It’s Miller Time – Miller Moths

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy IPMimages.org, Whitney Cranshaw, Photographer
Miller Moth/Army Cutworm Adult
Euxoa auxiliaris
Courtesy IPMimages.org/bugwood.org
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Photographer

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy IPMimages.org, Whitney Cranshaw, PhotographerMiller Moth/Army Cutworm Adult
Euxoa auxiliaris
Courtesy IPMimages.org/bugwood.org
Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Photographer

Miller Moth Adult, Courtesy IPMimages.org, Frank Peairs, PhotographerMiller Moth/Army Cutworm Larva(e)
Euxoa auxiliaris
Courtesy IPMimages.org/bugwood.org
Frank Peairs, Colorado State University, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand from the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.

World Cup Colombian soccer player James Rodriguez isn’t the only one with a flying insect problem. For several weeks many Utahns have been coping with a bumper crop of miller moths. These dusty gray nuisances have been mobbing our lights, dive bombing our heads and plopping into our nightstand water glasses. Miller moth annoyance levels seemed highest along the Wasatch Front but other areas experienced high numbers as well.

Miller moths begin their lives as army cutworms. The larvae eat their way through the winter chomping on winter wheat, alfalfa, and many other types of crops and plants. After eating all winter, the army cutworms burrow into the ground to pupate. They emerge six weeks later with a yen for flower nectar. This sets them migrating to the alpine elevations of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. However, flowery trees and gardens along the Wasatch front are powerful diversions; thus our yards function as filling stations along the miller moth migration route.

Army cutworm populations soar during relatively warm winters with little snow cover. And that’s what happened this year in the south central counties of Utah. And that’s why we have so many moths now. But to keep this issue in perspective—know that the numbers we see in UT are nothing compared to the annual invasions experienced by populations on the Rocky Mountain front range. In Denver, annual spikes in vehicle crashes, therapist visits and broken light fixtures clearly coincide with the influx of miller moths.

Luckily, the moths are no more than a nuisance – they won’t eat your food or damage clothing or upholstery. And while sometimes it seems as if they are targeting your head, they really aren’t. If they are in your house, it’s because they were seeking shelter from the daytime predators by seeking a dark crack or crevice to crawl into—and then got into your house by mistake.

If you swat these unfortunate moths, they’ll get back at you. They leave a dusty gray, powdery mess. The powdery dust is really the moth’s tiny scales and is what gave the moth its name. For these scales are reminiscent of the dusty flour that covers the clothing of someone who mills grain.

For a clean resolution to the problem, veteran miller moth killers from Colorado suggest you suspend a light bulb over a bucket of soapy water. Moths will flick off the bulb into the water. At our house we catch them with a butterfly net and set them free outside. For I imagine that they will be off to the mountains as quickly as possible after that experience.

In early fall, the moths return to lower elevations to lay their eggs. Enough have died during the summer so we won’t notice them much if at all. But if next winter is also mild, we will be hosting our miller moth friends again.

Thanks to USU biologist Diane Alston for sharing her entomological expertise.

For pictures, sources and tips for living with miller moths, go to www.wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy IPMimages.org/bugwood.org & Colorado State University Extension, Whitney Cranshaw and Frank Peairs, Photographers
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Cranshaw, Whitney. Quick Facts about Miller Moths. Colorado State University Extension, Fort Collins, CO http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05597.html

Cranshaw, Whitney and Frank Peairs, Questions and Answers about Miller Moths Colorado State University Extension http://webdoc.agsci.colostate.edu/bspm/Miller%20Moths-Question%20and%20Answers.pdf

Sphinx Moths

Big Poplar Sphinx
Pachysphinx occidentalis
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University
bugwood.org

White-lined Sphinx
Hyles lineata
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University
bugwood.org

White-lined Sphinx Caterpillar
Hyles lineata
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University
bugwood.org

I vividly remember the first time I saw one – a small winged creature whirring from flower to flower in the evening light, its long tongue dipping for nectar within tube-shaped blooms. I was mesmerized, and struggled for a closer look.

If you’re thinking that I must have seen a hummingbird, you would be making a very common mistake. A mistake, in fact, that has given this critter one of its many nicknames. The winged wonder I saw that summer night was a sphinx moth, also called a hummingbird or hawk moth because of their large size and bird-like characteristics.

In all stages of their life, these insects are large. Caterpillars grow to a robust 4 inches in length and adult wingspans can measure more than 5 inches. Sphinx moths are also some of the fastest insects on earth and have been clocked flying at over 30 miles per hour. Their size, speed, and flying ability reflect those of the hummingbird so closely that they are commonly misidentified.

Sphinx moths are a beloved sight in many Utah gardens. However, they also hold a bit of a devious surprise. The larvae, or caterpillar, of one common species of sphinx moth are well known by vegetable gardeners. They are large and bright green with a distinctive horn near their hind end. Like the adults, these larvae go by many names, the most common being the tomato hornworm. Hornworm caterpillars, unlike their adult counterparts, are not beloved by gardeners. They are voracious beasts with the ability to strip the vegetation off a tomato or pepper plant in one day.

Aside from our garden plants, young hornworms of other species feed on a variety of vegetation including willow, poplar and cottonwood trees. Adult moths rely on a host of flowers such as columbine, honeysuckle, larkspur and evening primrose. Here in Utah you might come across one of a handful of different species in the sphinx moth family including the five-spotted hawk moth and the white-lined sphinx. Look for them in the late summer evenings as daylight begins to fade. But be sure to look twice to avoid mistaking them for something they’re not.

And the next time you find a hornworm on your tomatoes, maybe just relocate the little bugger so that you can enjoy it once metamorphosis changes the beast into a beauty.

For more information and pictures of our native sphinx moths, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
            Images licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Additional Reading:

Cranshaw, W.S. 2007. Hornworms and “Hummingbird” Moths. Colorado State University Fact Sheet 5.517. Found online at: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05517.pdf

Buchman, Steve. 2010. Pollinator of the Month: Hawk Moths or Sphinx Moths (Sphingidae). US Forest Service. Found online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/hawk_moths.shtml