Polka Dot Wasp Moth: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth, also known as the Oleander Moth, is a captivating and colorful species found mainly in the southeastern United States and Central America. With its striking appearance, the moth displays bright orange wings covered in bold, metallic blue polka dots, making it easy to spot among the foliage.

This remarkable moth is not only admired for its beauty but also for its role in controlling pests. The caterpillars, known as Oleander caterpillars, feed on toxic Oleander plants, helping to manage these harmful plants in the environment. Adult Polka Dot Wasp Moths, despite their wasp-like appearance, are harmless and do not sting or bite. Their vibrant colors serve as a warning signal to predators that they are unpalatable, a survival tactic known as aposematism.

Polka Dot Wasp Moth Overview

Appearance

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth (Syntomeida epilais) is an eye-catching insect, known for its wasp-like appearance. It has a slender body structure with striking patterns on its wings and abdomen.

Size and Wingspan

  • Wingspan: Between one and two inches
  • Body length: Around one inch

These moths are relatively small in size, with a wingspan usually ranging from one to two inches. Their body length is typically around one inch, making them easy to spot in the wild.

Colors

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth showcases a vibrant color palette, including:

  • Iridescent blue/green color on the body and wings (source)
  • Bright red abdomen, contrasting with the blue/green hues
  • Black polka dots adorning the wings

These colors not only make the moth visually appealing but also help deter predators, ensuring its survival in the wild.

Habitat and Distribution

Range in North America

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth, also known as the Oleander Moth, is native to North America. It has a wide distribution, found primarily in the southeastern United States, including states such as:

  • Florida
  • South Carolina
  • Mississippi
  • Texas

In these areas, the moths are commonly found in environments such as gardens, urban landscapes, and suburban areas.

Caribbean and Central America

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth can also be found in other parts of the continent, including the Caribbean islands and parts of Central America, such as Mexico. They are known for their adaptability to various environments, making them prevalent in these regions as well.

Life Cycle and Feeding

Eggs

The polka dot wasp moth begins its life as small spherical eggs, which are pale cream in color. The adult female moth lays these eggs on the leaves of its preferred host plant, the oleander.

  • Pale cream color
  • Spherical shape
  • Laid on oleander leaves

Larval Stage

After hatching, the polka dot wasp moth enters its larval stage as the bright orange oleander caterpillar. During this stage, the caterpillar’s diet consists almost exclusively of oleander leaves. The caterpillars consume these leaves, which contain cardiac glycosides.

  • Bright orange in color
  • Feeds primarily on oleander leaves
  • Cardiac glycosides from oleander leaves provide defense mechanism for the caterpillar

Major Characteristics of Oleander Caterpillar:

  • Orange body with black hairs
  • Black hairs provide some protection from predators

Due to their consumption of oleander leaves, oleander caterpillars can cause defoliation in oleander plants. However, this defoliation is often only a minor issue for mature, healthy plants.

Adult

As adults, polka dot wasp moths lose their bright orange coloration and black hairs, instead developing striking white dots covering their bodies. These beautiful moths still feed on the nectar of oleander flowers, continuing to rely on the plant as a primary food source throughout their life cycle.

  • White dots replace the orange coloration
  • Nectar of oleander plant remains primary food source

Comparison Between Larval and Adult Stage:

Feature Larval stage Adult stage
Color Bright orange White dots
Hair Black hairs None
Food source Oleander leaves Oleander flowers’ nectar

The polka dot wasp moth’s unique life cycle, appearance, and feeding habits make it a fascinating insect that has a special relationship with the oleander plant throughout its life stages.

Host Plants and Damages Caused

Oleander Bush

Desert Rose Plants

  • Another common host plant for Polka Dot Wasp Moth is the Desert Rose.
  • Feeding on Desert Rose plants can result in harm to the plant’s shoots and affect their overall health.

Other Plants

  • Polka Dot Wasp Moths can also infest other ornamental plants.
  • Examples include plants in the Caribbean region, where the moth is a significant pest.

Table: Polka Dot Wasp Moth Host Plants and Damages

Host Plant Damage Characteristics
Oleander Bush Skeletonizing feeding Primary host plant
Desert Rose Harm to shoots Popular ornamental plant
Other Plants Varies Found in Caribbean region

Polka Dot Wasp Moth caterpillars can cause extensive damage to various host plants. The caterpillars have urticating hairs, which can cause pain if handled. They are often found in clusters on smooth areas of tree trunks and can be identified by their striking colors and patterns. It is essential to monitor infestations and take appropriate action to protect valuable ornamental plants from harm.

Defense Mechanisms and Mimicry

Mimicry of a Dangerous Wasp

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth, also known as the Oleander Moth, has a remarkable appearance that helps it ward off predators. By mimicking the appearance of a dangerous wasp, it deters potential threats. Some notable features that contribute to this mimicry include:

  • Size: Similar in size to many wasps
  • Colors: Light brown and vibrant orange coloration
  • Antennae: Wasp-like antennae

This nocturnal moth even takes its mimicry a step further with its butterfly-like, transparent wings, which have a wingspan of around 4-5 cm. Although the moth is not actually harmful like a wasp, it successfully tricks predators into thinking it is dangerous.

Toxins and Human Contact

Polka Dot Wasp Moths are known to consume the toxic sap from the Oleander plant during their caterpillar stage. This results in the moth containing cardiac glycosides, which can be toxic to some animals.

While humans are less susceptible to the toxicity of cardiac glycosides, it is still advised to avoid direct contact with the moth. If handling a Polka Dot Wasp Moth is necessary, wearing gloves is recommended to minimize any potential risks.

To summarize the key points:

  • Cardiac glycosides: Present in the moth due to consumption of toxic sap
  • Toxicity: Can be harmful to some animals, but less harmful to humans
  • Safe handling: Use gloves when direct contact is necessary

Here is a comparison between the Polka Dot Wasp Moth and a dangerous wasp:

Feature Polka Dot Wasp Moth Dangerous Wasp
Size Similar Similar
Colors Light brown & orange Varies
Antennae Wasp-like Wasp-like
Wingspan 4-5 cm Varies
Nocturnal Yes No
Harmful to humans Minimal Potentially

Management and Control

Insecticide Options

  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)

    • A naturally occurring bacterium found in soil
    • Targets caterpillars specifically, with low to no toxicity for beneficial insects or humans
    • Must be applied when caterpillars are young and actively feeding
  • Soap-based insecticides

    • Pesticide soaps act on contact, disrupting insect cell membranes
    • Safest for beneficial insects, pets, and the environment
    • May require multiple applications during infestations

Biological Control Agents

  • Predators

    • Several predators, such as predatory stinks bugs, feed on polka-dot wasp moth caterpillars
    • Encourage their presence by providing suitable habitat and avoiding harmful pesticides
  • Parasitoid Wasps

    • Some small wasp species can parasitize moth larvae, decreasing the pest population
    • Encourage their presence by planting flowers that provide nectar and pollen

Cultural Practices

  • Pruning

    • Remove infested branches and dispose of them properly to prevent the spread of caterpillars
  • Sap Management

    • Avoid over-pruning, which can cause sap oozing and attract moths
    • Use gloves when handling sap-covered branches to protect yourself from potential irritation
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Soap-based insecticides Biological Control Cultural Practices
Effectiveness at controlling moths High Moderate Moderate Low
Impact on beneficial insects Low Low None None
Risk of harm to humans Low Low None Low (sap)
Repeated applications needed Yes Yes No No

Remember to keep an eye on your yard and act quickly when you notice any signs of an infestation. Early intervention can make all the difference in keeping your plants healthy and free from Polka Dot Wasp Moths.

Subspecies and Scientific Classification

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is a fascinating and unique creature. It has three main subspecies:

  • Syntomeida epilais epilais
  • Syntomeida epilais jucundissima
  • Empyreuma pugione

Here’s a brief comparison table of the three subspecies:

Subspecies Features
Syntomeida epilais epilais Aposematic coloration; widespread in Florida
Syntomeida epilais jucundissima Smaller size, more pattern variations, prevalent in Caribbean
Empyreuma pugione Vivid orange and black pattern; mainly found in Mexico

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is part of the family Erebidae, under the order Lepidoptera. Its scientific classification is as follows:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Family: Erebidae
  • Genus: Syntomeida
  • Species: S. epilais

The genus Syntomeida is more commonly known as Wasp Moths. Syntomeida epilais walker is a synonym for the same species, Syntomeida epilais.

Polka Dot Wasp Moths share some characteristics with other common moths but have distinct features as well. Here are some of their unique characteristics:

  • Bright colors, acting as a warning to predators
  • Metallic blue or green patterns on a red or orange background
  • Iridescent blue or green polka dots on black wings

These eye-catching patterns set them apart from other moths and make them easily recognizable in their natural habitats.

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

 

black bug, white spots, red butt,
Fri, Nov 21, 2008 at 1:50 PM
I found this bug in the parking lot at work. I have never seen it before and it seemed odd because it is currently around 45 or so degrees in Savannah right now and not the type of weather to see relatively large insects like this one.
CPJ
Savannah, Georgia

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Hi CPJ,
This is a Polka Dot Wasp Moth, Syntomeida epilais, and its caterpillars feed on the leaves of oleander, so it is also called the Oleander Moth. BugGuide has no reports from Georgia, but it does have reports from South Carolina and Florida, and since Georgia is in the middle, one can assume that the moth’s range includes Georgia.  The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is also reported from Texas.

Letter 2 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Danger?
Location: Polk County, Florida USA
November 12, 2010 2:31 pm
These bugs appear annually in the area of Polk County, FL, in mid-November and seem to feed on shrub flower nectar. Thanks for you help.
Signature: John in Central FL

Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Hi John,
Though it resembles and mimics a stinging wasp, the Polka Dot Wasp Moth is not a dangerous insect, except possibly if eaten.  The caterpillars feed upon poisonous oleander leaves, and it is uncertain if they retain the poisons in their systems, providing a layer of defense based on inedibilty.

Letter 3 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Polka Dot Patriotic Bug
Wed, Jun 3, 2009 at 4:22 PM
Hi! I saw this patriotic looking bug on a Dessert Rose plant in my backyard in South Florida yesterday (June 2009). I was wondering if you could tell me what it is. I t was a beautiful blue hue with white polka dots and a red tip behind. He was about 2 1/2 inches long and was hanging out on the plant and flowers. Also the tips of its legs and antenee were white. We thought it might be a wasp of some sort or maybe a moth. Thanks
Heather
South Florida

Polka Dot Wasp Moth
Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Hi Heather,
Your patriotic bug is an aptly named Polka Dot Wasp Moth, Syntomeida epilais. The caterpillars feed on the leaves of Oleander. Since we are going away on holiday, we are taking advantage of a feature on our site allowing us to post live at a future date. We are setting your photo to post to the site at noon on Friday.

Letter 4 – Bug of the Month: January 2008 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth and Oleander Caterpillar

 

Choosing the Bug of the Month each month is an enjoyable ritual, and generally we select a recent letter for the honor. Sadly, we have not received a recent letter that is appropriate since we like to select a critter that our readership is likely to encounter while the letter is posted. We have dug through the archives for a nice image of the Polka Dot Wasp Moth, Syntomeida epilais, a wasp mimic moth that readers from Florida and other southern states often write to us about. The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is not a seasonal sighting, and according to BugGuide, it can be found year round.

The Polka Dot Wasp Moth is also known as the Oleander Moth because one of the favorite larval foods is the deadly oleander. The caterpillars are known as Oleander Caterpillars and readers frequently write about the large numbers of orange caterpillars with black hairs that are defoliating their oleander plants.

Letter 5 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Subject: Flying Insect-Florida Keys
Location: Marathon, Florida
October 11, 2012 10:42 am
I have been seeing these flying, beautiful bugs for several years in the Florida Keys. Can you tell me about this lovely creature?
Signature: D.Y. Sullberg

Polka Dot Wasp Moth

Dear D.Y. Sullberg,
This Polka Dot Wasp Moth,
Syntomeida epilais, is a very effective wasp mimic.  By imitating a stinging insect, it is able to avoid many predators.  The caterpillar, known as the Oleander Caterpillar, has no problem finding food in the state of Florida because oleander is so widely planted, so this is a relative common insect.

Thank you very much…the caterpillars are definitely chowing down the Oleanders & the moths are hatching from loosely woven black cocoons. We love the colorful moths but the caterpillars are destroying the Oleander hedge. Are they seasonal? Should we spray? Will the foliage grow back?

We don’t give extermination advice.  The foliage will grow back.

Letter 6 – Mating Monarchs and Mating Polka-Dot Wasp Moths

 

Bug Love Submissions
Attached are two images for the BUG LOVE page. I could use help IDing the non monarchs. if you use, please provide a photo credit/link to website. ENjoy!
Tina
P.S. the non monarchs are polka dot wasp moths

Hi Tina,
Thanks for sending your compelling images. We are happy to see you identified your Polka-Dot Wasp Moths before we had a chance to reply.

Letter 7 – Finally Identified as the Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Red, White and Blue Insect
I wrote to you about a month ago about a red , white and blue insect. I finally have a couple of pictures. Hopefully these will help you identify these insecects. Still very curious in Birmingham, Alabama.
Thank you,
Lyn

note: Here is Lyn’s original letter, lost in the bowels of our mailbox.

(8/16/2003) Red white and Blue
I have just spent a week at our beach house in Santa Rosa, Florida. ( the Gulf of Mexico area or Destin, Florida). In all of my 45 years there I have never seen a more beautiful flying insect. Its colors are red, white and blue . The closest insect that I can compare it to in size is a wasp or hornet. As we were so overwhelmed by its beauty, we didn’t even think whether or not it would sting us. Fortunately, it did not. I got very close to it to take a picture and it just stayed as if it were posing. How ironical ………………….that today we would find a red,white and blue flier ! Can you help identify this beautiful creature ? Also, at the beginning of the evening sky, we would have hundreds (maybe an exageration ) of tiny green frogs on our sliding glass doors.How precious they were ! I’ve never seen them there either ! I wonder if this years abundance of rain has anything to do with this ??
Thanks for your help,
Puzzled Lyn,
Birmingham, Alabama

Dear Lyn,
I cannot tell you the exact species, but it is a moth that mimics a wasp. Of the two families of moths known as Wasp Moths, your specimen appears to belong to the subfamily Ctenuchinae which are small day-flying moths most of which are tropical and very colorful. They are sometimes seen flying in great numbers. These moths not only mimic wasps in appearance, but sometimes in behavior as well. Needless to say, this mimicry is a self preservation technique since many predators avoid wasps due to their sting. The other family of Wasp Moths is Sesiidae, and includes clearwing moths, many of which are agricultural pests like the Peach Tree Borer. The moths have no sting. Your photos are great.

Thanks so much for your help. What an" interesting " field you have ! Again, thank you. If your ever in my neck of the woods……………….look me up. Please see my web site"
fountainsetc.com
We ship all over the country.
Take care,
Evelyn

Editor’s Note: The moth has now been correctly identified as the Polka Dot Wasp Moth, Syntomeida epilais jucundissima, whose destructive caterpillars are known as the Oleander Caterpillars (see above letter).

Letter 8 – Polka Dot Wasp Moth

 

Irisdescent blue w black wings, white spots and red butt
Hi,
Can you tell me what kind of bug this is? I think it is a wasp. I’m in northeast Florida and they like lantana and this daisy looking flowered plant. The body looks black when not hit just right from the sun. Thanks!
Pam

Hi Pam,
The mimicry of the Polka Dot Wasp Moth really works. Many people who write in wishing an identification have mistaken this moth for a wasp. The caterpillars feed on oleander.

Letter 9 – Mating Polka Dot Wasp Moths

 

Whats that Bug ?
December 4, 2009
I took this picture of the bug in my backyard.. I tried to identify it.. but could not.
Cecilia Furey
Valdosta, Georgia USA

Polka Dot Wasp Moths Mating
Polka Dot Wasp Moths Mating

Hi Cecilia,
These are mating Polka Dot Wasp Moths, and they are quite common in Florida and Texas as well as some other southern states.  The caterpillars feed on the leaves of oleander, so there must be a source of larval food in or near you backyard.

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.

28 thoughts on “Polka Dot Wasp Moth: All You Need to Know in a Nutshell”

  1. We discovered this colorful bug in Richmond Hill, Ga on Thanksgiving Day 2009. We’ve never seen such a beautiful bug here in the Coastal Ga before and wondered if it might be poisonous?

    Reply
  2. I have this , they are very pretty when moth comes they never leave my yard and do not live long I enjoy watching from cocoon to caterpillar to moth very interesting . I have a 12 ft oleander tree. they only eat the parts at bottom until there is no leafs left then I will start seeing the moths, when leafs are grown back here they come again.

    Reply
  3. I just photographed one on a palm tree at the Moon Palace Resort in Cancun. Did not know what it was but a google search was successful and led me to this page as well.

    Reply
  4. My husband is allergic to wasps. We have these Polka Dot Wasp Moths since we have a bunch of oleander in our backyard. I was wondering if this Wasp Moth was poisonous and stings like regular wasps??

    Reply
    • Wasp Moths do not sting. The caterpillars do feed on poisonous oleander leaves and we believe they might retain toxins to help avoid predation, but we cannot confirm that speculation at this time. There is no mention of the caterpillars of the Polka Dot Wasp Moth being poisonous on the otherwise extremely comprehensive account on Featured Creatures.

      Reply
  5. Saw a massive nest of these critters under the over-hang of an abandoned bldg. here in St. Augustine! Actually very beautiful close up with a beautiful blue body & bright red backside! The black wings look as if someone spattered white paint on them. Never seen one before but I am a native New Yorker and there are certainly some ~curious~ creatures down here in ‘Floriduh’ !!

    Reply
  6. Great site. We just saw one in Ocala, Florida. When i was Young in Miami, Florida, we had a lot of them, but they had red dots on them. Once in awhile they would land on my shoulder or arm and they were just like a butterfly would feel. My husband had never seen one and was surprised that it didn’t sting. Again, Thank you this site

    Reply
  7. This seems to be a site for people who like bugs. We just want to know how to get rid of them! The mud nests of these beautiful creatures fill our portico ceiling and doorway and their cute little wooly worms munch our oleander bush down to bare branches in no time. We’re not really interested in enjoying them as pets but we would like to know if there is an effective way to control them.

    Reply
  8. My daughter took photos of one that visits our flowering lantana. It resides above the porch in a corner overhang of the roof. She said it didn’t seem disturbed at all by her presence and it looks striking against the bright yellow flowers! We have never seen this type moth before. We are in Waycross, GA – an area just north of the Okefenokee Swamp and about an hour west of Jekyll Island.

    Reply
  9. Found one of these in my flower garden today. They are absolutely beautiful. Came on this site to find out what they were. It was very informative I look forward to seeing more

    Reply
  10. I have this moth among my succulent plants especially likes the underside of my desert rose plant’s. Will it harm this plant.

    Reply
  11. I am overrun with them in Tallahassee FL- they are making nests all over the front of my house- really nasty black-hairy looking nests. How do you get rid of them for good? I hosed away their nests and sprayed bug spray but they came back full force.

    Reply
  12. My boyhood friend and I found a number of these moths when we were growing up in Miami. we didn’t know what they were, so my pal and I called them “American Butterflies”. We knew as children that they were harmless because we caught a few in our hands and didn’t get stung. Upon moving to Naples Florida I have seen about three of them. It was great to see your name and description of these. I still call them “American Butterflies”.

    Reply

Leave a Comment