Pretty Little Pest or Handsome Hero?

I love a good mystery. I found myself smack-dab in the middle of one recently when I popped my photo card into my computer and examined the pictures I had taken earlier in the day. My intended subject was an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. Despite being several feet away and separated by profusely flowering perennials, I was able to capture the winged wonder up close thanks to my trusty 20X-zoom camera.


Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (Durham, NC)

Enter the mystery. Look closely at this next picture. What do you see besides (and beside) the beautiful butterfly?


An orange insect with a white and black flower design on its back, right? Maybe I don’t know much, or get out enough, or both, but I have never seen anything like this before. (I’m pretty sure that I would remember.) Thanks to the Internet and a few good search terms, my mystery was soon solved.


The mystery critter is actually a moth—an Ailanthus Webworm Moth to be exact. (In my photo, its wings are tucked in to make the moth appear tube-like.) This particular webworm moth is named after the Ailanthus tree, where it commonly lays its weblike larvae. The larvae, laid in communal nests, then feed on the Ailanthus leaves.

When I came upon the words “weblike larvae” in my search, I immediately thought of pesky ‘icks’ like bagworms that kill or sicken trees and that always sent my Dad through our orchard, down to the black walnut trees that lined our banks, and around to the ornamental trees that encircled our property with a canister on his back.

Could this cute little flowered moth be a pest?  Enter more research.

The Ailanthus tree, or Tree of Heaven as it is more commonly known, is native to China and considered invasive in the United States, where it was introduced in the late 1700s as an ornamental, quick-growing, drought-resistant, and pollution-tolerant street tree.  Unfortunately, however, the rapid growth of this tree, (which is the ‘Tree’ referred to in Betty Smith’s title, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), serves to push out other vegetation.  Worse, yet, Tree of Heaven doesn’t smell too heavenly—in fact, it stinks. Since Tree of Heaven is considered an invasive pest plant, it could technically be considered a good thing that the Ailanthus Webworm larvae, (which are small, striped caterpillars), build webs in this tree and eat its leaves.

Plus, the Ailanthus Webworm Moth gets extra points for this: it is a useful pollinator. …And I have a picture to prove it.

My information came from various sites on the public domain, but mostly from here:

2 thoughts on “Pretty Little Pest or Handsome Hero?

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