of the Dogbane family. The five-spotted hawkmoth feeds on members of the Solanaceae family such as tomato, eggplant, pepper and potato.

Tersa sphinx prefer honeysuckle and penta nectar and the Carolina sphynx with its six pairs of ornamental markings also feeds on members of the Solanacea family as well as on tobacco as larvae.

Amy Grant

Amy Grant has been gardening for 30 years and writing for 15. A professional chef and caterer, Amy's area of expertise is culinary gardening.