The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

The Incredible Diversity of Iowa Moths and Butterflies

Did you know that National Moth Week is celebrated in July? Read up on Iowa’s native moths and butterflies to be ready to celebrate Moth Week right, from July 23rd to 31st!

Iowa is home to about 110 butterfly species, and over 2,000 moth species! Butterflies and moths are related: both are in the insect order Lepidoptera, which roughly translates to “scaled wing”. Most of us think of moths as the ugly stepsisters of butterflies, but this is not true! In fact, I would call moths the sleeping beauties of our natural world (they are beauties that are often active while we sleep). Don’t continue to sleep on the incredible beauty of Iowa moths, and get to know our butterflies better!

Giant Silk Moths
If you’re lucky enough to have seen a luna moth, then you’ve seen a member of the giant silk moth group, called the Saturniidae family (Saturnia is the daughter of Saturn in Greek mythology). This group also includes the cecropia moth, named after Cecrops, a half-man-half-snake king in Greek mythology. If you squint at the top outer corner of the cecropia moth’s front wing by the dark eyespot, you can see what appears to be a profile of a snake’s head. Lastly, the luna and cecropia moths don’t eat as adults – they have no mouths! They only eat as caterpillars, which is common in the mysterious world of moths.

Cecropia Moth

Hawk Moths and Hummingbird Moths
Aptly named, these moths look and fly like humming birds, hovering while drinking nectar with their straw-like mouths (called a proboscis). Some also mimic bumble bees, like the snowberry clearwing pictured on the right! Belonging to the family Sphingidae, these moths can be diurnal (day-active) or nocturnal (night-active). Some species don’t eat as adults. For those that do, they are important pollinators for prairie orchid and primrose species!

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

Owlet and Underwing Moths
Most of these moths are the experts of disguise, using drab colors on their front wings to blend in with bark and dead leaves. They are in the family Noctuidae, the largest family of moths in North America. Underwing moths, however, have a secret weapon: their back wings can have bright colors that hide under the front wings, and can be flashed to startle a predator during escape!

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

Tiger Moths
When wooly bear caterpillars mature, they are called tiger moths, also known as the family Erebidae. These moths can have bright colors decorated with geometric lines, consequently nicknamed “tiger” moths. I saw the tiger moth pictured here the last week of June at Ada Hayden park! This species of tiger moth is called the “reversed haploa moth” due to the fact that it has two color variations: either geometric lines on the front wings with plain white back wings, or the reverse: plain white front wings with geometric back wings.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Brush-footed Butterflies
The family Nymphalidae, commonly called the brush-footed group, is one of the most popular groups of butterflies with monarchs, regal fritillaries, and painted ladies included in its ranks. Why are they called brush-foots? Their front legs are very small, and kept close to their body (similar to t-rex dinosaurs in my opinion). These front legs aren’t used for walking and are basically reduced to little “brushes”.

Common Buckeye

Swallowtails
While one of the most entrancing butterflies, swallowtails are tough; they overwinter here in Iowa! As caterpillars, this group (which is the family Papilionidae) spin their chrysalises and wait out the winter under dead leaves, giving us another reason to leave areas in our yard undisturbed this fall. The caterpillars of this group can just as awe-inspiring, with some having bright green colors, or eyespots that can make them look like snakes to scare predators away!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

Whites and Sulphurs
This group of butterflies has a charming behavior; they like puddles! Belonging to the Pieridae family, these butterflies are the most likely to be found in a “puddling” group, sucking up extra nutrients in the water. Adult butterflies appear white, yellow, orange, and sometimes have black markings. One of the coolest butterflies in this group is the Olympia marble, a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers. Just look at its metallic markings against snow-white wings!

Olympia Marble

Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks
These tiny butterflies are also called gossamer wings, due to the beautiful shimmer that reflects off their wings! These butterflies are a part of the family Lycaenidae, and also love visiting puddles, so don’t let their looks fool you; they are hardcore. Continuing that thought: the species Satyrium edwardsii, or Edward’s hairstreak, has some wild behavior as a caterpillar. At night it feeds on oak leaves, and during the day it rests in active ant nests for protection! This species is also a species of special concern in Iowa due to declining numbers.

Hairstreak

Skippers
If you can’t tell if an insect is a butterfly or a moth, you may be looking at a skipper. Skippers are in the family Hesperiidae, and have chunky bodies with hooked, hockey-stick-shaped antennae. They appear carefree as they skip through the air. From the side, their wings give them a triangular, shark-fin shape. Out of the two butterfly species in Iowa considered endangered, one is a skipper, called the Dakota skipper. It requires high-quality prairie remnants, a habitat extremely hard to find in Iowa.

Skipper

While many people love butterflies, these insects don’t always receive the respect they deserve being diverse and important wildlife. They are more than nature’s gems-they are important pollinators that have fun behaviors to appreciate! Moths are often forgotten, despite the fact that they can be bigger and more colorful than many butterfly species, and have the coolest adaptations, such as flashes of color and mouth-less adults! The world of moths and butterflies is not just a pretty one; it’s a wild one!

Take it Easy for Pollinators This Spring!

Take it Easy for Pollinators This Spring!

Signs of spring and warmer weather can be energizing, motivating us to start spring-cleaning our homes inside and out. However, some pollinators are still resting in their winter homes, and cleaning up your lawn too soon can be detrimental to the new generation. For some spring lawn care tips that support pollinators continue reading below!

Pollinators either migrate to warmer climates or go through a phase called “diapause” to survive the harsh winters of Iowa.

Diapause is similar to hibernation in which an insect pauses any development and stays in a kind of suspended animation until conditions are more favorable. There may be many insects in your yard that are still hibernating under leaves or inside flower stems waiting for warmer weather in order to emerge. Rushing to clean up all your leaves and brush now can disturb and damage these pollinators so it is best to leave some “messy” areas in your yard as long as possible. Waiting until the end of May, a time of year when day temperatures consistently reach 50 F (usually), is best. Taking it easy and waiting until later in the spring to tidy up is the easiest way to support pollinators at home!

One specific way to protect pollinators until they emerge is to leave the leaves that have accumulated in your yard. Bumble bee queens especially love to overwinter under layers of leaves as it provides them an insulating layer that protects them from the wind and cold. While you may not want leaves covering your entire yard this spring, leaving the leaves in your garden beds, in particular, can not only protect the pollinators resting there but may also provide you with some composting and weed-suppressing services. Additionally, leaving last year’s flower stems in the garden and not cutting them back until late May will give most stem-nesting bees a chance to emerge as well.

An additional option to support pollinators is to participate in No Mow May, a campaign started by Plantlife in the UK and spearheaded here in the US by Bee City USA, run by the Xerces Society. The goal of No Mow May is to keep your mower in the garage until June and allow floral resources such as dandelions and clover to spring up in your yard providing early pollinators with food resources. Waiting to mow also means the longer grass is able to provide more cover for other insects needing shelter.

While we all want to support pollinators and enjoy them in our yards this year, it can be difficult to allow your lawn to look a bit wilder and to your neighbors, it may look a bit messy. They may not understand that your yard isn’t a mess – it’s a habitat for pollinators! There is much pressure to maintain the traditional, yet outdated, yard of green turf grass containing little to no diversity. To address these concerns we provide the following solutions:

  • Start taking it easy on your backyard
    If your front lawn simply must remain manicured, set aside your back yard to leave the leaves and flower stems and not mow until May. This will still help pollinators and make the pollinator habitat less visible from the street.
  • Create a “Cozy Corner”
    If you can’t put aside your entire back yard, try leaving an unused area in the yard undisturbed. You can create a “cozy corner” for pollinators throughout the coming growing season by leaving the leaf litter there undisturbed and by adding twigs, branches, and other brush to the area as you clean up. This cozy corner can provide shelter for not only insect pollinators, but birds as well! Adding layers of brush to your cozy corner will ensure it serves as an excellent shelter for birds and a fantastic nesting site for pollinators, especially for overwintering. It is also a fun family activity that can be built upon throughout the year!
  • Educate your neighbors
    Let your neighbors know that your yard is providing a specific and important purpose and that it may mean they will be able to enjoy more butterflies and bees in their garden this summer. Here’s a link to free signs created by the Xerces Society you can print out and place in your yard. Spread the word about how you are helping pollinators. Ask others to join you!

There are many ways to support pollinators at home. Many people are starting the fun process of gardening for the foraging needs of pollinators by growing native flowers. However, few people think about the nesting resources that pollinators require. Be mindful with yard clean-up by taking it easy this spring and finding an area to leave undisturbed throughout the year. It will aid in pollinator emergence and provide them with nesting sites. Have a happy and relaxing spring!

The State of Pollinators in Iowa

The State of Pollinators in Iowa

Special Note: This blog post is based on a presentation made by former PRI Watersheds and Wildlife Coordinator David Stein. Editing and Design by PRI PR & Marketing Coordinator Mike Kellner.

Pollinators in Iowa are disappearing at an alarming rate due to climate change, disappearing habitat, pesticide use, and disease.

Prior to European settlement, about 85% of Iowa was covered with prairies, grasslands, wetlands, and forests. Now, less than one-tenth of a percent of Iowa’s original prairies are left while the rest of its land has been plowed for cultivation, cleared for development, or otherwise altered creating a lack of habitat, food, and water for pollinators in our state. In a sense, Iowa’s once-lush landscape has become a virtual desert, where more often than not, there is no food or water for pollinators sometimes as far as the eye can see.

Pre-Settlement Pollinator Habitat in Iowa
Pre-Settlement Pollinator and Wildlife Habitat in Iowa
Former land cover can give us insight into how to best currently manage and restore pollinator and wildlife habitat
Post Settlement Pollinator Habitat in Iowa
Post Settlement Pollinator and Wildlife Habitat in Iowa
Wetlands, forests, and most significantly, prairies and grasslands have all seen reductions resulting in habitat loss.  
Just Some of the Historic Trends in Pollinator Decline in Iowa
ORIGINAL SPECIES LIST

  •  Skippers —47 Species
  • Hairstreaks and Blues — 25 Species
  • White, Yellow, Orange Butterflies — 11 Species
  • Brush-Footed Butterflies — 38 Species
  • Swallowtails — 6 Species
  • Metalmark Butterflies —1 Species
MOST RECENT SURVEY

  • Skippers 27 Species — (43% loss)
  • Hairstreaks and Blues — 14 Species (44% loss)
  • White, Yellow, Orange Butterflies — 6 Species (45% loss)
  • Brush-Footed Butterflies — 25 Species (35% loss)
  • Swallowtails — 4 Species (33% loss)
  • Metalmark Butterflies —  0 Species (100% loss; not seen since 1930)
Some Species You Will Never See Again
Other Threatened and Endangered Butterflies
Acadian Hairstreak
Aphrodite Fritillary
Banded Hairstreak
Black Dash
Broad Winged Skipper
Byssus Skipper
Columbine Duskywing
Common Ringlet
Common Roadside Skipper
Compton Tortoiseshell
Crossline Skipper
Dakota Skipper
Dion Skipper
Dreamy Duskywing

Dusted Skipper
Edward’s Hairstreak
Eyed Brown
Gorgone Checkerspot
Gray Comma
Harvester
Hayhurst’s Scallopwing
Henry’s Elfin
Hickory Hairstreak
Horace’s Duskywing
Juniper Hairstreak
Juvenal’s Duskywing
Leonard’s Skipper
Little Glassywing

Long Dash
Meadow Fritillary
Melissa Blue
Monarch
Mottled Duskywing
Mulberry Wing
Northern Broken Dash
Northern Pearly Eye
Ottoe Skipper
Ozark Baltimore
Pawnee Skipper
Pepper & Salt Skipper
Pipevine Swallowtail
Poweshiek Skipperling

 

Purplish Copper
Reakirt’s Blue
Regal Fritillary
Silver Bordered Fritillary
Silvery Blue
Sleepy Duskywing
Southern Cloudywing
Striped Hairstreak
Swamp Metalmark
Swarthy Skipper
Two Spotted Skipper
White M Hairstreak
Wild Indigo Duskywing
Zabulon Skipper
Zebra Swallowtail
Threatened and Endangered Bumble Bees — They Are Still Here, Let’s Work Together to Protect Them While We Still Can!
Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

Rusty Patched Bumble Bee

American Bumble Bee

American Bumble Bee

Plains Bumble Bee

Plains Bumble Bee

Yellow Bumble Bee

Yellow Bumble Bee

Steps We All Can Take to Reduce Pollinator Decline
• Learn from the past
• Plant a lot of flowers of different species
• Use native plants
• Reintroduce rare plants
• Don’t waste space on turf
• Remove invasive species
• Diversify agriculture
• Treat ecosystems as vital infrastructure
Native Plant Diversity
Diversified Agriculture
Visit with our Watersheds and Wildlife program to learn more about helping pollinators by planting the right native host plants for for food and nectar, using alternative lawn seed mixes, best practices for nesting and much more!