The Luna moth caterpillar is one of the most common species of moth found throughout North America. Its caterpillars feed primarily on oak trees. When mature, the adult female Luna moth lays eggs inside clusters of dead leaves. These leaves remain on the tree until springtime when they hatch into larvae. The larvae eat the leaves, creating small holes where they pupate. They emerge as adults in late summer or early fall. Males do not produce cocoons; therefore, they cannot overwinter. Females lay eggs in clusters of dead leaves. Larvae feed on oak leaves and develop within the cluster. When ready to pupate, the larva drops out of the leaf and spins a silken web around itself. A single egg hatches into a larva. This larva eats the leaves of the host plant and eventually develops into a pupa. After about three weeks, the pupa emerges as an adult.
What Do Luna Moths Look Like?
Luna moths caterpillar are commonly known as “moon moths,” and though it sounds like a cute nickname, it actually refers to something quite sinister. In fact, the common name is derived from the Latin word luna, meaning “the moon.” This makes sense because these moths fly at night, just like our lunar satellite.
The species’ scientific name, Eudonia luna, reflects this connection. The genus name, Eudonia, derives from Greek words meaning “good fortune” and “joyous,” while the specific name, luna, means “the moon.”
These moths are found throughout North America. During the spring and summer months, males seek out females to mate. Females lay eggs on host plants such as milkweed and clover. Larvae feed on the leaves of these plants, causing damage to the plant.
How Are Luna Moths Classified?
The classification of insects is based upon their body structure, lifestyle, habits, and evolutionary relationships. Insects are classified into three main groups: arthropods, mollusks, and chordata.
Arthropods possess jointed appendages called limbs. They move around by walking, jumping, swimming, flying, crawling, burrowing, or climbing. Their bodies consist of segments called rings, each ring containing one pair of legs. Each limb consists of five parts: head, thorax, abdomen, wings, and leg. In some cases, the fifth part is missing. For example, dragonflies do not have hindwings, while lobsters lack claws.
Molluscs include snails, clams, octopuses, squid, cuttlefish, squids, and chitons. A snail shell is composed of several sections, including a foot, a neck, and a mantle. Clams and oysters are bivalves; they contain two shells hinged together along one edge. Octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish are cephalopods; they have a hard external protective covering known as a “cuttlebone.” Chitons are gastropod mollusks; they look like clams or snails except that they have neither a shell nor a foot.
Chordata includes fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Fish swim freely in water, breathe air, lay eggs, give birth to live young, and develop within the egg. Amphibians have both aquatic and terrestrial lifestyles. Reptiles’ skin covers their entire body; however, their tails are free. Birds have feathers and bones, and are warm-blooded animals. Mammals have hair, milk glands, nipples, and four limbs.
What Do Luna Moths Eat?
Luna moths are among the most common insects found in North America. They are often mistaken for butterflies because they look similar. But while both species do lay eggs, there are some key differences.
Adult luna moths live about three weeks, feeding on nectar from flowers during their brief adult life. When it comes time to mate, however, they’re looking for something different—a female larva. A male luna moth lands on a leaf and begins probing around with his antennae. He searches for a small opening where he inserts his proboscis, like a tongue. Once inside, he injects sperm into the body cavity of the larva. After mating, the male dies within a day or two.
The female luna moth lays her eggs on leaves near water sources. She deposits up to 50 eggs per square inch. Larvae hatch in four to six days and begin eating the plant tissue surrounding the egg mass. As larvae grow larger, they eat more and more material. By the end of their development, the larvae weigh almost half a gram each and measure about 2 millimeters long.
The Luna Moth Life Cycle
Luna moths are nocturnal insects that spend most of their lives underground. They mate in early spring, lay eggs on leaves of plants such as oak trees, and go into diapause—an inactive state—until late summer. When conditions become favorable, the larvae emerge from the ground and begin feeding on foliage. During this stage, the larvae grow rapidly and consume large amounts of food. By the end of July, they enter the final phase of development, pupation. This involves constructing a protective case out of silk fibers and leaves. The pupae remain active during this period and eventually break free from the case, emerging as adults in August.
Interesting Behaviors of Luna Moths
Luna moths live in tropical regions around the world. They feed primarily on sap from trees, including those belonging to the eucalyptus family. Like many insects, they use camouflage to hide from predators. However, unlike most other species of moth, the larvae of the luna moth do not spin webs to protect themselves. Instead, they secrete a waxy substance called “exudate” that coats leaves and twigs where they live. This exudate makes the larva look like dead plant material.
When a hungry bird lands nearby, the luna moth larva will suddenly rear up and wave its legs in front of the predator. If that fails, the larva will sometimes emit a loud noise, much like a cricket chirping, to try to frighten the predator away. Finally, if the predator still refuses to take flight, the larva will regurgitate a mixture of water and digestive juices onto the ground. This revolting concoction is meant to send a signal to predators that the insect is unpalatable.
Adult luna moths locate each other using sex pheromone trails. Males release a chemical compound into the air that attracts females. Once a female finds her mate, she follows his scent trail until he is ready to mate. She lays eggs in the leaf litter near the base of the host tree. After hatching, the young larvae begin feeding on the tree’s sap, while the adult moths fly off to find another mate.
Where Do Luna Moths Live?
Luna moths live throughout the United States, including in New York City. They are most common in the southern half of the United States. In fact, there are some areas where they are very rare. These include the Great Lakes region, parts of California, and much of the Midwest.
The moth lives in deciduous hardwood forest ecosystems. This includes oak trees, hickory trees, maple trees, birch trees, and ash trees. It prefers to feed on the leaves of those types of trees.