Lives in the Leaves: The Beautiful Moths and Butterflies That Sleep in the Fall

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The Fall color can be hit or miss in North Carolina, but this year, we have had a beautiful mosaic of reds, yellows, oranges and browns in Lee County, North Carolina. This color diversity allows for a multitude of insects and other animals to hide in plain sight and prepare for the coming winter weather.

To help these wild neighbors, the “Leave the Leaves” campaign has been taken up by many national conservation groups and social media has been flooded with appeals for the public to stop removing leaves that fall or at least push them over to the edges of property. It is a significant paradigm shift in the modern concept of “fall clean-up” in the United States, but having leaves to shelter in affects next year’s populations. Let’s look at a few of our favorites that use fall leaves and dead sticks to brave the winter.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

  • Scientific name: Papilio glaucus
  • Description of butterfly: Just like the name suggests, this is the large butterfly with the yellow and black-striped wings. The females have blue spotting on top of their lower wings.
  • Caterpillar host plant: The caterpillars of this species are generalists and feed on many of our Eastern North American deciduous tree species, such as ​​wild cherry (Prunus), sweetbay (Magnolia), basswood (Tilia), tulip tree (Liriodendron), birch (Betula), ash (Fraxinus), cottonwood (Populus), mountain ash (Sorbus), and willow (Salix). The caterpillars are bright green, and sometimes yellow/orange, with distinctive eyespots on the “head”.
  • Overwintering structure: The chrysalis of this species is an angular, long structure that will be anchored to a twig, leaf or other structure with a piece of silk. They are usually colored in shades of brown and white to blend in with the surrounding area.

Black Swallowtail

  • Scientific name: Papilio polyxenes
  • Description of butterfly: This is one of the most common butterfly species in Eastern North America and has several subspecies due to its large range. Generally, the top of the wings are black with a string of yellow spots at the base of the lower wings. There will also be a band of blue spots, in the case of females. The back of the wings have large orange spots on the lower wings. Each subspecies has various wing patterns.
  • Caterpillar host plant: You know these beauties by their black, white and yellow caterpillars when they eat all of your parsley, bronze fennel, or carrot tops. This species loves eating things in the carrot family, Apiaceae.
  • Overwintering structure: This species creates a simple chrysalis that is tied off or anchored to a stick or structure near its host plant. The chrysalis can either be green or brown, depending o the surrounding area and time of year, and can look like a thorn or small leaf.

Luna Moth

  • Scientific name: Actias luna
  • Description of moth: Everyone knows this elegant, creamy green moth. It is one of our larger moths in Eastern North America, and even though it is fairly common, it is still awe-inspiring when you find one. The fuzzy bodies, feather-duster antennae, and tiny eye spots all glow in dim light due to their white scales.
  • Caterpillar host plant: This species is a generalist for many deciduous trees in Eastern North America, such as persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), hickories (Carya), walnuts (Juglans), and sumacs (Rhus). The caterpillars mature to fat, brown caterpillars with small yellow spots down the side, and easily hide among the bark lines of trees.
  • Overwintering structure: This is a silk moth species, so caterpillars will wrap leaves, dead or live, and spin silk cocoons to hold them together. They then develop their chrysalis within this silk sack.

Polyphemus Moth

  • Scientific name: Antheraea polyphemus
  • Description of moth: The bright eyespots on the wings of the polyphemus moth can be shocking if you find them staring at you from the leaf litter or from a tree. This harmless moth is one of the largest in North America (four to six inches), and can be found from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans! They get their name from the cyclops from Greek mythology, because of howPolyphemus Moth distinctive the eyespots are!
  • Caterpillar host plant: The caterpillars hatch from disk-like eggs that look like spots on the leaves of their host trees. The moths are generalists, and lay their eggs on most of the deciduous trees in the U.S. The caterpillars undergo incredible changes as they grow, turning from an indistinct black and white caterpillar all the way to a hairy, fat green caterpillar.
  • Overwintering structure: This is a type of silk moth and they spin large, strong cocoons on twigs and/or leaves of large deciduous trees, and then pupate within the silk sac. Sometimes these leave or twigs can fall of and end up in your leaf pile.

Tuliptree SilkMoth

  • Scientific name: Callosamia angulifera
  • Description of moth: This species is native to Eastern North America, from the Gulf Coast to Canada. The moth is more than three inches across and various shades of brown. There are four distinctive white triangles or “T”s, two on each wing. Nocturnal silk moths like ultraviolet light or single points of light in rural areas. They are easiest seen at duck, dawn and near isolated light sources. Birds readily eat these moths, as they can be easy to catch. The adults of this species do not eat and only live a few days after emerging, long enough to mate and/or lay eggs.
  • Caterpillar host plant: The caterpillar is fat and bright green, with four bright orange knobs on its head. You can find them eating tulip poplars, Liriodendron tulipifera.
  • Overwintering structure: Unless you knew what you were looking for, you would be hard pressed to find a chrysalis of this master of disguise. The caterpillars fold over oak or other deciduous tree leaves and create a chrysalis within this fold. The result looks like any other fallen leaf on the ground!


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Black Swallowtail

Luna Moth

Polyphemus Moth

Tuliptree Silkmoth

Amanda Wilkins is the Horticulture Agent for N.C. Cooperative Extension in Lee County.