Ghost Moth: a strawberry, lettuce, and chrysanthemum pest

The Ghost moth (Hepialus humuli) is present in Europe and some parts of Australia and is known for its shiny wings, lek aggregations in the dusk, and as a common pest in strawberry and lettuce crops.

Ghost Moth Species Summary

Scientific nameHepialus humuli
Family nameHepialidae
HabitatGrassy and weedy places
RangeCommon in Europe
Host PlantsApple, ash, birch, elm, hazel, rose, dogwood, hickory, willow, maple
Moth DescriptionWhitish and yellow
Caterpillar DescriptionOpaque white body with a reddish head

What is the color of a ghost moth?

Ghost moth
Ghost moth

Ghost moth (Hepialus humuli, or Shetland spp. thulensis) belongs to the class Insecta, under the phylum Arthropoda, a family of swift moths, and the genus Hepialus. The English name came from the males of spp. humuli, which are completely white. Still, the females have yellow forewings and distinctive orange markings.

Shetland spp. thulensis is small and has creamy white forewings with brown marks. Male Ghost moth is smaller than females, with an average wingspan of 2 inches (5 cm). Males also have silvery white wings, while females are more yellow/brownish. Some experts suggest this difference in color serves for visual epigamic signaling.

The male’s upperside lacks pigmented scales, yet its complex morphology reflects light and attracts females. Females are more bland. The underside of both sexes is uniformly gray and brown.

Why Are They Called Ghost Moths?

The Ghost moth hepialus humuli got its name from its flying patterns. Due to their shiny wings, they look like tiny specters going up and down. Some believe that the common name “Ghost moth” originates from European folklore, where white moths are believed to be the souls of the people who passed.

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Ghost moth Caterpillar Physical Description

Ghost moth caterpillar
Ghost moth caterpillar

The Ghost moth larvae can grow to about 2 inches (5 cm) in length. They have opaque white bodies with reddish heads. The prothoracic plate is also reddish, while the pinacula is dark brown.

While young, the larvae feed on tiny plant roots. Older ones eat larger roots, stolons, and low areas of the plant stem. The caterpillar causes damage to the plants they eat, and they typically munch around in grasslands and pastures.

This developmental stage can last up to 3 years, which is why it’s believed the total life span of a Ghost moth is around 5 years. Furthermore, the larvae have about 12 instars, yet more research needs to be done to discover whether additional instars occur in high temperatures.

The larva overwinters twice and pupates underground. The pupation occurs during April or May, and the pupa is dark brown.

Ghost Moth Lifespan

  • Egg Stage – unknown
  • Caterpillar – up to 3 years
  • Chrysalis Stage – unknown
  • Adult Butterfly Stage – 2 to 5 days

Habitat and Range

This moth frequents grasslands, weedy areas, and open spots. When it’s around human-made habitats, they may visit farms.

Ghost moths are common in Europe, except in the far southeast. They’re most likely to be found in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man.

This species also occurs in New Guinea, the eastern seaboard of Australia, and is a common species of Australian moths found in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria.

Do Ghost moths Migrate?

Ghost moths are not migratory. Instead, they’ll overwinter as larvae, sometimes for several seasons.

Usual Host Plants and caterpillar diet

The usual host plants for Ghost moths are:

  • Apple
  • Ash
  • Birch
  • Elm
  • Hazel
  • Rose
  • Dogwood
  • Hickory
  • Willow
  • Maple

This moth’s most common food plants are cultivated herbaceous plants such as common nettle, docks, burdocks, and wild strawberries. Caterpillars will eat the roots of grasses as well. However, adult moths don’t eat, as they have no mouths.

Are Ghost Moths Pests?

Ghost moth larvae are polyphagous, meaning they feed on various plants. Caterpillars that hatch in the crops will feed on the roots of the plants, causing enormous damage to the crops, especially strawberries, lettuce, and chrysanthemum plants. This feeding habit makes these moths unwanted around an agricultural setting.

Ghost moth Behavior

Just like there’s physical sexual dimorphism, it’s believed these moths exhibit behavioral dimorphism as well, where females are more attracted to light than males.

Ghost moths aggregate in leks to attract females. Lekking means that males gather around and engage in competitive displays to entice females to mate.

Lekking usually happens at dusk and lasts up to 30 minutes. The male Ghost moth will hover directly above vegetation and shift the flight slowly. Occasionally, it will make vertical movements to change display positions.

Once a female picks her male, she’ll fly about an inch from him. The male will then follow her to a place where she’ll land and beat her wings, letting the male know he can approach. During her life cycle, the female Ghost moths usually lay around 600 eggs during 4 days, with some laying up to 1,600 in total.

Common Predators

Ghost moths fly around during dusk, and their wings become shinier, making them attractive to several species of predators, mostly birds and bats. For example, the northern bat (Eptesicus nilssonii) has been observed praying on lekking Ghost moths.

Are Ghost Moths Poisonous?

Ghost moths lack sophisticated defense mechanisms and are far from being toxic. Being a member of the family Hepialidae, an early branch of Lepidoptera, they even lack ultrasonic hearing.

Instead, they’ll try to restrict their movement and sexual behavior to the period during dusk, when most birds and bats aren’t active.

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