Do Polka Dot Wasp Moths Sting? Unraveling the Mystery

Polka dot wasp moths are fascinating creatures known for their bright colors and intriguing patterns. Often mistaken for wasps due to their appearance, they are actually a species of moth belonging to the subfamily of arctiid moths called ctenuchines. Their iridescent blue/green bodies and wings make them a sight to behold in nature. You can find more about their appearance here.

A common concern about these beautiful insects is whether or not they can sting like their wasp counterparts. The good news is that polka dot wasp moths do not have the ability to sting. True wasps possess modified ovipositors that serve as stingers, as mentioned here. Polka dot wasp moths, on the other hand, lack such structures, making them harmless to humans and other creatures.

Understanding the differences between polka dot wasp moths and stinging wasps can help those who may encounter these insects stay safe and appreciate their beauty without fear. By learning about the unique characteristics of these moths, nature enthusiasts can further their knowledge of the diverse world of insects.

Polka Dot Wasp Moth Overview

Appearance and Identification

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth, also known as Syntomeida epilais, is a strikingly beautiful insect, easily recognizable by its iridescent blue/green body and wings, adorned with white polka dots. Often mistaken for a wasp, the moth belongs to the subfamily of arctiid moths, known for their resemblance to wasps. However, it is important to note that they do not sting. The following features help to identify them:

  • Blue/green iridescent body
  • White polka dots on wings
  • Resemblance to wasps

Distribution and Habitat

Originally from the Caribbean, this moth has expanded its range throughout the southeastern United States. Its distribution spans from South Carolina to Mississippi, and it can also be found in Texas. They typically inhabit areas with oleander plants, as their caterpillars feed exclusively on this plant.

In summary, Polka Dot Wasp Moths do not sting and can be easily identified by their unique appearance. Their habitat ranges mainly throughout the southeastern United States, where oleander plants are found.

Life Cycle and Behavior

Mating and Reproduction

Polka dot wasp moths, also known as oleander moths, have unique mating behaviors. Males seek out females by detecting pheromones. Once they find a suitable mate, they perform a courtship dance before mating. Females then lay their eggs on plants, such as oleanders, where the caterpillars can find a food source.

Adult polka dot wasp moths are not considered pests, but their caterpillars can cause significant defoliation to certain plants. The moths are known to be harmless as they do not sting.

Larvae and Caterpillars

The larvae of the polka dot wasp moth are known as oleander caterpillars. These vivid orange caterpillars have black hair-like structures called setae. They feed on the leaves of oleander and other plants which contain toxic cardiac glycosides. Through this, the caterpillars become toxic to their predators, protecting them from harm. A comparison of the different stages of the polka dot wasp moth life cycle is as follows:

Stage Characteristics Duration
Egg Small, laid on host plants
Larva Vivid orange color Several days
Pupa Cocoon-like structure 1-2 weeks
Adult Attractive black and white pattern, yellow abdomen 1-3 weeks

As the caterpillars grow, they can cause extensive damage to their host plants, consuming large portions of the foliage. This defoliation can be problematic, especially for ornamental plants.

To summarize, polka dot wasp moths have an interesting life cycle and behavior, with unique mating rituals and colorful, well-defended caterpillars. These caterpillars can cause damage to certain plants, but the adult moths are harmless.

Relationship with Oleander Plants

Effects on Oleander Plants

Polka dot wasp moths, also known as oleander moths, are attracted to oleander plants. Their caterpillar stage, called oleander caterpillars, can cause damage to these plants. They feed on the leaves, potentially resulting in defoliation. For example:

  • A small number of caterpillars may just cause some skeletonization of leaves.
  • A large infestation could lead to complete defoliation within a week.

Oleander Caterpillars

Oleander caterpillars are born from the eggs laid by the polka dot wasp moth on the leaves of oleander plants. These caterpillars have distinct characteristics:

  • Bright orange body
  • Tufts of black hair-like setae
  • Mature caterpillars grow up to 2 inches long

Despite their appearance, oleander caterpillars are harmless to humans, as they do not bite or sting. Their significant impact is on oleander plants, by feeding heavily on the leaves.

Cardiac Glycosides

Oleander plants contain harmful cardiac glycosides, which can be toxic to humans and animals if ingested. However, these toxins do not deter oleander caterpillars, as they have developed a resistance to them.

Oleander Plants Oleander Caterpillars
Cardiac Glycosides Present Resistant
Impact of Toxins Hazardous Harmless

In conclusion, while the polka dot wasp moth and its caterpillar stage do not sting or cause harm to humans, they can negatively impact oleander plants due to their voracious feeding on the leaves.

Moth Mimicry and Defense Mechanisms

Mimicking Stinging Wasps

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth, scientifically known as Syntomeida epilais, is an interesting insect that has developed a unique way to ward off potential predators. These moths closely resemble dangerous wasps due to their:

  • Dark orange body
  • Pale cream spots
  • Mismatched wingspan
  • Threatening appearance

Here is a comparison table between Polka Dot Wasp Moths and Stinging Wasps:

Feature Polka Dot Wasp Moth Stinging Wasp
Body Color Dark orange Usually black or yellow
Wingspan Mismatched Symmetrical
Spots Pale cream Absent
Sting Capability No sting Can sting

When threatened, Syntomeida epilais uses its mimicry to appear as a more dangerous insect, causing potential predators to think twice before attacking.

Why They Don’t Sting

Despite mimicking the appearance of a stinging wasp, Polka Dot Wasp Moths do not possess the ability to sting. They rely on their visual deception to trick predators into believing they are a dangerous wasp. This means that although they look menacing, these moths are in fact harmless.

To sum up, the Polka Dot Wasp Moth uses its mimicry and defense mechanisms to deter predators by copying the appearance of a more dangerous insect. However, they do not actually pose a threat and are unable to sting.

Interesting Features and Facts

Appearance of Subspecies Syntomeida Epilais Jucundissima

The Syntomeida Epilais Jucundissima is a multicolored subspecies of the polka dot wasp moth, known for its striking appearance. It has:

  • Multicolored wings: A mix of vibrant colors
  • Spherical body: Rounded and black
  • Black hairs: Sparse and evenly distributed

These characteristics make it noticeable in their habitat. Typically, the lifespan of common moths ranges from weeks to months, depending on the species.

Moth Mating Rituals

Polka dot wasp moths exhibit fascinating mating rituals. Males attract females using vibrating plates on their thorax to produce love songs. A lucky couple harmonizes, proceeding with their mating dance. Some interesting aspects of their mating rituals include:

  • Love songs: Produced by vibrating plates on the male’s thorax
  • Harmonizing: Both individuals synchronize their vibrations
  • Mating dance: The couple performs a coordinated dance

These unique rituals set polka dot wasp moths apart from many other species.

Additional Resources

Featured Creature Website

  • The Featured Creature website is an excellent source of information about polka dot wasp moths.
  • You can explore various in-depth details about these fascinating insects.
  • Examples of content include their habitat, behavioral traits, and life cycle.

Sources and References

Comparison: Polka Dot Wasp Moth vs. Peach Tree Borer

Feature Polka Dot Wasp Moth Peach Tree Borer
Appearance Bright, colorful with distinctive dots Less vibrant, resembling wasp
Caterpillar Characteristics Feeds on oleander plants Tunnels into and damages peach trees
Distribution Tropical and subtropical regions North America, particularly Eastern United States

In conclusion, the polka dot wasp moth and the peach tree borer portray unique traits and appearances, inhabiting distinct environments and consuming diverse food sources.

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 – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

 


Thanks for helping me identify this polka dot moth on your web page
Attached is my photo for your use if you want. I think it shows it nicely.
Thanks for your site.
Cheers
Dave Simon

Hi Dave,
We are so happy we could be helpful. In these days of digital capture, it is awesome how many observant people are rewarded with great photos of their observations. Your Polka-Dot Wasp Moth, Syntomeida epilais jucundissima, will be proudly featured on our site.

Letter 2 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Unknown
Please identify the bug in the attached photo. I’ve looked at the flies and wasp lists, but I have not found a match. Thank you.
Ron Fifer
St. Helena Island, SC

Hi Ron,
This is a Polka Dot Wasp Moth. Just today, we removed our Bug of the Month for January from our homepage, and it was a Polka Dot Wasp Moth.

Letter 3 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

moth
I saw this moth in my yard and googled it. Your site has EVERYTHING, so it was there… Is the polka dot wasp moth beneficial?? Thanks!
Katrina

Hi Katrina,
The adult Polka Dot Wasp Moth is a pollinator, so it is beneficial. If the caterpillar are too numerous, they might defoliate oleander and other plants. Leaves grow back on mature plants and the harm is temporary, and since we are not fond of oleander, we don’t consider the caterpillars to be a problem at all.

Letter 4 – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

 

THIS IS NOT ON YOUR PAGE.OPEN IT AND AT LEAST TELL ME THAT I AM A WASTE OF YOUR TIME
I HAVE SENT YOU A MESSAGE ON THIS BEFORE BUT I GEUSS I DID NOT GET YOUR ATTENTION.I WOULNT SEND IT AGAIN BUT I HAVE CHECKED YOUR SITE AND LIKE 20 OTHERS.PLEASE TELL ME WHAT THIS IS.THERE ARE TWO PICTURES OF IT.I LIVE IN KINGSLAND GEORGIA.THAT IS JUST ON THE BORDER OF FLORADA.MABEY BY POSTING THIS OTHER PEOPLE WONT SEND YOU THE SAME PICTURE.

Polka-Dot Wasp Moth
Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

Your insect is a Polka-Dot Wasp Moth, and we have at least 20 images on our site. The problem you probably had is that you never thought to look under moths since the Polka-Dot Wasp Moth is such an effective wasp mimic. On a more personal note, answering the letters of our readership gives us such gratification, it is never a waste of our time.

Letter 5 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

What’s this bug?
November 13, 2009
It was on the windshield of our car after we stayed at a hotel near the coast in Georgia.
Roger Racine
coastal Georgia

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Hi Roger,
The caterpillars of your Polka Dot Wasp Moth feed on oleander, and they are known as Oleander Caterpillars.

Letter 6 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Wasp ???
Location: Boynton Beach,Fl.
August 22, 2011 4:21 pm
Good Afternoon
I took this photo in our front driveway and have been unable to identfy it. Any Ideas ?
Signature: Joan in Florida

Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Hi Joan,
Though we have many photos of Polka Dot Wasp Moths on our website, we haven’t posted a new one recently.  They really are effective wasp mimics.

Letter 7 – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

 

Red butt bug….
Location: Mount Dora, Florida
August 30, 2011 7:10 am
Hey Bugman-Please solve this mystery for us. We finally captured this guy and got photos this weekend. We have several insect books for Florida, but have been unable to identify this gorgeous critter. He hangs out in my butterfly garden and seems to like the same plants as the butterflies do. He is not aggressive. We have been going crazy the past seven years trying to identify this insect. Please help…thanks.
Signature: Monique & Chuck

Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

Dear Monique & Chuck,
What took you so long to write to us?  We have been available on the internet at a different location since late 1998 and  at our current URL since 2002.  This is a Polka-Dot Wasp Moth,
Syntomeida epilais, a species that is a very effective harmless mimic of a stinging insect.

Dear Daniel-
THANK YOU so much for your response and solving this mystery for us…and to think I don’t have oleanders in my garden because of my past experience with those “awful” defoliating caterpillars…they turn into this beautiful insect!! I have plenty of other plants to accomodate various species of butterfly larva and don’t seem to mind that they are summarily defoliated…I think it’s time for an oleander in my garden. I want more of these ‘artistically painted’ insects. You have made our day. We are so glad to have discovered your website and didn’t write earlier because we were unable to actually capture one of these…as we were afraid they were a stinging insect and I am highly allergic to stings of all kinds….and, yes, his “very effective mimic of a stinging insect” worked on us. (We did release him when his photo session was over.)
Thanks again…we will be making a donation to your site for you to be able to continue to do your work. Monique & Chuck

Letter 8 – Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

 

Spotted black/blue insect with a red bottom
Location: Florida
November 7, 2011 11:36 pm
Hello, my brother and I found this bug the other day. We took a picture of it because we thought it looked pretty. I’m still wondering what species it is. My friend told me that it was a solitary wasp of some kind, but he isn’t sure.
If it helps, there were some caterpillars hanging around our front yard, and my brother guessed it came from those. The caterpillars looked orange and fuzzy, and they were in a big group. Also, it could barely fly. I don’t know if it was just that one insect that had the problem, though. We haven’t seen any more of them around.
Thanks.
Signature: Lily

Polka-Dot Wasp Moth

Dear Lily,
This is a Polka-Dot Wasp Moth,
Syntomeida epilais, and you were astute to draw the connection between it and the orange caterpillars that are most likely feeding on oleander.  Your friend is not alone in mistaking this moth for a wasp.  It is believe that the harmless moth has evolved to mimic a stinging wasp for protection.

Letter 9 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: INSECT MYSTERY
Location: VOLUSIA COUNTY, FLORIDA
January 8, 2013 6:04 pm
I HAVE NOT SEEN THIS INSECT IN VOLUSIA COUNTY, FLORIDA. PLEASE HELP! WHAT IS THIS INSECT? IT’S PREY?
Signature: Mitchell

Polkadot Wasp Moth

Hi Mitchell,
This is a Polka Dot Wasp Moth.  It is a moth that mimics a wasp and it is not a predator.

Letter 10 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: Beautiful Winged ?????
Location: South Florida
October 25, 2014 3:20 pm
Earlier today I discovered, thanks to your website, that the white weevils that have been eating our Blackbead, Bay Cedar and Hollies are non-native beetles from Sri Lanka. So when I was out watering this afternoon and saw this beautiful winged insect that I could not identify I immediately thought of your site.
It is very deep, somewhat iridescent blue with white spots on most of its body including underside and legs. It is bright red back at the end of its abdomen. The wing span appears to be about 1.75″ and it is sitting on my desert rose plant in South Florida, in Broward county.
Signature: OutGardening

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Dear OutGardening,
The Polka Dot Wasp Moth really is a pretty insect.  Its caterpillars feed on oleander.

Thank you very much Daniel! I would never have guessed it is a moth!
Gina

Hi again Gina,
Most people assume that all moths are small, dull colored, nocturnal creatures that eat clothes.  This diurnal Polka Dot Wasp Moth is brightly colored, and the species is also a very effective wasp mimic which provides it some protection against predators.

Hi Daniel,
From its wing shape and the iridescence color it reminded me of a dragonfly although when I first saw just the flash of white spots and red color I was excited thinking I had another atala butterfly. I’ve been hoping that our coonties would attract more atalas but so far have only seen one. But this moth is quite exciting and beautiful to watch in the garden, although I may not leave all her eggs on my little lone desert rose.
I’ve learned since starting our butterfly and native garden a few years ago, that there is such a variety of moths and that they seem to overlap in appearance and characteristics with the butterflies. Many butterflies I’m meeting in the garden appear more like what I used to think of as moths. It’s been an exciting journey into gardening, learning not only about native/invasive plants but the birds, butterflies and now into bugs! Today I was out picking the Sri Lanka weevils off some of our plants that have been so badly eaten by them, after learning from your site what those little white bugs were.
Thanks for providing a great resource and website! And your personal replies!
Gina

Thanks for your followup information Gina.  We did not know what an “atalas” was and upon looking it up on BugGuide, we learned that Eumaeus atala, the Atala Hairstreak, is endangered and it has caterpillars that feed on a native cycad known as a “coontie”.  Thanks so much for the education.  We hope you are able to provide us with an image of an Atala Hairstreak soon.  We are thrilled that you are learning about the interconnectivity of life forms, both plant and animal, in an ecosystem.

Letter 11 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: Unidentified Flying Insect!

Location: Ocala, FL
November 25, 2014 7:39 am
Just saw this insect flying around outside and I have no idea what it is. Do you know? The wing markings are identical and the body looks like a house fly. Thanks
Signature: Wendy

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Dear Wendy,
The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is a common species in Florida that develops from Oleander Caterpillars that feed on the leaves of Oleander.

Letter 12 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: What kind of insect is this?
Location: St. Augustine FL
November 12, 2016 8:26 am
My Brother in law has had this guy in his garage for a few days. It has basically stayed right where it landed and has not moved. Any idea what it is?
Signature: Thank You, Jay

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Dear Jay,
The Polka Dot Wasp Moth,
Syntomeida epilais, is a relatively common species in Florida because the caterpillars feed on the leaves of oleander, which is cultivated extensively in home gardens in the area.  This harmless species derives protection because it mimics stinging wasps, and wary predators will leave it be.

Letter 13 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: What is this?
Location: Tampa
December 5, 2016 4:07 pm
Took this picture today (12-5-16) in Tampa.
Signature: Bobb

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Dear Bobb,
This pretty, harmless, wasp-mimic is a Polka Dot Wasp Moth,
Syntomeida epilais.  The caterpillars feed on oleander.  We will be posting your submission live to our site at the end of the month when we are away on holiday.

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.

1 thought on “Do Polka Dot Wasp Moths Sting? Unraveling the Mystery”

  1. I’m just throwing my head down onto my table at the sheer rudeness of this letter. Oy. On the other hand, it is a very nice picture of the polka-dot wasp moth.

    Reply

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