Buck Moth Caterpillar Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey in Nature

The buck moth caterpillar is a fascinating creature found in various regions across the United States.

Its life cycle, like many other insects, goes through a series of stages, specifically egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (cocoon), and adult moth.

In this article, we will explore the intricacies of the buck moth caterpillar’s life cycle and its significance to the environment.

Buck Moth Caterpillar Life Cycle

Buck moth caterpillars primarily feed on the leaves of willow and meadowsweet plants, depending on their regional habitat.

With a single generation occurring each year, the buck moth caterpillar’s life cycle is unique in terms of its development and growth.

Understanding the life cycle of these creatures provides valuable insight into their behavior, habitats, and potential impact on local ecosystems.

Buck Moth Caterpillar Overview

Identification

The Buck moth caterpillar, scientifically known as Hemileuca maia, is easily identified by its black body covered in white spots.

Its head is also black, and it belongs to the order Lepidoptera and the family Saturniidae.

The species can be found throughout the United States, including states like Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Maine.

Distribution

The Buck moth caterpillar is primarily found in areas with oak trees, such as scrub oak, live oak, and willow.

They are also known to inhabit rose bushes. Here is a brief overview of their distribution.

The caterpillar’s diet largely consists of the leaves of these trees and bushes.

For example, the Nevada buck moth variant feeds principally on willow, whereas those of the New England buck moth feed on meadowsweet, Spiraea spp1.

The Buck moth caterpillar goes through a single generation each year2.

Adult moths fly from May-June, while the caterpillars are present from July-September3.

Buck Moth Caterpillar Life Cycle

Eggs

Buck moth females lay their eggs on host plants during the fall season1.

The eggs are typically laid in rows or patches and are covered with hairs from the female’s abdomen4.

They take a few weeks to hatch, and caterpillars emerge in the spring2.

Larvae

The larvae, or caterpillars, are the primary feeding stage in the life cycle. They feed on various host plants, depending on the species.

The caterpillars grow rapidly and go through several molts, often featuring a white band on their body3.

After reaching their final larval stage, the caterpillars are ready to pupate3.

Pupae

In late summer or early fall, the caterpillars form a pupal case in the soil5.

They overwinter as pupae, remaining in this stage until the following spring when the adult moths emerge5.

Adult Buck Moth

The adult buck moth has a wingspan of around 3 inches3. It features black forewings and hindwings with white bands3.

Adult buck moths have functional mouthparts and are able to feed3.

The life cycle comes full circle when the adult moths mate, and females lay eggs on host plants5.

Comparison Table:

Stage Time of Year Main Activity
Eggs Fall (September-Nov.)3 Laid on host plants3
Larvae Spring (April-June)3 Feeding on host plants1
Pupae Winter (Dec.-Feb.)3 Overwintering in soil5
Adult Spring (April-June)3 Mating and laying eggs5

Stinging Spines and Venom Glands

Physical Characteristics

Buck moth caterpillars exhibit dark or light forms which both have spiny, branched spines along their backs.

The spines are organized into groups on bumps arranged in multiple rows on the body. Some key features of these stinging spines include:

  • Dark or light color forms
  • Multi-branched spines in lateral rows

The spines on top of the caterpillar are longer and more complex, giving the entire creature a menacing appearance.

Venom Gland Function

These spines help protect the caterpillars from predators.

The spines contain a toxin gland at their base, and when they break off into the skin, they cause sudden stinging redness and swelling.

The spines are actually stinging hairs that deliver a painful sting to potential threats.

Common effects of the sting include:

  • Sudden stinging sensation
  • Redness
  • Swelling

Although buck moth caterpillar stings are generally not life-threatening, they can still be quite painful, especially to humans who accidentally come into contact with them.

Control and Management

Natural Predators

Buck moth caterpillars have various natural predators, which helps in controlling their population. Some examples include:

  • Birds
  • Small mammals
  • Predatory insects

These predators can keep the caterpillars’ numbers in check, reducing potential damage to plants.

Environment Modifications

Making certain changes to the local environment can also help manage buck moth caterpillars:

  • Encourage natural predators by adding nesting sites and food sources for birds and insects
  • Remove infested branches or leaves promptly, disposing of them away from other plants

These steps can make the area less appealing to caterpillars and reduce their numbers.

Chemical Methods

Buck moth caterpillar populations can also be controlled using chemical methods, such as:

  • Bacillus thuringiensis (effective on young caterpillars)
  • Sevin insecticide

These chemicals can provide adequate control when applied correctly source.

Comparison Table:

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Natural Predators Eco-friendly, sustainable Takes time, less predictable
Environment Mods No chemicals, low cost Takes effort, may be less effective
Chemical Methods Quick results Potential harm to environment, cost

Conclusion

The Buck Moth Caterpillar, scientifically known as Hemileuca maia, is a captivating species with a unique life cycle and distinct features.

Found primarily in regions with oak trees across the United States, these caterpillars are known for their stinging spines, which serve as a defense mechanism against predators.

Their life cycle, spanning from eggs to adult moths, is a testament to nature’s intricate processes.

While their stings can be painful, understanding their behavior, habitats, and life stages can help in safe encounters.

Furthermore, various control methods, both natural and chemical, can manage their populations, ensuring a balanced ecosystem.

Footnotes

  1. Entomology and Nematology Department 2 3 4 5 6 7
  2. Entomology and Nematology Department 2
  3. Penn State Extension 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
  4. https://extensionentomology.tamu.edu/insects/asp-cater
  5. http://caterpillars.unr.edu/outreach/Life%20cycle%20moth%20butterfly.htm 2 3 4 5

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Two Buck Moth Caterpillars and Unknown Caterpillar

cats?
Hi Bugman,
I just found your site and I LOVE IT!! Went through your 12 pages of caterpillars trying to identify these three specimens photographed on the high plains of Wyoming. The reddish one seems to be an Echo moth (Seirarctia echo) and the blue one most closely resembles a Tetrio sphinx moth.

I know of global warming but both are neotropical, how did they get in Wyoming…hitch- hike?? Red cat photographed 7/5/07 in badlands near Douglas, WY; pasture nearby, cottonwood trees 1/2 mile away. Blue cat photographed 9/28/05 north of Lance Creek, WY; sagebrush pasture, a few juniper within 1/2 mile.

The black cat was photographed 6/12/07 on young sagebrush in a high plains pasture of northern Natrona county, no trees within miles. Any help with definite identifications will be most gratefully received.
Dwaine Wagoner
Casper, WY

Hi Dwaine,
We have identified your black caterpillar first. This is a Buck Moth in the genus Hemileuca. It might be the Hera Buckmoth, Hemileuca hera, which has been reported from Wyoming. It does feed on sage.

If this identification is not correct (the Butterflies and Moths of North America does not have a caterpillar image but the one on BugGuide looks very similar, though not exact), it might also be Nuttall’s Sheepmoth, Hemileuca nuttalli, another western species listed in Wyoming that feeds on sage. There is only an adult moth image on the Butterflies and Moths of North America.

We agree that your red caterpillar is probably an Arctiid, though not the Echo Moth. We have not had any luck identifying it but we will try to contact Julian Donahue to see if he recognizes it.

Correction (11/18/2007)
Sorry. My guess would be a hemileucine saturniid. Check out Paul Tuskes book on the Saturniidae of North America, which I think illustrates all the larvae. Julian

Finally, we do not believe your blue specimen is a caterpillar. We think it might be a Sawfly Larva, though we cannot match it on BugGuide. Eric Eaton is not currently available, but we will email him and hope he gets back to us next week. If we are wrong about this being a Sawfly, it might be some beetle grub.

Update: (11/26/2007)
Hi, Daniel:
I ‘think’ it is a caterpillar, but I’ve not seen anything like it before. It is not a sawfly, and I’m relatively confident it is not a beetle grub, as most beetle larvae are not that colorful.
Eric

Letter 2 – Buck Moth

Could you please id this furry S. FL moth
I’m in S. Palm Beach County, FL. There was hundreds of these flying around a preserve scrub habitat, I thought they were skipper butterflies until I got a better look. By noon they all had found a place to rest and none were flying anymore. I only guess they feed on oaks or palms. I’ve id’ed many critters by just browsing your webpages. Thanks so much for the great adventures
Emilia
Boca Raton, FL

Hi Emilia,
Adult Buck Moths, Hemileuca maia, do not feed, but the caterpillars do feed on oaks. Your observation supports the comment on BugGuide that the moth is “Said to fly rapidly at mid-day through oak forests.”

Letter 3 – Buck Moth

whaty’s that moth?
Hi,
Great idea for a site. Can you identify this moth? I saw it near Page, Arizona.
Thanks, Nathan

Ed. Note 31 minutes later:
Hi, I think I identified it, it’s a Hemileuca griffini. Thanks anyway.
Nathan

Hi Nathan,
We are happy to see you identified your Buck Moth, Hemileuca graffini, while we were lecturing at the LA County Fair.

Letter 4 – Buck Moth

Black and White
What is this moth?

Dear Hurried Querent,
While we realize that you probably have places to go and people to see, it would have been nice to get a bit more information from you as opposed to a terse interrogation.

This is some species of Buck Moth in the genus Hemileuca, and it is at this point that a location might have been extremely helpful. Our best guess is the New England Buck Moth, Hemileuca lucina. This group is known as Buck Moths since adults emerge in the fall during buck hunting season.

Letter 5 – Buck Moth

Buck Moth – Hemileuca graffini
I live close to Page AZ (northern AZ) and the last few days these beautiful moths have been hatching. They are flying all over Page and the surrounding area. Thanks to your great website, I think I have identified it as a Hemileuca graffini. Keep up the great work!
Carol
Page, AZ (northern AZ)

Buck Moth
Buck Moth

Hi Carol,
Thanks for sending us your lovely Buck Moth image. We are happy our site enabled you to identify your specimen as Hemileuca griffini.  We may have a typo on our original posting of this species.  We believe this might also be the Hera Buck Moth, Hemileuca hera, based on images on the Butterflies and Moths of North America website

Letter 6 – Buck Moth

Unidentified Moth in Virginia
Location: Craig County, Virginia
November 2, 2010 1:27 pm
I found this moth sitting on a branch while hiking in Craig County, VA. I took this picture of it on a 70-degree late October day. When we approached the moth, it spread its wings out and revealed its ”furry” abdomen, which had black and reddish-orange horizontal stripes.

It was approximately one inch in length. I thought it might be some type of tiger moth, however could not find any images that matched it. I hope you are able to help with the identification!
Signature: Jessie

Buck Moth

Hi Jessie,
You have submitted a Buck Moth,
Hemileuca maia, a species that, according to BugGuide, is “Said to fly rapidly at mid-day through oak forests.”  The adults are seasonal, and tend to fly in October and November, though in the north, they are found in September, and in the extreme south they may be found as late as December. 

The flight of the adults coincides with deer hunting season, and the common name probably has its origin with buck hunters seeing the moths in the oak forests while hunting.  Adults do not feed, and they have a very short life.  They die soon after mating and reproducing.

Letter 7 – Buck Moth

Eastern Buckmoth
Location: North Middle Tennessee
November 9, 2010 7:50 pm
Hi Daniel,
Insects are begining to become scarce in my area due to the weather getting colder. (around 28 degrees Fahrenheit last three nights) Today I walked around the yard searching for insects found a few still active, This beautiful moth being one of them. I belive I have identified it.

I think it is a ”Eastern Buckmoth” Hemileuca maia. I don’t remember seeing one of these before, probably just never paid any attention to them. Thanks to you, your website and too much free time, I now actively search for ”bugs” to photograph. Thank you for everything you do and have a great day.
Signature: Richard

Buck Moth

Hi Richard,
How we would relish too much free time.  Your Buck Moth photos are quite beautiful, especially the ones against the beautiful, clear, blue Tennessee sky.

Letter 8 – Buck Moth

Tiger or Spinx Moth
Location: Lafayette, Louisiana
December 4, 2010 12:31 am
I found this moth at night Dec. 03 . Judging by its large abdomen and orange stripes, I thought it might be of Arctiidae or Sphingidae .
Signature: Cybersage87

Buck Moth

Dear Cybersage87,
This is neither a Tiger Moth nor a Sphinx Moth.  It is a Buck Moth,
Hemileuca maia.  Buck Moths belong to the same subfamily as Io Moths and they are classified in the family Saturniidae, the Giant Silkmoths.  Adult Buck Moths fly during deer hunting season in the fall, hence their common name.

Buck Moth

Letter 9 – Buck Moth

Subject: What’s this beautiful creature?
Location: Calvert County, MD
November 1, 2012 10:09 am
I don’t remember ever seeing one like this. She was in a forest, very close to a field and appeared to be laying eggs. Thanks for your help.
Signature: Joan

Buck Moth

Dear Joan,
This beautiful moth is known as a Buck Moth,
 Hemileuca maia, because hunters often encounter them flying in the woods during hunting season.  Coincidentally, we featured another beautiful image of a Buck Moth all through the month of October as the Bug of the Month and no other images arrived.  The very day we changed the Bug of the Month, your photo arrived.

Thank you so much for the ID! What a wonderful service you provide. We saw this moth in a forest that will be forever protected from logging and open to the public, so  this moth’s progeny may live to fly and be appreciated by many more generations. Directions to the forest will soon be posted on our website: www.oldgrowthforest.net

Congratulations on your successful efforts to preserve open space.

Letter 10 – Buck Moth

Subject: Buck Moth
Location: Roanoke, VA
November 3, 2012 12:38 pm
I’ve seen a couple of these around my house the past couple of weeks. I think it is a Buck Moth? I love that it looks like it has a heart or a smiley face on it’s wings.
Signature: SB

Buck Moth

Dear SB,
It seems we jumped the gun on our Bug of the Month postings since we selected the Buck Moth as the Bug of the Month for October, but we didn’t receive any additional photos of Buck Moths until November.

Letter 11 – Newly Emerged Buck Moth

What Moth is this?
This is a newly emerged moth according to another entry I saw on your website, but which one? I saw him on the ground under a live oak tree in our yard outside Walnut Springs, TX.
Laureen Dozier

Hi Laureen,
We thought this newly emerged Saturnid might be a Buck Moth and Eric Eaton confirmed our suspicions. Here is what he said: “Looks like one of the buck moths in the genus Hemileuca, but again, I am no moth expert. The red “tail” is pretty diagnostic, though. It was found in late autumn, right? Eric”

After I saw the photo posted on the Whats That Bug? website I thought maybe the other two would be clearer. All these were taken in Bosque County, TX on 11-26-05. A bit of web surfing leads me to think this may be Grote’s Buckmoth. Especially since the antennae are so delicately & beautifully formed! I just learned that moths smell with their antennae-thanks for whetting my curiosity appetite.
Laureen Dozier

Letter 12 – Newly Emerged Buck Moth

Subject: Unknown Bug
Location: SW Texas
November 4, 2012 3:36 pm
My wife found this in our yard… Does anybody know what it is? We live in SW Texas therefore, we know it must bite, sting, prick, or love dust… Thanks, Jim
Signature: Jim & Jean

Newly Emerged Buck Moth

Dear Jim & Jean,
This is a newly emerged Buck Moth,
 Hemileuca maia, whose wings have still not expanded and hardened.  It will not be able to fly until its wings expand and harden.  Buck Moths do not bite, sting nor prick, and we are not certain what you mean by love dust. 

Though the adult moths are harmless, the Caterpillars of the Buck Moth are capable of stinging.  We suspect you must have an oak tree in your yard since the leaves of oak are the larval food and you would not have a newly emerged adult Buck Moth far from an oak tree. 

thank you, my husband was making a joke about west texas (a lot of dust here, very little rain)  jean

Thanks for the clarification.  We suppose they might be responsible for love dust as the sight of mating Buck Moths is rather romantic.

Letter 13 – Newly emerged Buck Moth

Subject:  Malformed moth?
Geographic location of the bug:  Midway Utah – on the WOW trail
Date: 09/10/2019
Time: 12:38 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  We found this little guy crawling around while biking. It looks like he didn’t develop properly. Can you tell what species it might be? And what would cause it to grow so poorly?
How you want your letter signed:  JAB

Newly emerged Buck Moth

Dear JAB,
This is a Buck Moth in the genus
Hemileuca that has just emerged from the pupa and its wings have not yet expanded.  There are at least eight species in Utah in the genus.

Letter 14 – Recently Metamorphosed Buck Moth

Subject: Is this a Wooly Bear Caterpillar
Location: North Louisiana
December 3, 2013 6:07 am
We live in North Louisiana and found this bug on our porch on Dec. 2nd. The thing that is confusing is if it’s a caterpillar why does it have wings up behind it’s head? Would appreciate any help with identifying it.
Signature: J King

Freshly Emerged Buck Moth
Freshly Emerged Buck Moth

Hi J. King,
This is not a Woolly Bear.  It is a recently metamorphosed Buck Moth in the genus
Hemileuca and its wings have not yet expanded.  When they emerge from the pupa, many moths bear a strong resemblance to caterpillars, but once the wings expand, few people are likely to continue to see the resemblance.  Buck Moths get their common name because they fly very late in the fall and they are often encountered by hunters during deer season.

Thank you so much for identifying this moth – I have never seen one before and it was a thrill.  We did get to see it after it developed more but missed it when it flew away.

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.

6 thoughts on “Buck Moth Caterpillar Life Cycle: A Fascinating Journey in Nature”

  1. The correct ID is Hemileuca griffini. H. hera looks similar but is much larger and flies in Sagebrush habitats. Griffini flies in Blackbrush habitat.

    Reply
  2. Wow! Thank you so much for getting back to me. Now I will enjoy my little Buckies all the more. They are hanging out not around Oak trees but Cottonwoods in the river bed. They have been very busy this last week- I am thinking perhaps they are laying eggs for next year’s crop. Thank you again for that very quick reply. I have been looking for an answer for 3 years now… I appreciate your time and expertise! sue

    Reply
  3. I saw this species of blue and white striped caterpillar at about 8000 ft. elevation in the foothills on the west side of the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado today October 8.

    Reply
  4. What could cause a moth’s wings to stay like this and never expand? We had several catalpa worms pupating in an aquarium and all emerged like this photo, but the wings stayed small. There was a dish of water in the tank. We did see wasps buzzing around the caterpillars in the tree before they came down to the ground.

    Reply

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