What Do Isabella Tiger Moths Eat? A Quick Guide to Their Diet

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Isabella tiger moths are fascinating creatures with a fascinating diet. These moths, known for their unique black and chestnut-colored woolly worm larvae stage, have a diverse array of foods they enjoy. So, what exactly do these creatures eat?

As caterpillars, better known as woolly bears, they are not picky eaters. They munch on a variety of plants, including grasses, clover, and dandelion leaves. This versatility helps them thrive in many environments, from sparse meadows to lush garden landscapes.

When they grow into adult moths, their feeding habits change. Adult Isabella tiger moths feed on nectar from night-blooming flowers such as honeysuckles and evening primrose. This not only sustains them, but also plays a vital role in pollination, ensuring the survival of various plant species.

Isabella Tiger Moth Overview

The Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) is a beautiful species of tiger moth native to North America. You’ll find them across the United States, Canada, and even as far north as Alaska. While they don’t typically inhabit Hawaii, they are also found in Mexico. Their scientific classification belongs to the family Erebidae, subfamily Arctiinae, and tribe Arctiini.

Adult Isabella tiger moths have distinctive appearances. Males come in a buff color with small black spots, while females sport lovely pink hind wings. The better-known larval stage, called the banded woollybear caterpillar, showcases a fuzzy appearance with alternating black and chestnut bands. These fascinating creatures are completely harmless, often seen actively exploring their surroundings.

The range of the Isabella tiger moth extends throughout North America, adapting to various habitats and climates. From the frigid environment of parts of Alaska to the sun-baked landscapes of Mexico, these moths are equipped to survive a variety of regional challenges.

As you learn about the Isabella tiger moth, consider these key characteristics:

  • Belongs to the tiger moth family
  • Wide range throughout North America
  • Distinctive physical appearance
  • Banded woollybear caterpillar is the larval stage
  • Adaptable to various habitats and climates

Understanding the Isabella tiger moth provides valuable insight into the role these fascinating insects play in North American ecosystems and the measures needed to protect their natural habitats. So, don’t forget to keep an eye out for them on your next outdoor adventure.

Physical Characteristics

Coloration and Appearance

The Isabella Tiger Moth exhibits a variety of colors, some of which include black, red, orange, brown, and yellowish shades. Their forewings are usually yellow or tan, often with faint lines and small black spots. Hindwings, on the other hand, are lighter, with female Isabella moths featuring a more vibrant orange color. The moth’s size is typically larger than other species and has a stout body.

In addition to its wing coloration, the Isabella Tiger Moth has reddish-orange forelegs. The banded woolly bear caterpillar, which eventually becomes an Isabella Tiger Moth, is identified by its thick brown band and black ends.

Species within the Family Erebidae

As a species within the Family Erebidae, the Isabella Tiger Moth shares some physical characteristics with other moths in this family. Erebidae, a classification within the order Lepidoptera, contains a range of species with diverse colors and patterns. Here are some key features of the Isabella Tiger Moth and Family Erebidae:

  • Forewing coloration: yellow or tan with black spots
  • Hindwing coloration: lighter shades, orange in females
  • Reddish-orange forelegs
  • Stout body
  • Belongs to the order Lepidoptera

To better understand how the Isabella Tiger Moth differs from other moths within the Erebidae family, it’s essential to explore their patterns, coloration, and size. Remember to identify these distinctive features when observing these fascinating creatures in nature.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of the Isabella tiger moth consists of several stages, including eggs, larvae, pupa, and adult moths. In spring, female moths lay batches of 100 or more eggs. The eggs eventually hatch into larvae, also known as woolly bears or woolly worms.

These caterpillars are quite active and harmless, and their appearance changes as they grow. They will feed and develop over the course of several weeks during the warmer months. As the season progresses, the larvae will undergo several molts, gradually transforming into a more mature caterpillar.

When fall arrives, the caterpillars will enter the pupa stage. During this time, they transition into their adult form while protected by a cocoon. The Isabella tiger moth overwinters in the pupal stage, waiting for the right conditions to emerge as an adult moth.

Adult moths have notable differences between males and females. Males have buff-colored wings with small black spots. Females, on the other hand, have lovely pink hindwings, giving them a distinct appearance. Once they reach adulthood, these moths will mate and lay eggs, starting the life cycle process anew.

Diet and Feeding Habits

You might be wondering about the diet and feeding habits of the Isabella Tiger Moth, also known as the Woolly Bear or Woolly Worm. Let’s take a closer look at their preferred food sources.

Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillars are not particularly picky eaters. As they grow, so does the variety of host plants they can consume:

  • Clover
  • Corn
  • Maple
  • Aster
  • Dandelion

Among these plants, some are more frequently consumed by the caterpillars, like clover and dandelion. Your encounter with a Woolly Bear caterpillar in your garden, particularly munching on these plants, should not come as a surprise.

As the caterpillar transforms into an adult moth, its diet also changes significantly. It feeds primarily on nectar from flowers, making it a pollinator. Caterpillars and adult moths have different food preferences, so let’s take a look at how they compare.

Stage Food Source
Caterpillar Clover, Corn, Maple, Aster, Dandelion
Adult Moth Nectar from flowers

In summary, Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillars feed on a variety of plants, developing a preference for those like clover and dandelion. As they mature into adult moths, their diet shifts towards consuming nectar from flowers, playing a role in the pollination process. Remember to keep these feeding habits in mind the next time you spot a Woolly Bear or Isabella Tiger Moth.

Habitat and Distribution

Isabella tiger moths are fascinating creatures with a wide distribution range. They can be found across various parts of North America, from the United States to Canada. These moths are quite adaptable and can thrive in diverse habitats.

Some common environments where you may encounter these moths include:

  • Forests
  • Meadows
  • Open fields
  • Urban gardens

In these habitats, the Isabella tiger moth undergoes its life stages, starting from the well-known woolly bear caterpillar to the adult yellow or tan-colored moth. The larvae are particularly hardy and capable of surviving harsh winter conditions.

Key characteristics of their distribution:

  • Wide range across North America
  • Adaptability to various habitats

As someone interested in these moths, keep your eyes open in these natural environments, and you may just spot the beautiful Isabella tiger moth or the familiar woolly bear caterpillar. With their expansive range and diverse habitats, they always have something to reveal about their fascinating life cycle.

Reproduction and Lifespan

Isabella tiger moths have an interesting reproductive process and lifespan. As adults, they are known for their distinct appearance, with male Isabella moths being buff-colored with small black spots, and female moths having lovely pink hind wings1.

Females lay their eggs in large batches, often numbering 100 or more2. They usually go through one or two generations per year, depending on their location2.

When it comes to their lifespan, Isabella tiger moths follow a typical metamorphosis process. They start as eggs, hatch into caterpillars, pupate, and eventually turn into adult moths1. The caterpillars, known as woolly bear caterpillars, are black and chestnut-colored3.

Caterpillars feed on a variety of plants, including clovers, dandelions, and grasses3. As they grow, they shed their skin and develop into larger caterpillars. Eventually, they find a safe place to pupate and transform into adult moths1.

In summary, Isabella tiger moths have distinctive appearances, with differences between male and female moths. Females lay large batches of eggs, and the moths go through one or two generations per year. The lifespan of Isabella tiger moths consists of going through the stages of egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult, with caterpillars enjoying a diet of various plant species.

Predators and Defense Mechanisms

Isabella tiger moths face various predators in their natural environment. To fend off these threats, they employ different defense mechanisms. Let’s explore some key aspects of their survival tactics.

Camouflage and Warning Coloration

These moths often use their unique colors to blend with their surroundings, making it difficult for predators to spot them. Additionally, the contrasting colors on their wings help deter predators by mimicking the appearance of potentially dangerous insects.

Venom and Dermatitis

While Isabella tiger moths don’t have venom, some moths and butterflies produce chemicals that can cause irritation or even dermatitis in their predators. These substances serve as a deterrent, safeguarding the insects from being eaten.

Survival Tactics

To increase their chances of survival, these moths employ multiple strategies, such as:

  • Freezing to avoid predators’ attention
  • Seeking shelter in crevices and confined spaces
  • Mimicking dangerous insects or larger animals

Comparing their defense mechanisms with other similar species can help you better understand their behavior and unique qualities. Stay curious about the fascinating world of moths and don’t hesitate to explore further about their adaptations and survival skills.

The Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Identifying Woolly Bears

The woolly bear caterpillar is the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth. You can identify them by the rings of black and brown hair covering their bodies. These caterpillars have long, stiff, barbed spines or setae on their black integument, which arise from their three thoracic and ten abdominal segments Arthropod Museum.

Being able to recognize a woolly bear is useful for understanding their diet and folklore.

Woolly Bear Diet

Woolly bear caterpillars have a diverse range of food sources. They tend to feed on various plants, including:

  • Clover
  • Corn
  • Maple
  • Grasses
  • Sunflowers

These caterpillars are not picky eaters and can adapt well to their environment, consuming whatever plant life is available Missouri Department of Conservation.

Woolly Bear Folklore and Festival

The banded woolly bear is associated with folklore and has a unique festival dedicated to it. According to folklore, the width of the black bands on the caterpillar can predict the harshness of the upcoming winter: wider black bands indicate a harsher winter NC State Extension Publications.

The Woolly Worm Festival takes place every fall in Vermilion, Ohio, celebrating these caterpillars with a festival that includes food, fun, and even woolly worm races Woolly Worm Festival.

In summary, the woolly bear caterpillar is an interesting species with distinct black and brown bands, a diverse diet, and a solid connection to folklore and festive events.

Photography and Observation Tips

When photographing Isabella tiger moths, keep a few things in mind. First, use a macro lens to capture the intricate details of these beautiful creatures. You may also want to utilize natural light, as it will enhance the moth’s vibrant colors without washing them out.

Remember that patience is key. The moths may be active, so it could take some time to get the perfect shot. To increase your chances, one option is to attract them with a light source, as moths are drawn to any source of illumination.

When observing Isabella tiger moths, be gentle and avoid handling them as much as possible. They are delicate, and it’s in their best interest to minimize contact.

Now that you’re equipped with these tips, go out and enjoy capturing stunning images of Isabella tiger moths, while being respectful of their natural environment.


  1. https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/banded-woollybear 2 3

  2. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/isabella-tiger-moth-woolly-bear-woolly-worm 2

  3. http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/browse/family-erebidae/subfamily-arctiinae/tribe-arctiini/pyrrharctia/pyrrharctia-isabella/ 2

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 – Cocoon of a Woolly Bear, we believe


Subject: Mystery caterpillar
Location: Anchorage, Alaska
April 6, 2014 8:54 pm
My friend found this fuzzy black caterpillar, took it inside and it formed a cocoon! I’m sorry but I can only show a picture of the cocoon, no caterpillar. What is it, a moth or butterfly? Thanks!
Signature: Tam

Possibly Arctiid Cocoon
Possibly Arctiid Cocoon

Dear Tam,
What we can tell you for certain is that this Cocoon will produce a moth, not a butterfly.  We suspect by your description of the caterpillar and by the appearance of this cocoon, that it might be a Tiger Moth in the subfamily Arctiinae, and the caterpillars of Tiger Moths are frequently called Woolly Bears.  We decided to research the possibilities for a species identification and we found the Moths of Alaska website which contains a photo of the Wood Tiger Moth,
Parasemia plantaginis, but no photo of the caterpillar, though it is noted that “They overwinter in the larval form.”  That would explain your finding the caterpillar in April.  The Wood Tiger Moth is found “throughout northern Europe, northern Asia, and western regions of North America” according to Moths of Alaska.   We did locate a photo of the caterpillar on the Habitas site.  We are not certain the Wood Tiger Moth will emerge from this cocoon, but that is a distinct possibility.  Please get back to us when the moth ecloses, and provide a photo if you are able.  We don’t get many identification requests from Alaska, so we like to give them extra attention when the opportunity presents itself.

Letter 2 – Countdown 18 more posts to the 20,000 Mark: Painted Tiger Woolly Bear in Mount Washington


Woolly Bear found at What’s That Bug? office garden
Location: Mount Washington, Los Angeles, California
March 29, 2015

Painted Tiger Moth Woolly Bear in Mount Washington
Painted Tiger Moth Woolly Bear in Mount Washington

We can’t believe we are approaching the 20,000 mark with postings, and we decided to do a countdown of sorts.  We found this Woolly Bear that will eventually metamorphose into a Painted Tiger Moth, Arachnis picta, while weeding in the front garden.  Later while walking into Elyria Canyon Park to tag Fiesta Flowers in a Vernal Stream, we noticed several smashed, dead Woolly Bears along the “dirt” Burnell path where hikers walk on a daily basis and we can only hope the dead Woolly Bears were the result of accidental stompings.  We also noticed several living Woolly Bears in Elyria Canyon Park.

Tagged Fiesta Flowers
Tagged Fiesta Flowers

Letter 3 – Countdown just Nine more postings to 20,000: Woolly Bears in Highland Park


Subject: Caterpillers – foe or friend
Location: Highland Park, ca (county of LA)
March 30, 2015 8:50 am
Hi. I have been finding lots of black furry caterpillers on the ground in Highland Park, CA. The largest that I have seen is about one and a quarter inches long. I think that they are falling from the eves from businesses on Figueroa (around the 7000 black). There is no real vegetation for them so hide out in so they just cling to the innermost edge of the street. I would like to ID them. And if they should be saved where do they need to be placed (food supply)
Signature: Patricia

Woolly Bear
Woolly Bear

Dear Patricia,
Your images are quite blurry, but there is little doubt in our mind that this is a Woolly Bear, most likely the caterpillars of the Painted Tiger Moth,
Arachnis picta, because we have seen large numbers this year in nearby Mount Washington.  They are general feeders that will eat a wide variety of plants commonly considered weeds.

Letter 4 – Just What are these Woolly Bears Doing?????


Pebble Encased Caterpillar

Woolly Bear Mystery

Pebble Encased Caterpillar
Location:  Southwestern Montana, at about 5,000 feet in a mixed pine forest
October 10, 2010 9:48 am
Here is the mystery: the small and large caterpillar working together to encase the larger caterpillar in a pebble cocoon. My friend captured them in the act on a rock in a road near a campground in Western Montana in late August. The larger caterpillar began to coat itself with a sticky excretion. The smaller caterpillar climbed up and down the rock to find little pebbles, carry them to the larger caterpillar and stick them on, until the larger caterpillar was completely encased. The photographer then removed the caterpillars from the road for safety. I wrote about them in my nature column in the local newspaper, have not had any luck identifying them, and have promised my readers that I would let them know when I knew more.
We all really appreciate your help.
Signature:  Dorinda in Montana

Woolly Bear Mystery

Hi Again Dorinda,
Thanks for taking the time to resend this unusual occurrence.  We are mystified and we cannot even begin to explain what these images appear to document.  We know of no cases of Caterpillars combining forces for any such activities, nor do we know of any Tiger Moth Caterpillars, commonly called Woolly Bears, using pebbles in the construction of a cocoon.  Perhaps our readership will be able to provide something in the way of an explanation.  The pink background in the final image is curious.

Woolly Bear Mystery

The last picture had a pink background due to moving the rock out of the road to keep it safe from traffic. The friend who took the series (I’ve attached a couple of others), swears that she and her husband watched the smaller caterpillar bring the pebbles to the larger one. She was absolutely amazed. She and her husband are pretty simple folks, and love to camp out, which is when they spotted this pair. I’d really don’t believe that they staged this in any way. She actually brought the rock back with to her house in town, and put it in her garage for shelter.
As I said, I’m a writer with a nature column going on 25 years in our local newspaper, called Bird Seed, and I get told a lot of stories about birds and animals. This story was brought up casually, and took some work on my part to get the photos sent to me digitally, as they did not know how to do it. She initially showed them to me on her camera at the farmer’s market where she has a booth, and asked me if I knew what they were, or had heard of anything like it before. I sure hadn’t, but thought of you. She told me that her husband lay down in the road to take the pics with his brand new digital camera, and had to move a couple of times due to traffic.
I know that the photos are not quite good enough to show the smaller caterpillar and the pebble he is carrying clearly, but one of the pic number 4 does show that.
I really appreciate any help you can be with this little mystery.
Dorinda Troutman

Woolly Bear Mystery

Hi again Dorinda,
The new photo you included seems to chronologically fit between the final two images you sent earlier, and it does not provide any additional information regarding this mystery.  Again, hopefully our readership may provide some clues.

Letter 5 – Newly Hatched Woolly Bears, we believe


Subject: Larvae like things on ceiling (Pasadena, CA)
Location: Pasadena, CA
March 23, 2014 2:42 pm
Today we discovered a speck on the ceiling that looks like dirt. Upon closer inspection, they looked like some kind of larvae. Seem to be little sprinkle-like things that are about a mm or two long, and seem to have a blacker dot on end. It’s in a rental apartment, we recently had the place gelled and sprayed for cockroaches, we’ve seen one around. I found a dead moth on the ground the other day, somewhat close to the area. It’s just turning spring here. They don’t move much, I just see some twitching and some hanging down a little bit. I wanted to ask and see if there was anything you knew, and if I should just vacuum them up, or if there’s something more intensive that needs to be done. Thanks in advance!
Signature: Mike

Newly Hatched Woolly Bears, we believe
Newly Hatched Woolly Bears, we believe

Dear Mike,
We believe these are newly hatched Woolly Bears, the caterpillars of a Tiger Moth, possibly the Painted Tiger Moth,
Arachnis picta, which flies in Southern California in the winter.


  • 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 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.

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Tags: Tiger Moths

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