Cinnabar Moth: All You Need to Know for Identification and Habitat Insights

The Cinnabar Moth is a fascinating insect with a vibrant appearance and intriguing life cycle. These medium-sized moths are easily identified by their striking red and black coloration, providing them with visual warning signals to potential predators. They can be found in the western Pacific Northwest and other regions as well.

Their life cycle starts when females lay up to 300 eggs, often on the underside of ragwort leaves. Once the caterpillars hatch, they feed on their surrounding foliage, eventually transitioning to mainly feeding on the ragwort plant as they grow. As they mature, the caterpillars display a bold yellow and black appearance which, like the adult moth, serves as a warning to predators that they are toxic to consume.

In some areas, the Cinnabar Moth has been of interest for its potential use in controlling the invasive tansy ragwort weed, as the larvae consume significant amounts of this plant during their development. This ecological interaction highlights their potential role as a biological control agent in managing certain invasive species in various ecosystems.

Discovering the Cinnabar Moth

Physical Characteristics

The Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) is a striking creature known for its bold colors. The moth’s wings showcase:

  • Vivid pinky-red stripes
  • Two bright red spots on its black forewings
  • A rich red hindwing color

With these distinct markings, Cinnabar Moths are easy to identify in the wild.

Distribution and Habitats

The Cinnabar Moth can be found in various regions, including:

  • Europe
  • Asia
  • North America (introduced)
  • Australia (introduced)

These moths thrive in diverse habitats, such as:

  • Coastlines
  • Mountains
  • Grasslands

They have a strong preference for areas abundant in their primary food source: ragwort and groundsel plants. These habitats support the Cinnabar Moth’s life cycle and ensure their survival.

Cinnabar Moth Life Cycle

Egg Stage

The cinnabar moth begins its life cycle as an egg. Female moths lay up to 300 eggs, typically in batches of 30 or 60 on the underside of ragwort leaves. Eggs hatch within a couple of weeks, depending on environmental factors such as temperature.

Caterpillar Stage

Cinnabar moth caterpillars, or larvae, emerge from the eggs and start feeding on the leaves surrounding the hatched eggs. As they grow and moult through different instars, they mainly feed on the ragwort plant. Some key features and characteristics of cinnabar caterpillars include:

  • Distinctive black and yellow striping
  • Primarily feed on ragwort
  • Grow through several instars

Pupa Stage

After fully growing, the caterpillar forms a cocoon to enter the pupa stage. The pupa is generally formed on the ground or in a protected area. During this stage, the caterpillar undergoes a significant transformation into an adult moth.

Adult Moth Stage

The adult cinnabar moth emerges from the cocoon with a distinctive appearance. Some key features and characteristics of adult cinnabar moths include:

  • Wingspan of approximately 32-42mm
  • Bright red hindwings with black spots or bands
  • Forewings with grayish-black color
  • Nocturnal habit with some diurnal activity
Cinnabar Moth Stage Key Feature Duration
Egg Stage Laid on ragwort leaves A couple of weeks
Caterpillar Stage Black and yellow stripes Varied
Pupa Stage Cocoon formation Varied
Adult Moth Stage Red and black wings Varied

In conclusion, the cinnabar moth life cycle comprises four stages: egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult moth. Each stage has distinctive features and characteristics that make the cinnabar moth a fascinating species to study.

Relationship with Ragwort

Importance of the Ragwort Plant

The Cinnabar moth and Ragwort plant share a unique relationship. The Ragwort plant, scientifically known as Senecio jacobaea or Tansy Ragwort, is a crucial component in the life cycle of the Cinnabar moth. Female moths lay their eggs, usually in batches of 30 to 60, on the underside of ragwort leaves. As the caterpillars hatch, they feed on the ragwort plant for nourishment. The consumption of this toxic plant makes the larvae unpalatable to predators as the chemicals are transferred to their bodies.

Ragwort is considered a poisonous weed, and its control is influenced by the presence of Cinnabar moths. By consuming the toxic plant, the moth’s larvae mitigate the spread of the weed, serving as a natural form of pest control.

Control of Ragwort

Cinnabar moths help in ragwort control by consuming the plant, but other methods may be used, including:

  • Mechanical control: Uprooting or cutting the plants before they produce seeds
  • Chemical control: Application of herbicides targeting the ragwort plant

However, these methods can also pose risks to the natural environment, potentially harming non-target species and causing ecological imbalances.

Method Pros Cons
Mechanical Non-toxic, precise targeting Labor-intensive, time-consuming
Chemical Efficient, large-scale application Potential environmental risks

Conservation

Preserving the Cinnabar moth is essential to maintaining the balance in environments where ragwort is present. The moth’s conservation status depends on its ability to find and consume the ragwort plant. By managing ragwort populations through both natural and artificial means, the Cinnabar moth can continue to thrive, and the invasive weed can be kept under control.

Key features of the Cinnabar moth and ragwort relationship:

  • Ragwort is vital to the moth’s life cycle
  • Caterpillars feeding on ragwort become unpalatable to predators
  • The moth’s larvae help control ragwort spread

Feeding and Survival Strategies

Caterpillar Cannibalism

Cinnabar moth caterpillars are known to exhibit cannibalistic behavior. They generally feed on the underside of ragwort leaves, but when food resources are scarce, they may resort to eating each other. This survival strategy helps ensure the survival of the species when food is limited.

Pros:

  • Ensures survival when food resources are scarce
  • Reduces competition for resources

Cons:

  • Reduces overall population numbers
  • May lead to weaker genetic diversity

Involvement of Other Insects

The cinnabar moth’s ecosystem includes various interactions with other insects. Pollinators, like bees and butterflies, are attracted to the same flowers that caterpillars feed on, such as ragwort. However, the cinnabar caterpillars have an advantage: they can consume the poisonous ragwort leaves without harm, unlike many other herbivorous insects.

Table 1: Comparison of how cinnabar caterpillars and other insects interact with ragwort.

Insects Interaction with Ragwort Leaves Poisons
Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars Consume leaves Not affected by toxins
Other Insects May eat leaves Susceptible to toxins in the plant

Cinnabar moth caterpillars can survive on ragwort leaves due to their ability to tolerate the plant’s toxins. These toxins deter most other insects and even birds. The brightly colored caterpillars signal to predators that they are poisonous, which helps them escape predation and increase their chances of survival in the garden ecosystem.

  • Features of cinnabar caterpillars:

    • Bright colors
    • Ability to consume poisonous plants
    • Cannibalistic tendencies
  • Characteristics of ragwort plants:

    • Yellow flowers
    • Poisonous leaves
    • Attracts pollinators

Threats and Solutions

Livestock and Grazing Issues

Cinnabar moths and their larvae pose a risk to livestock due to their feeding on poisonous ragwort leaves. These plants are toxic to animals such as cows and horses, and their consumption can lead to liver damage and even death. One solution is the introduction of cinnabar moths, as their larvae consume ragwort plants, thus helping control their spread1.

  • Pros:

    • Controls ragwort population
    • Reduces risk for livestock
  • Cons:

    • Moths and larvae may not target ragwort exclusively
    • Ragwort may still spread if not managed properly

Public Health and Allergies

Although cinnabar moths themselves are not directly harmful to humans, their larvae’s consumption of ragwort can indirectly affect public health. Ragwort pollen has been known to cause allergies in some individuals, making its control essential2.

Comparison table:

Ragwort Allergy Symptoms Impact on Public Health
Sneezing Mild to moderate
Runny nose Mild to moderate
Itchy eyes Mild to moderate
Skin rash Mild to moderate

Climate Change and Ecosystem Challenges

Cinnabar moths are native to grasslands, heaths, and dunes in areas such as Oregon, New Zealand, and higher elevations. However, climate change poses a threat to these ecosystems, potentially impacting the moth’s habitat and food sources3.

Adapting to these changes, cinnabar moths are finding refuge in a variety of habitats, including wildflower patches and weed-infested areas. These new environments provide shelter and sustenance, with plants such as cuckoo flowers supporting their survival4.

Interesting Facts and Trivia

Relationship with Gypsy Moth and Butterflies

The Cinnabar Moth is not directly related to the Gypsy Moth, as they belong to different families. However, both moths share some similarities:

  • Cinnabar Moth: Arctiidae family
  • Gypsy Moth: Erebidae family

While both are classified as moths, they differ in several key aspects:

Feature Cinnabar Moth Gypsy Moth
Hindwings Reddish-orange with black spots Pale brown or beige
Forewings Black with red bands Brown with darker patterns
Distribution Primarily Europe and Central Asia Europe, Asia, and North America

Interestingly, moths are closely related to butterflies, as they both belong to the order Lepidoptera. Key differences include:

  • Moths tend to be nocturnal, while butterflies are diurnal
  • Most moth species have a more robust body than butterflies

Cinnabar Moth and the Mineral Cinnabar

The Cinnabar Moth gets its name from the mineral cinnabar, which is a natural source of mercury. This connection exists because of the moth’s striking appearance: red hindwings with black spots, which resemble the bright red color of the mineral. As an adult, Cinnabar Moths primarily feed on nectar.

During their larval stage, Cinnabar Moth caterpillars feed on plants like tansy and ragwort. This diet helps protect them from predators, as the toxins present in these plants make the caterpillars unpalatable. The pupal stage, which occurs after the caterpillar stage, sees the development of the moth’s distinctive bright red hindwings and black-patterned forewings.

Although climate change can affect the distribution and population of various moth species, the Cinnabar Moth remains fairly stable. However, efforts to control the spread of ragwort in certain areas may impact its population indirectly.

In conclusion, the Cinnabar Moth is a fascinating species with a colorful appearance reminiscent of its namesake mineral. Its unique features and relationship with other moths and butterflies make it an interesting creature to learn about.

Footnotes

  1. https://extension.oreanstate.edu/ask-expert/featured/tansy-big-problem-can-cinnabar-larvae-come-rescue

  2. https://www.allergyuk.org/information-and-advice/conditions-and-symptoms/461-ragwort-allergy

  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4861997/

  4. https://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/how-cinnabar-moths-are-adapting-to-climate-change/

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Cinnabar Moth in Canada

 

Are you able to identify this butterfly or moth?
June 28, 2010
I took this picture just before noon, on a warm June 22. I have never seen anything like him before and can’t find him in any of my butterfly or moth books nor on any sites for local creatures. He just floated into the yard and landed in a weed patch I was just about to turn into a herb garden. Thank you so much.
Linda Hicks
Duncan, British Columbia (southern Vancouver Island)

Cinnabar Moth

Hi Linda,
We suspect the reason you could not identify this Cinnabar Moth, Tyria jacobaeae, is because it is not a native species.  According to BugGuide, it was:  “
Introduced from Europe as a control for introduced weedy Ragwort, the host plant for its caterpillars, which is toxic to livestock.

Letter 2 – Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars

 

Unknown Yellow and Black Caterpillar
June 19, 2010
I took pictures of this in July 2009 behind my apartments at the powerlines. I am rather new to macro photography and find bugs a interesting subject.
I have been unable to identify this one. He has sparse hair as you can see in 3rd picture and is a yellow/orange and black stripped.
There was literally thousands of them among the plants of various types.
Keith98058
Renton, Washington

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Hi Keith,
These are Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars, Tyria jacobaeae, a European species that according to BugGuide was:  “Introduced from Europe as a control for introduced weedy Ragwort, the host plant for its caterpillars, which is toxic to livestock.
”  BugGuide also indicates:  “Larvae feed on Senecio jacobaea. HOSTS database also lists Salt-marsh Fleabane (Pluchea odorata), Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale), Hops (Humulus lupulus) and Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

The Weed Species website pictures Tansy Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, and it looks like the plant your caterpillar specimens are feeding upon.

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars

Thank you so much for the reply, I really do appreciate the in-depth answer.  It never ceases to amaze me all of the non native species that were introduced to control one problem or another.
Keith

Letter 3 – Cinnabar Moth from the UK

 

Subject: moth Butterfly
Location: Uk England
August 8, 2012 2:32 pm
Can you identify this please . in my garden today .
Signature: paul

Cinnabar Moth

Dear Paul,
This lovely moth,
Tyria jacobaeae, commonly called the Cinnabar Moth or just the Cinnabar, is frequently mistaken for a butterfly.  You can read more about it on UK Moths.

Letter 4 – Cinnabar Moth from Scotland

 

Subject: Butterfly species
Location: Loch Eck, near Dunoon in Argyll
June 5, 2014 4:00 am
I saw this butterfly whilst out walking with my family by Loch Eck side which is close to Benmore gardens near Dunoon in Argyllshire, Scotland. I would appreciate it if anyone could help me to identify it as I have never seen this species in this area before.
Thanks
Signature: Marion Houston

Cinnabar Moth
Cinnabar Moth

Hi Marion,
Because of its bright colors and diurnal habits, the Cinnabar Moth,
Tyria jacobaeae, is easy to confuse for a butterfly.

Letter 5 – Probably Cinnabar Moth with missing forewings

 

Subject: BLack tipped, red winged black bodies ??moth
Location: Langley, BC, Canada
June 25, 2013 4:28 pm
Just saw this amazzing looking ?? moth iin our garden, looks like it may have just come out of it’s cacoon. We live in Langley BC and I have sen someone else on this site send a photo of a similar insect you named a lichen moth but yoou said Mexica, Colorado, California. Do they come this far North and is this what this insect is?
Signature: Sue

Possibly Lichen Moth
What’s That Moth?

Dear Sue,
This does resemble a Lichen Moth, more specifically Lycomorpha fulgens, but like your letter indicates, it is not known to range as far north as Canada.  The Moth Photographers Group reports them as far north as Colorado.  That species has black underwings and your insect appears to have red underwings.  Unfortunately your photo lacks critical sharpness.  Perhaps this is some less common Lichen Moth species.  Perhaps one of our readers will have some clue.  We will contact Julian Donahue to see if he has any ideas what this might be.

Update:  Cinnabar Moth Perhaps
We like the possibility posed by Al in a comment that this might be an introduced Cinnabar Moth with missing forewings.  See the Island Crop Management website.

Input from Julian Donahue
Hi Daniel,
… This looks suspiciously very much like the hind wings (only) of the Cinnabar Moth, Tyria jacobaeae, which occurs in B.C. where the photo was taken. The stout body pretty much rules out any lichen moth I know. The only other possibility might be a species of Virbia (formerly Holomelina), but I don’t know any that look like this.
Julian

Letter 6 – The Cinnabar from the U.K.

 

HELP!
I live in North Hampshire, UK, in the south and I was wondering if you could help me. I found this very peculiar bug in my garden, on the grass which I believe to be a moth of some sort, but I’ve never seen anything like it I found it about 11 in the morning on a reasonably warm day. It was on my grass for a long time and it seemed like it couldn’t fly as it’s wings kept flapping but it couldn’t take off. After I took pictures I rescued it and it flew away, and my cat seemed very interesting in eating it which didn’t help! Please can you tell me something about this bug? I’m really interested in what it is!

This Arctiid Moth is known as The Cinnabar, Tyria jacobaeae. The UK Moths site states it “is a fairly common moth in much of Britain. It is generally nocturnal, but is quite often disturbed during the day from long grass, low herbage etc. At night, it comes to light. “

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Cinnabar Moth in Canada

 

Are you able to identify this butterfly or moth?
June 28, 2010
I took this picture just before noon, on a warm June 22. I have never seen anything like him before and can’t find him in any of my butterfly or moth books nor on any sites for local creatures. He just floated into the yard and landed in a weed patch I was just about to turn into a herb garden. Thank you so much.
Linda Hicks
Duncan, British Columbia (southern Vancouver Island)

Cinnabar Moth

Hi Linda,
We suspect the reason you could not identify this Cinnabar Moth, Tyria jacobaeae, is because it is not a native species.  According to BugGuide, it was:  “
Introduced from Europe as a control for introduced weedy Ragwort, the host plant for its caterpillars, which is toxic to livestock.

Letter 2 – Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars

 

Unknown Yellow and Black Caterpillar
June 19, 2010
I took pictures of this in July 2009 behind my apartments at the powerlines. I am rather new to macro photography and find bugs a interesting subject.
I have been unable to identify this one. He has sparse hair as you can see in 3rd picture and is a yellow/orange and black stripped.
There was literally thousands of them among the plants of various types.
Keith98058
Renton, Washington

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

Hi Keith,
These are Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars, Tyria jacobaeae, a European species that according to BugGuide was:  “Introduced from Europe as a control for introduced weedy Ragwort, the host plant for its caterpillars, which is toxic to livestock.
”  BugGuide also indicates:  “Larvae feed on Senecio jacobaea. HOSTS database also lists Salt-marsh Fleabane (Pluchea odorata), Hound’s-tongue (Cynoglossum officinale), Hops (Humulus lupulus) and Sow Thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar

The Weed Species website pictures Tansy Ragwort, Senecio jacobaea, and it looks like the plant your caterpillar specimens are feeding upon.

Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars

Thank you so much for the reply, I really do appreciate the in-depth answer.  It never ceases to amaze me all of the non native species that were introduced to control one problem or another.
Keith

Letter 3 – Cinnabar Moth from the UK

 

Subject: moth Butterfly
Location: Uk England
August 8, 2012 2:32 pm
Can you identify this please . in my garden today .
Signature: paul

Cinnabar Moth

Dear Paul,
This lovely moth,
Tyria jacobaeae, commonly called the Cinnabar Moth or just the Cinnabar, is frequently mistaken for a butterfly.  You can read more about it on UK Moths.

Letter 4 – Cinnabar Moth from Scotland

 

Subject: Butterfly species
Location: Loch Eck, near Dunoon in Argyll
June 5, 2014 4:00 am
I saw this butterfly whilst out walking with my family by Loch Eck side which is close to Benmore gardens near Dunoon in Argyllshire, Scotland. I would appreciate it if anyone could help me to identify it as I have never seen this species in this area before.
Thanks
Signature: Marion Houston

Cinnabar Moth
Cinnabar Moth

Hi Marion,
Because of its bright colors and diurnal habits, the Cinnabar Moth,
Tyria jacobaeae, is easy to confuse for a butterfly.

Letter 5 – Probably Cinnabar Moth with missing forewings

 

Subject: BLack tipped, red winged black bodies ??moth
Location: Langley, BC, Canada
June 25, 2013 4:28 pm
Just saw this amazzing looking ?? moth iin our garden, looks like it may have just come out of it’s cacoon. We live in Langley BC and I have sen someone else on this site send a photo of a similar insect you named a lichen moth but yoou said Mexica, Colorado, California. Do they come this far North and is this what this insect is?
Signature: Sue

Possibly Lichen Moth
What’s That Moth?

Dear Sue,
This does resemble a Lichen Moth, more specifically Lycomorpha fulgens, but like your letter indicates, it is not known to range as far north as Canada.  The Moth Photographers Group reports them as far north as Colorado.  That species has black underwings and your insect appears to have red underwings.  Unfortunately your photo lacks critical sharpness.  Perhaps this is some less common Lichen Moth species.  Perhaps one of our readers will have some clue.  We will contact Julian Donahue to see if he has any ideas what this might be.

Update:  Cinnabar Moth Perhaps
We like the possibility posed by Al in a comment that this might be an introduced Cinnabar Moth with missing forewings.  See the Island Crop Management website.

Input from Julian Donahue
Hi Daniel,
… This looks suspiciously very much like the hind wings (only) of the Cinnabar Moth, Tyria jacobaeae, which occurs in B.C. where the photo was taken. The stout body pretty much rules out any lichen moth I know. The only other possibility might be a species of Virbia (formerly Holomelina), but I don’t know any that look like this.
Julian

Letter 6 – The Cinnabar from the U.K.

 

HELP!
I live in North Hampshire, UK, in the south and I was wondering if you could help me. I found this very peculiar bug in my garden, on the grass which I believe to be a moth of some sort, but I’ve never seen anything like it I found it about 11 in the morning on a reasonably warm day. It was on my grass for a long time and it seemed like it couldn’t fly as it’s wings kept flapping but it couldn’t take off. After I took pictures I rescued it and it flew away, and my cat seemed very interesting in eating it which didn’t help! Please can you tell me something about this bug? I’m really interested in what it is!

This Arctiid Moth is known as The Cinnabar, Tyria jacobaeae. The UK Moths site states it “is a fairly common moth in much of Britain. It is generally nocturnal, but is quite often disturbed during the day from long grass, low herbage etc. At night, it comes to light. “

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.

4 thoughts on “Cinnabar Moth: All You Need to Know for Identification and Habitat Insights”

  1. Hello , I would like a stab at identifying the red winged moth-like creature;
    It looks to me as though both fore-wings are missing (stranger things have happened) and it could be the uncommon and introduced European Tyria jacobaea; the Cinnabar Moth …….just a thought!
    AJ

    Reply
  2. Hello , I would like a stab at identifying the red winged moth-like creature;
    It looks to me as though both fore-wings are missing (stranger things have happened) and it could be the uncommon and introduced European Tyria jacobaea; the Cinnabar Moth …….just a thought!
    AJ

    Reply
  3. I’ve read that the cinnabar moth is attracted to the Cineraria plant but not how it affects that plant. I presume it will destroy it as it destroys the ragwort plant?

    Reply

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