Tiger Moths and Woolly Bears, oh my !

Isabella Tiger Moth

Isabella Tiger Moth

The air is crisp in my beautiful wildlife garden. The leaves are painted like a sunset and the woolly bear caterpillars are on the march. Normally, I warn folks not to handle caterpillars that look prickly just in case they are the stinging sort. But every kid knows the woolly bears are safe.

woolly bear caterpillars do not have stinging hairs

woolly bear caterpillars do not have stinging hairs

These gentle creatures live in lawns and fields eating grass, dandelions, violets and broad-leaf plantains. Old-timers believed that the width of the orange/brown band of hairs predicted how harsh the coming winter would be. As the cool weather starts to set in, these caterpillars leave their food plants in search of a sheltered area to hibernate through the winter. They tuck in under leaves, rocks and other moist hideouts. Those that survive the weather, and escape the watchful eyes of hungry predators, will wake up in the spring to eat some more and form a cocoon to finish their metamorphosis into the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella).

Another woolly bear you may encounter is the caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth or Eyed Tiger Moth (Hypercompe scribonia).

giant leopard moth caterpillar

giant leopard moth caterpillar

This caterpillar is somewhat larger than the Isabella, and when it rolls into its defensive posture you can see the bright red stripes on its skin. It is another kind of tiger moth and also eats dandelions, violets and plantain leaves.

Giant Leopard Moth

Giant Leopard Moth

The adult moth is lovely with black designs on a pure white background and shiny blue scales on its legs and back.

One more member of the tiger moth family is the Milkweed Tussock moth.

5 Milkweed Tiger moth caterpillar 1

I love these little guys that look like they’re made of tufts of yarn. Since they eat in groups I move them over to the large leaves of common milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) so the Monarch butterfly caterpillars can have the more tender milkweed plants all to themselves. The tussock caterpillars spin cocoons and spend the winter that way and emerge as moths when the weather gets warm. The adult moths have orange bodies and silvery wings.

Milkweed Tiger (tussock) moth

Milkweed Tiger (tussock) moth


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  1. Marilyn says

    Beautiful photographs! I like the idea of moving the milkweed tussock moths over to help the monarchs. I am new to these websites and I learn so much from every article I read. Thank you!

  2. Martha says

    I saw several Giant Leopard Moth caterpillars last week here in Maryland. Including one that was molting. Kicking myself that I didn’t have a camera. It was Halloween and more important to get the caterpillar moved away from foot traffic than to get its photo.

  3. Deb says

    Thanks for the info! My grandson,Willie, has a woolly bear in a terrarium and had been feeding him chives and basil hoping to see him metamorph into the pretty moth. His kindergarten teacher had introduced his class to the wonderful concept using monarch eggs from their butterfly garden at school Grandma was in charge of cleaning out the frass. The caterpillar finally made his cocoon on the lid of the terrarium. Does anyone know if the butterfly will emerge for us?

  4. Jack says

    Does anyone know how I can attract these caterpillars to my garden? Is there any kind of flower or anything that will mak them come? I have seen a few wooly-bears this season, but I want to know if there is a method to get more.


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