Owlet Moths: Harmless or Hazardous?

Owlet moths, belonging to the Noctuidae family, are diverse and widespread nocturnal insects.

With many species displaying vibrant reds, oranges, or yellows and black markings, they serve as a fascinating subject in nature.

However, the question of their potential dangers is a topic worth exploring.

Are Owlet Moths Dangerous

While some owlet moth species, such as armyworms and cutworms, are known to be agricultural pests, their direct impact on human safety is minimal.

These moths, along with others in the Lepidoptera group, play a crucial role as pollinators due to their feeding habits on nectar from various plants.

The vast majority of owlet moths pose no threat to people, living harmoniously alongside us in various environments.

Owlet Moths: Overview and Classification

Species and Distribution

Owlet moths belong to the Noctuidae family and are a diverse group of moths with nearly 11,000 species found in North America alone.

They are widely distributed across various habitats and can be seen around woody plants and trees, such as poplar, oak, hazel, alder, and antelope brush, where their larvae feed on the leaves 1.

Noctuidae Family

The Noctuidae family comprises a wide variety of moth types, including owlet moths, miller moths, cutworms, armyworms, dagger moths, and bird-dropping moths 2. The family is characterized by:

  • Nocturnal activity
  • Varied colors and patterns (some displaying bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings)
  • A few species being toxic or unpalatable to predators

Lepidoptera Order

Owlet moths belong to the Lepidoptera order which also includes butterflies. Some key differences between moths and butterflies are:

FeatureMothsButterflies
AntennaeFeathery or thread-likeClub-shaped
Resting positionWings down or spread outWings upright
Activity timeMainly nocturnalMainly diurnal

In conclusion, owlet moths are a diverse and fascinating group of moths that belong to the Noctuidae family and the Lepidoptera order.

The taxonomy of the owlet moths covers a vast array of species found across North America and beyond.

Physical Characteristics and Behavior

Appearance and Coloration

Owlet moths are known for their diverse array of colors and patterns. They often exhibit:

  • Camouflage coloration for hiding during the day
  • Bright colors or patterns for mating displays
  • Aposematic coloration to deter predators

Some examples of their coloration include the rosy maple moth with its pink and yellow hues and the Io moth with its striking eye spots.

Nocturnal Behavior and Adaptations

Owlet moths are primarily nocturnal creatures. They have various adaptations to help them survive and thrive at night:

  • Sensitive antennae: Moths have feathery or saw-edged antennae to detect pheromones and locate mates.
  • Tympanal organs: These organs help them detect the echolocation calls of bats, allowing them to evade predation.
  • Wing venation: Owlet moths’ forewings and hindwings are designed to provide stability and silence during flight, making them more stealthy in the evening hours.
FeatureOwlet MothButterfly
AntennaeFeathery/Saw-edgedClub-shaped
Active TimeNocturnalDiurnal
ColorationVariableOften Bright
Tympanal OrganPresentAbsent

Owlet moths’ nocturnal behavior allows them to take advantage of a unique niche in the ecosystem, pollinating flowers and providing food for other nocturnal animals such as bats.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Moth Larvae and Caterpillars

Owlet moths go through a complete metamorphosis, which includes stages like egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

The moth larvae, also known as caterpillars, primarily feed on leaves and are responsible for the damage caused to plants. Some notable characteristics of moth caterpillars include:

  • Chewing mouthparts for feeding on plant material
  • Soft, segmented bodies

When larvae are ready to pupate, they search for a suitable site, often in soil or leaf litter, to undergo metamorphosis.

Hooded Owlet Moth Caterpillar

Eggs and Pupae

  • Females lay eggs on host plants, typically in spring.
  • Pupae develop within protective cases called cocoons.

The moth life cycle progresses as follows:

  1. Egg
  2. Caterpillar (larva)
  3. Pupa
  4. Adult moth

Mating Behavior

Moths primarily engage in nocturnal mating behavior. Males and females use pheromones to locate and identify each other for mating purposes. Here’s a brief overview of their mating process:

  • Females release pheromones to attract males.
  • Males have specialized antennae to detect pheromones.

Diet

Owlet moth diets differ depending on their life stage:

Life StageDiet
CaterpillarLeaves and plant material
Adult mothNectar from flowers (if they feed)

Some adult owlet moths do not have functional mouthparts and don’t require food during their short adult lifespan.

Instead, they rely on the energy reserves they accumulated as caterpillars.

Habitats and Interactions with Other Species

Plants and Pollination

Owlet moths are known for playing a role in plant pollination.

Many moth species are active during the night, attracted to pale or white flowers heavy with fragrance and abundant nectar.

Some moth species may also be active during the day.

Owlet moths, such as Mesogona olivata, are found in various habitats within their range, including wet forests in British Columbia, California, Texas, and Northern Mexico.

They thrive in different elevations and are associated with certain plants:

  • Poplar
  • Oak
  • Hazel
  • Alder
  • Antelope brush

These moths have a positive impact on the ecosystem by contributing to plant pollination, ensuring the continuation of various plant species.

Owlet Moth

Ants and Honeydew Relationships

A common interaction between ants and some moth species involves honeydew production.

The larvae of some moths produce honeydew, a sugary liquid, to which ants are attracted to. In return, ants protect these larvae from predators.

This relationship is mutually beneficial for both ants and the moth species.

While specific interactions between ants and owlet moths have not been detailed in this search, this type of relationship exists in the broader moth community and is worth considering as a potential element of the owlet moth’s ecology.

Are Owlet Moths Dangerous To Humans?

Cutworms and Armyworms

Owlet moths, specifically Mesogona olivata, aren’t directly dangerous to humans.

However, some species can cause harm as agricultural pests like cutworms and armyworm.

Cutworms and armyworms are the larval stages of certain owlet moths. They can damage plants by cutting off their stems at the base or devouring their leaves.

Key Features:

  • Cutworms: nocturnal, hide in soil during the day
  • Armyworms: named for their tendency to march in large numbers from one crop to another

Clothes Moths and Allergic Reactions

Clothes moths, a different family of moths, pose problems for humans by damaging fabrics.

The webbing clothes moth is notorious for leaving holes in natural fiber clothing. Owlet moths, on the other hand, are not fabric pests.

Moths, including some owlet moth species, can carry allergens that cause an allergic reaction called lepidopterism.

These reactions occur when moth scales or hairs come into contact with human skin or are inhaled, causing symptoms such as skin irritation, rash, or respiratory problems.

Case Bearing Clothes Moths and Woodlice

Comparison table:

ElementOwlet MothsClothes Moths
PestsCutworms, ArmywormsFabrics, Textiles
Danger levelAgricultural PestsDamage to Clothing
Allergic ReactionsLepidopterismLepidopterism

In summary, owlet moths are not directly dangerous to humans. Their main threat comes from certain species acting as agricultural pests, while others can cause allergic reactions.

Are Owlet Moths Dangerous?

Stinging and Poisonous Species

Owlet moths, also known as noctuid moths, belong to the family Noctuidae.

While some noctuids have bright reds, oranges, or yellows with black markings to warn predators that they are toxic or unpalatable, the majority of owlet moths are not known for being poisonous or venomous (source).

Owlet moths differ from other moth families that have notorious species, such as vampire moths and fruit-piercing moths, which can cause harm to plants, fruits, and animals.

Here are some features of owlet moths versus other dangerous moths:

CharacteristicsOwlet MothsVampire Moths & Fruit-Piercing Moths
StingNoYes
PoisonousGenerally noYes
AggressiveNoYes

Threats Posed by Owlet Moths

When it comes to threats posed by owlet moths:

  • They don’t sting or possess venom.
  • They generally lack aggressive behavior.
  • They don’t have teeth or any apparatus for biting or piercing.

One potential concern regarding owlet moths is their caterpillar stage, where some species develop into pests such as armyworms, cutworms, and corn earworms, damaging crops and plants (source).

To sum it up, owlet moths are not generally considered dangerous for humans, pets, or even plants, but their caterpillars may pose a threat to agriculture.

Owlet Moth: Lichnoptera decora

Conclusion

Owlet moths are a diverse and fascinating group of insects that have adapted to various habitats and lifestyles. They are not dangerous to humans, but some of their larvae can be pests of crops and gardens.

Owlet moths have many natural enemies, such as birds, bats, spiders, and parasitoids, that help keep their populations in check.

Some owlet moths are also beneficial to humans, as they pollinate flowers, decompose organic matter, or serve as food for other animals. Owlet moths are an important part…

Footnotes

  1. Owlet Moth – Mesogona olivata

  2. Noctuid Moths – Owlet Moths, Miller Moths, Cutworms, Armyworms, Dagger Moths, and more

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about owlet moths. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Angle Shades Moth

Subject: Unusual bug
Location: Deeside Flintshire
May 24, 2014 8:55 am
Hi there
It’s pouring down with rain and I came home to find this very unusual bug that I have not seen before and intreague to know what it could be
Any help will be great
Thanks
Signature: Sarah woodward

Angle Shades Moth
Angle Shades Moth

Hi Sarah,
Though we were uncertain of the identity of this freshly metamorphosed moth whose wings have still not expanded to their full size, we quickly identified it as an Angle Shades Moth,
Phlogophora meticulosa, by matching it to this image on the Photography Obsession Gallery

According to UK Moths:  “A highly distinctive and unusual moth, which rests with the wings folded longitudinally, looking very much like a withered autumn leaf. 

The adults generally fly between May and October, in at least two generations, but can be found in any month The species is also a common migrant and can occur in large numbers at coastal locations.”  

Angle Shades Moth
Angle Shades Moth

Letter 2 – Baorisa Moth from Nepal

Subject: Never mind. I think I found it…
Location: Tansen, Palpa District, Nepal
June 28, 2012 7:45 pm
Just wrote you a query, but by searching more diligently, I found the Baorisa hieroglyphica. That looks like it!
Thank you.
Signature: lkw

Baorisa Moth

Dear lkw,
This particular email arrived while we were out of the office and we are going through old submissions in an effort to respond to some past requests.  We were unable to locate your original email, and we suspect you did not sign the two forms in the same manner. 

This is a beautiful Baorisa and we thank you for saving us the effort of doing the research.  We know how time consuming it can be to identify species from many parts of the world.  We confirmed the identification on Insects.org.

Letter 3 – Bilobed Looper Moth

spiky moth in berkeley
Location: Berkeley, California
November 14, 2010 1:20 pm
Hi there. Found this moth resting on my windowsill in November. Love the protuberances on it!
Any ideas?
Signature: Ayesha

Bilobed Looper

Hi Ayesha,
There are many Owlet Moths in the tribe Plusiini that are known as Loopers, and your moth closely resembles the Bilobed Looper,
Megalographa biloba, which was recently classified in its own genus after formerly residing in the genus Autographa.  According to BugGuide it is:  “A very widespread species; the type specimen was collected in Venezuela.

awesome, thanks. Yes, I see the photos on Bug Guide and looks the same. And its larval host plants are pretty common plants so I can see why there might be some around here.
Lovely moth. Thank you again.
Ayesha

Letter 4 – Celery Looper Moth from Canada

Subject: Moth probably, but maybe butterfly?
Location: N. Central Saskatchewan, Canada
August 30, 2016 8:04 pm
I have googled this until my eyes went googly!
This probably moth was fluttering in an awkward moth type way, visiting flowers during the daytime yesterday. I am located in N. Central Saskatchewan Canada
I was curious as to what sort of moth it is, if it is indeed a moth.

I’ve never seen one before and now have 20 or more people actively googling images and descriptions to no avail. Do you have any idea what it is?
Signature: Tami Z

I have found the ID of this moth so you may ignore my request and thank you for your effort!  It was ID’d as a celery looper moth.  It might be a bit out of it’s range but it was a warm winter. Thank you!

Celery Looper Moth
Celery Looper Moth

Dear Tami,
Thanks for getting back to us with a correct identification of your Celery Looper Moth,
Anagrapha falcifera.  We are pleased to be able to post your wonderful image that matches this BugGuide image. 

According to BugGuide:  “Larvae feed on large variety of low plants: beet, blueberry, cabbage, carrot, celery, clover, corn, lettuce, plantain, Viburnum species. Adults nectar on flowers of various herbaceous plants” and “Adults are active day and night, and are attracted to light.” 

You were quite lucky having a team of 20 helping you with the identification.  Sometimes identifications can be quite time-consuming.

Thank you for the follow up. You`re right – ID can be really time consuming but what a fun challenge!
It was a first for me, but when you start googling grey and brown moths you realize how may firsts are yet to come!

Indeed, many moths are brown or drab in color, and many look very similar, which is why we often stop at a general family identification. 

The fact that this moth was observed flying during the day is an unusual characteristic, and searching with the term diurnal early may have yielded quicker results.

Letter 5 – Cherry Spot Moth from South Africa

Subject:  Moth
Geographic location of the bug:  Durbanville Hills, South Africa
Date: 09/08/2018
Time: 06:53 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Good day. I came across this beautiful moth at a wedding venue yesterday. About 3cm in length (rough estimate). Any idea how to identify it?
How you want your letter signed:  Francois

Hi
I managed to ID it myself after submitting. It is “Diaphone eumela”, the Cherry Spot.
Thanks!
F

Cherry Spot

Dear Francois,
Thank you for submitting your image of the lovely Cherry Spot, for identifying it and for writing back to us with your identification.  The species is well represented on African Moths

Letter 6 – Cherry Spot from South Africa

Subject: Unusual Moth
Location: Johannesburg, South Africa
January 6, 2014 12:32 pm
I found this beautiful moth in the garden and I’ve never seen one like it before. I would love to know what type it is. It’s about 2,5cm long and the body is about 1cm wide.
Signature: Rain

Cherry Spot
Cherry Spot

Hi Rain,
At first we thought this little beauty was a Tiger Moth, but we have been fooled by imposters in the past, so we also looked at Owlet Moths.  After a bit of searching, we have matched it to a mounted specimen on African Moths and identified it as a Cherry Spot,
Diaphone eumela, (Stoll, 1781). 

We found an image of a living specimen on Project Noah where it was bequeathed the honor of Moth of the Month this past November on Facebook.  We really love the common name Cherry Spot.

Cherry Spot
Cherry Spot

Thank you so much!  It’s always interesting knowing the names of the bugs we see 🙂
Regards
Trish

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

2 thoughts on “Owlet Moths: Harmless or Hazardous?”

  1. Thank you for the follow up. You`re right – ID can be really time consuming but what a fun challenge!

    It was a first for me, but when you start googling grey and brown moths you realize how may firsts are yet to come!

    Reply
  2. Thank you for the follow up. You`re right – ID can be really time consuming but what a fun challenge!

    It was a first for me, but when you start googling grey and brown moths you realize how may firsts are yet to come!

    Reply

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