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!

Thank You, David Stein!

Thank You, David Stein!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa's David Stein talks about native plants, pollinator and wildlife restoration during a Prairie Rivers of Iowa field day in 2019.

Last month marked the departure of our pollinator and native plant expert David Stein as he heads back to work in his home state, our neighbors to the north, Minnesota. We are missing his passion and work ethic, but our Watersheds and Wildlife program continues as always and efforts are well underway to find his replacement.

David contributed to a large part of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s continued efforts to impact public awareness and implementation of conservation practices to create native plant, pollinator and wildlife habitat to help improve soil and water quality while protecting the endangered rusty patched bumble bee and other species of greatest conservation need in Iowa. He was instrumental in creating a native seed bank and the development of many acres of habitat.

I recently visited with David as he reflected upon his work here at Prairie Rivers and his hopes for the future state of native habitat and pollinators in Iowa.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment while working at PRI?
There are a lot! I think both completing the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant and setting the stage for PRI’s next series of habitat/conservation projects was probably the biggest accomplishment during my time here. On top of that, raising awareness of pollinator issues and educating interested landowners on how to install habitat was also a major highlight of my work. Re-discovering the rusty patched bumble bee, and mapping out new sightings was definitely a high point for me too.

How do you feel the health of native habitat and pollinators is currently in Iowa? What progress has been made? Where do we need to go from here?
 We have a long way to go, but I think we’re in a better place than we were a few years ago.  Our outreach and education efforts, especially our work with counties, cities and landowners have definitely gotten the ball rolling, but a more hands-on-deck is always better. A coordinated conservation and restoration effort between non-profits, municipalities, farmers, landowners, homeowners, businesses, and interested individuals is really the best and only way forward to reverse pollinator and habitat decline.

What’s next for you?
Next, I’ll be working up at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. I’ll be able to be involved in habitat projects all throughout the state and be able to meet with a bunch of different stakeholders that are doing some amazing restoration work.

How has working at PRI enriched your professional life?
Working here has definitely enriched my professional life. I’ve been able to improve my own knowledge and passion regarding pollinator and wildlife conservation and directly apply it in real-time. I’ve also been able to connect and network with so many amazing stakeholders and partners from a variety of backgrounds. I know that I’ll be able to use these skills and lessons throughout my professional life moving forward.