What Do Cinnabar Moths Eat? A Quick Guide on Their Diet

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Cinnabar moths are fascinating creatures that play a vital role in controlling certain weeds. You might be curious about what these colorful moths eat in their various life stages.

As caterpillars, cinnabar moths mainly feed on tansy ragwort leaves, a toxic weed that can pose harm to humans and livestock. This makes them valuable allies in managing the spread of this invasive plant. Once they mature into adult moths, their consumption changes to nectar from various flowers as an energy source.

Now that you have a glimpse into the diet of cinnabar moths, it’s easy to see why they would be of interest to researchers and gardeners alike. By understanding their eating habits, we can harness their potential in managing harmful plants and maintaining a balanced ecosystem.

About Cinnabar Moths

Cinnabar moths, also known as Tyria jacobaeae, are an eye-catching species with distinctive red spots on their wings. The red mineral cinnabar is thought to be the inspiration behind their name. Here, you’ll learn the essentials about these moths to help you understand their unique features and characteristics.

The wingspan of cinnabar moths typically ranges from 32 to 42 mm. Their forewings are mostly black or dark gray and feature bright red lines and markings. Meanwhile, the hindwings are predominantly red with some black detailing. These striking colors serve a purpose: they warn potential predators that these moths are toxic and unpleasant to eat.

To make it easier to understand the features of these moths, here’s a list of their main characteristics:

  • Scientific name: Tyria jacobaeae
  • Common name: Cinnabar moth
  • Wingspan: 32-42 mm
  • Forewings: Black or dark gray with red markings
  • Hindwings: Red with black details
  • Function of colors: Warning signals to predators

Besides their appearance, another fascinating aspect of cinnabar moths is their diet. The larvae mainly feed on poisonous plants like tansy ragwort. This diet choice allows them to store the plant’s toxins in their bodies, making them unpalatable to potential predators.

In summary, the cinnabar moths’ striking red spots and markings, as well as their unique diet, make them a notable species worth learning about. Their vibrant appearance serves as a warning to predators, while their consumption of toxic plants offers them additional protection from harm.

Geographical Distribution

Cinnabar moths are native to Europe, but they have expanded their range to other parts of the world. You’ll find them in Australia, North America, and New Zealand. They’re also present in Central Asia, Siberia, and China.

In North America, you can spot cinnabar moths in the western United States. They were introduced to this region for biological control of the poisonous weed tansy ragwort. Meanwhile, in their native England, the moths are quite widespread, but their population has been affected by habitat loss.

Here are a few key points about their distribution:

  • Native to Europe but found in other continents like Asia and Australia
  • Introduced in the United States for biological control of weeds
  • Suffered population decline in England due to habitat loss

Remember, cinnabar moths have adapted to various environments. They can be generally found in areas with tansy ragwort, their preferred food source. So while exploring different parts of the world, keep an eye out for these striking red and black creatures.

Moths and Their Environment

The Cinnabar moth is an interesting species that thrives in various environments. In this section, you’ll learn about their habitat preferences and how they interact with their surroundings.

Cinnabar moths are commonly found in grassland habitats, where their larvae can easily feed on plants like Ragwort and Groundsel. These moths are also known to inhabit dunes and heath areas, where their food plants can grow in abundance.

As Cinnabar moths need specific host plants for their caterpillars, it’s important that these plants are present in their habitat. To maintain the plant population, you can:

  • Encourage the growth of native plants such as Ragwort and Groundsel
  • Be cautious with pesticide use, as it may harm the plants the moths depend on

You can also help sustain the Cinnabar moth population by providing safe environments for them. Bird predators, for instance, can feed on the moths during their caterpillar stage. To protect the moths, manage your outdoor spaces by:

  • Planting shrubs and trees to create hiding spots for moth larvae
  • Providing safe areas for the moth pupae, sheltered from predators

By understanding the Cinnabar moth’s habitat preferences and promoting these conditions, you’ll be playing a role in supporting their ecosystems and maintained their environment in a friendly manner.

Feeding Habits and Diet

Cinnabar moths’ caterpillars have a specific diet. They primarily feed on ragwort plants, particularly common ragwort and sometimes Senecio vulgaris. The ragwort plant serves as the host plant for the caterpillars.

As the caterpillars grow, they munch on the leaves of these ragwort plants. Ragwort plants belong to the genus Senecio, which contains toxic compounds. That’s why cinnabar moth caterpillars prefer these plants as their food source, as it makes them toxic to predators.

Examples of ragwort plants that caterpillars feed on include Senecio jacobaea and Senecio vulgaris. Here’s a comparison of the two:

Plant Species Common Name Notable Features
Senecio jacobaea Common Ragwort Yellow flowers, tall
Senecio vulgaris Groundsel or Old Man Smaller, white flowers

To summarize, the feeding habits and diet of cinnabar moth caterpillars focus mainly on ragwort leaves. Their preference for ragwort plants like common ragwort and Senecio vulgaris gives them some protection against predators due to the plants’ toxic compounds. So, if you encounter cinnabar moth caterpillars, this is what they’ll be dining on!

Lifespan and Development

Cinnabar moths are fascinating insects known for their unique appearance and interesting life cycle. Let’s take a closer look at their lifespan and development.

Life Stages

Cinnabar moths go through four developmental stages: eggs, larvae, pupa, and adult moths. Each stage plays a critical role in their growth and survival.

  • Eggs: Female cinnabar moths lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, typically on tansy plants, during late spring1. This serves as a primary food source for the hatching larvae.
  • Larvae: The caterpillars, or larvae, emerge from the eggs and begin feeding on the host plants2. They undergo a series of growth stages, called instars, as they consume leaves and build up energy for the pupal stage.
  • Pupa: At the end of their larval stage, caterpillars dig into the soil and transform into a pupa, encasing themselves in a protective cocoon2. This stage is critical for their metamorphosis into adult moths.
  • Adult moths: After spending the winter as a pupa, the adult cinnabar moths emerge in May, with their distinctive grayish-black and red patch-covered wings1. They remain active till early August, during which time they mate and lay eggs to begin the cycle again2.

Remember, cinnabar moths play a vital role in maintaining the balance of their ecosystems. By feeding on noxious weeds like tansy plants, they act as natural controllers, helping to limit the growth of these invasive species1. So, by understanding their lifespan and development, you can better appreciate the important role cinnabar moths play in nature.

Common Predators and Threats

Cinnabar moths face various predators in their natural habitat. Some of their most common predators include:

  • Birds like chickadees and thrushes seek out these colorful insects for a meal, particularly targeting the caterpillar stage.
  • Bats hunt moths during the twilight hours, capturing them mid-flight as they navigate through the darkness.
  • Dragonflies are notorious for their predation on various flying insects, including moths. As agile hunters, they can catch moths in mid-air easily.

Other potential predators that may pose a threat to cinnabar moths:

  • Flies (specifically their larvae) can become parasitoids of the cinnabar moth’s eggs or young caterpillars.
  • Reptiles such as lizards or small snakes may come across these moths or their caterpillars as a potential food source.
  • Wasps sometimes seek out caterpillars as a food source for their larvae, which may also affect cinnabar moth populations.

Here’s a brief comparison table highlighting the key characteristics of some common cinnabar moth predators:

Predator Target Stage Hunting Time Location
Birds Caterpillar Daytime On plant stems
Bats Adult moth Evening/Twilight In the air
Dragonflies Adult moth Daytime In the air

It’s essential to be aware of these threats to cinnabar moths, as their population dynamics can significantly impact the ecosystems where you may find them. Helping to create a balanced environment by promoting a diverse range of predators can ensure the continued presence of these stunning insects.

Defenses and Warnings

Cinnabar moths (Tyria jacobaeae) are known for their bright red and black coloration. This striking appearance serves as a visual warning to potential predators of their poisonous nature.

These moths are toxic because their caterpillars feed on plants containing poisonous alkaloids, specifically the ragwort plant. By consuming these plants, the caterpillars store the toxic compounds within their bodies, which they retain into adulthood.

  • Poisonous: Both the larvae and adult moths contain these toxic substances, making them unpalatable to many predators.
  • Warning sign: The vibrant red and black coloration of cinnabar moths makes them highly visible, which serves as a warning signal to potential predators.
  • Toxicity: The stored alkaloids can cause strong allergic reactions or even death in some animals that attempt to eat them.

While cinnabar moths are not directly dangerous to humans, it is important to be aware of the toxic plants they are associated with, such as ragwort. Handling these plants can cause skin irritation and allergic reactions in some individuals.

In conclusion, cinnabar moths rely on their aposematic coloration and stored toxic compounds to deter predators, ensuring their survival and continued role in controlling ragwort populations.

Behaviour and Lifestyle

Cinnabar moths are fascinating creatures with unique behaviors and lifestyles. In their caterpillar stage, they exhibit cannibalistic behaviour, which means they sometimes eat each other. It usually occurs when the caterpillars run out of their preferred food source. You might find this behavior intriguing, yet brutal.

These caterpillars primarily feed on poisonous ragwort plants. This diet choice serves a dual purpose: not only does it provide them with sustenance, but it also helps them store toxins from the plants, making the caterpillars unpalatable to predators. This brilliant survival technique increases their chances of reaching adulthood.

As the climate gets colder, cinnabar moths enter a phase known as hibernation. During this period, they remain in their cocoon-like pupal state and conserve energy by reducing their activity levels. Hibernation is essential for the survival of these moths, as it helps them withstand harsh weather conditions.

Adult cinnabar moths lead a relatively brief lifespan, typically living for around 30 days. In this short time, they focus on mating and laying eggs. Interestingly, adult moths do not feed on the ragwort plants that their caterpillars do. Instead, they feed on nectar from various flowers, showcasing a diverse diet throughout their life stages.

So, when observing cinnabar moths, you’ll come across intriguing habits such as their cannibalistic behaviors, their unusual plant-based diet providing protection from predators, and the essential hibernation phase that ensures their survival. These captivating creatures offer a fascinating glimpse into the diverse world of insects.

Cinnabar Moths and Their Importance

Cinnabar moths are fascinating creatures that play a crucial role in wildlife. You may find them quite attractive with their grayish-black wings adorned with red patches. But it’s not just their appearance that makes them important.

As a biocontrol agent, cinnabar moths have been used in efforts to control the spread of invasive plants, specifically tansy ragwort. These moths were first released in the 1960s, and their presence has contributed to the biological control of this harmful weed.

Why is this essential for conservation? Well, tansy ragwort is known to be toxic to some wildlife species, like cattle and horses. By controlling its growth, cinnabar moths protect the delicate ecosystems they inhabit. Moreover, they also assist in maintaining the balance between native flora and fauna.

There is an interesting relationship, as cinnabar moths have been observed to feed on a native wildflower called arrow leaf groundsel, which was previously thought to inhabit areas too cold for these moths. This finding from a three-year survey across 25 sites in western Oregon indicates the complexity and adaptability of cinnabar moths in certain environments.

To sum it up, cinnabar moths have a significant role in:

  • Serving as a biological control agent.
  • Protecting ecosystems by controlling tansy ragwort growth.
  • Contributing to the balance between native flora and fauna.

So next time you come across these beautiful moths, remember the essential part they play in preserving our natural world.

Concluding Thoughts

In this article, you’ve learned about the fascinating Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae), a member of the order Lepidoptera and family Erebidae, which was first described in Systema Naturae and belongs to genus Tyria. John Curtis, the author of British Entomology, provided further information about this moth.

Cinnabar moths are closely related to burnet moths. Their striking appearance is due to their bright red and black colors, mimicking the mineral cinnabar, which is the primary source for the pigment, mercury. The caterpillars of these moths consume alkaloid substances found in plants such as groundsel and ragwort. These substances are toxic to most other animals, making the caterpillars unappealing to predators.

In the world of Animalia, references suggest that the Cinnabar Moth is not a very common species and could be considered a rare find. The adults lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, while the caterpillars make their way to the ground to pupate, residing just under the surface 1. This unique life cycle not only allows these moths to evade predators but also adds to the fascination surrounding them.

To summarize, Cinnabar moths:

  • Belong to the Lepidoptera order and Erebidae family
  • Have a striking red and black appearance, inspired by the mineral cinnabar
  • Consume alkaloid substances found in plants like groundsel and ragwort
  • Boast a slightly rare and unique life cycle

In conclusion, understanding the diet and life cycle of the Cinnabar Moth helps explain its fascinating ecological role and relationship with other organisms. By learning more about these captivating creatures, you can further appreciate their significance and rarity in the natural world.



  1. https://agsci.oregonstate.edu/nurspest/cinnabar-moth 2 3
  2. https://depts.washington.edu/hortlib/pal/cinnabar-moth/ 2 3


  • 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.

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    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.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Hey! I was busily pulling my Tansy weeds when I saw these guys. I wanted to check if they were good or bad bugs on my bad plants. Sounds like they are good. Do you think I should leave the plants for them (just take off the flower heads)? Thanks for any advice. Carol

  • Oh, my goodness! Have seen several, or 2 on several occasions, in an area with tall grasses, where my dog and I walk. Tiny and beautiful. Had no idea what they were until a few minutes ago. When I saw they were native to Europe I was confused, but then saw the explanation about their import to the U.S. On the other hand, I spotted a beautiful white and raspberry colored spider in my yard here in Kent, Wa, several years ago. I found the spider on the web, id’d as being from England. Maybe saw it twice, then no more. Love these little mysteries.


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