Can You See Me Now?

While working in the garden between rain showers yesterday, I took a quick break to check on some monarch caterpillars in my native flower garden. I quickly saw that all four of them were accounted for, but worriedly noted that they’re running out of time to pupate before the weather turns too cold. I decided to let nature take its course with the monarchs this time, rather than bringing them indoors to raise. I hope they make it.

But as always, I couldn’t resist taking a few more minutes to peruse the brown-eyed susans in search of more cool insects. And my gosh, I’m so glad I did!

Here’s what caught my eye — can you see it?

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - before zooming in on it

Notice something in the center of the flower? I admit, I had the advantage of seeing that it was moving. Here’s another closer view as it climbed up on top of the disc flowers in the center of the brown-eyed susan:

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - Wavy-lined emerald moth larva - synchlora aerata

And one final closer crop before I tell you a bit about this fantastic creature:

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - Wavy-lined emerald moth larva v2 close crop

Camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora aerata)

Ever since I learned of the existence of this fabulous creature, I’ve been hoping to find one, so my smile was a mile wide when I realized I’d finally discovered one in my own yard. This is the camouflaged looper caterpillar, the larva of a beautiful green moth called the Wavy-lined Emerald (Synchlora aerata).

What’s so fascinating about this caterpillar is, as you can see, it attaches flower parts to itself as camouflage. Is that not absolutely brilliant?!

I mean, think about it…it has no arms or hands, so how does it accomplish this feat of subterfuge? I would imagine it chews off pieces of the flower, then secretes some sort of adhesive substance, and then rolls over onto the plant parts. But that’s total conjecture. What do you think?

I’m just glad nobody was around to see me grinning like a goofball alone in the back yard. 🙂

Wavy-lined emerald moth from WikiCommons

Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via WikiCommons

This is the moth that funny caterpillar will become — the Wavy-lined Emerald moth. I can’t wait to see that in my yard!

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Nope, That’s Not a Bee

Eastern calligrapher fly - toxomerus geminatus - for blog

Eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

When I first started photographing insects, I noticed — but didn’t really look at — lots of little “bees.” I noted their brown and yellow abdomens and quickly dismissed them as uninteresting. But once I actually photographed one of them and looked at it, I was enchanted by the pretty patterns I saw, and wanted to study them further. As an example, notice the intricate designs on the one in that first photo above.

I learned that they aren’t bees at all; they’re a family of insects known as hover flies or flower flies. Many of them resemble not only bees, but wasps as well. It’s believed that this mimicry aids their survival by making potential predators think twice before attacking them. A simple way to distinguish flies from bees or wasps is the number of wings; flies only have two wings, whereas bees and wasps have four.

My familiarity with taxonomic structures is mostly limited to my high school memories of reciting “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I’m doing the best I can to make sure I give accurate information about scientific classifications here, but keep in mind that I’m a real amateur in insect identification. I write these articles to educate myself as much as to entertain and educate my readers. 🙂 And, if you read something here that’s wrong, I’d really appreciate hearing from you so I can correct it.

taxonomic hierarchy graphic

So, within the Insecta class, there are further subdivisions called orders. For example, the order Odonata contains my beloved dragonflies and damselflies. The order Hymenoptera contains bees, ants, and wasps. These hover flies are in the order Diptera. And within that order, they’re in the family Syrphidae (and are thus also known as syrphid flies).

So whether you call them hover flies, flower flies, or syrphid flies, you should know that they are valuable pollinators in the garden.

Prairie gentian with American Hoverfly for blog

Hoverfly on Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta)

And if you have aphid problems, you’ll be happy to find out that the larvae of syrphid flies are little wormlike creatures that are ravenous consumers of aphids. If you see these lovely little flies in your yard, keep your fingers crossed that they like it enough to stick around and lay their eggs there. You can make it easier for them by not removing leaves from your garden in the fall because that’s where they spend the winter.

These flies really seem to love the ubiquitous asters that are blooming in the early fall, and that makes it easier for me to find and photograph them. I just walk up to a group of asters and wait until they show up. This is one of my favorite recent photos of a syrphid fly on asters:

Oblique Stripetail - Allograpta obliqua on aster

Oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua) on asters

Interestingly, hover flies share some extraordinary capabilities with dragonflies: they can hover, and fly forward, backward, sideways, up, and down.  Their flight abilities make them fascinating to watch; I can easily lose track of time when I’m focused on watching them zipping around a patch of flowers, feeding on the nutritious nectar and pollen.

Narrow-headed sunfly - Helophilus fasciatus w sig

Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Chrysotoxum sp of hover fly v2

This one is in the genus Chrysotoxum, but I don’t know which species

I plan to continue my study of these syrphid flies, and will hope to be able to write more about them in a future post.  If you get a chance, pull up a chair beside a group of asters or goldenrod soon and see if you can catch a glimpse of any of these charming flower visitors.

There’s a little bonus for you below, but I just want to share one more photo.  One day I was watching this Chinese mantis as it preyed upon bees from its perch on top of a cushion of goldenrod. In this photo, the mantis is eating a honeybee while a syrphid fly feeds only a couple inches from its head, seemingly unconcerned about the monster lurking beside him. Perhaps he realized the mantis was occupied and was no immediate danger to him.

Syrphid fly watches as Chinese mantis eats honeybee

Bonus Deep Dive Content: Okay, if you’re interested in watching a syrphid fly larva eat an aphid, you can spend 25 minutes watching this amazing video I found on YouTube by someone called “Insect Man.” I confess I fast-forwarded through some of it, but it’s way cool.

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Wordless Wednesday

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A Speeding Green Bullet!

Autumn has long been my favorite season of the year — colorful tree foliage, cooler air for comfortable hikes, clear cerulean skies, cozy sweaters…I could go on. But this is also a season tinged with sadness for the end of summer.  Lately I’ve been feeling a bit gloomy about the impending end of dragonfly season. It’s frustrating to have such a short time each year to watch these fascinating insect predators.

I’ve written before about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey and how you can contribute to it. I’ve submitted many records of my observations to the survey in the past two years, and look forward to adding more in the third and final survey year next summer.  A few weeks ago I got a message from one of the survey coordinators pointing out that they would like a few 2018 reports from Fulton County, and asking if I would keep that in mind while I was out and about.

I live in Lucas County, which has a few very active odonata observers, including one of Ohio’s experts. So there’s not much chance of me finding something here that hasn’t already been documented. But Fulton County is a rural county just to the west of Lucas County, and it has far fewer people reporting odonata sightings. So that means I can more easily make a meaningful contribution to the database with my sightings there.

So the other day, after doing some online location scouting and armed with a list of three target species, I drove west through the corn fields.

The three target species were all damselflies: blue-fronted dancer, fragile forktail, and stream bluet. I knew one good pond location from earlier visits in that area, but I knew that spot wouldn’t be likely to have the dancer or the bluet, both of which are usually found near rivers or streams rather than the pond that I was headed to first.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first bug I saw was one of my targets, the fragile forktail. He’s easy to identify because of the green exclamation mark on his thorax.

Fragile forktail - blog

Fragile forktail (Ischnura posita)

I spent about 45 minutes more at this pond location, documenting some other species, before heading off in search of flowing water.

I went to a place called Tiffin River Wildlife Area. I was optimistic about this location until I got there and found that there was virtually no access to the water. I found one small gravel parking lot with barely enough room to turn the car around, but it was surrounded with head-high vegetation and no paths. Hmmm. This would require some ingenuity.  I drove around a bit and found a dirt driveway that dipped down toward the water, but it had a chain across it about 75 yards down and a sign that said “No Trespassing.”

Blue-fronted dancer - blog

Blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis)

I figured, okay, I can walk on this first section as long as I don’t go past the chain and the sign. I wasn’t going to do any harm, and it didn’t look like anyone had driven that driveway in a long time; it was full of deep ruts and bordered by tall weedy vegetation. And amazingly, I found my second target species on that driveway: blue-fronted dancer. I almost did a happy dance after I got my photograph for documentation.

I also got this pretty picture of a viceroy butterfly nectaring on loosestrife.

Viceroy butterfly w sig - blog

So, two down, one to go. The only other spot I could find with the potential for running water was Harrison Lake State Park. From the map view I’d noticed there was a dam at one end of the lake, with potential access to the stream below it. So off I went further west.

I’m sure it had a lot to do with the beautiful weather on this day, but this park impressed me immediately. I saw that their campground was full of people on this late summer Friday, but somehow it wasn’t noisy. It felt peaceful and relaxing. And even better, there was access to the stream below the dam, just as I’d hoped. And this is where something exciting happened.

I’d found a couple interesting species (orange bluet and dusky dancer), and was taking photos of them and just quietly observing the water. I was looking down at something on the ground, and as I lifted my head I saw an enormous pair of green eyes speeding directly toward me, only a dozen feet away. I barely had time to think “River cruiser!” when it whizzed past me like a green bullet and went high up into the trees behind me. I spent a half hour searching for it, desperate to document it for this location. I had a hunch it could be a species that hadn’t been recorded there before. But, alas, I didn’t find it again.

I eventually gave up and walked back up the hill to the top of the dam, and then slowly toward the parking lot.  I was enjoying the beautiful day, but couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected after the close encounter with the river cruiser and then losing it.

I was in the parking lot, about 100 yards from my car, when –BZZZZZT! — something big flew past my head and perched in a tree 30 feet above me. I knew what it was before I saw it: River cruiser!

Wabash River Cruiser - Fulton County Record (2)

Wabash river cruiser (Macromia wabashensis)

I started taking photos immediately, not knowing how long it would stay there. My first impression was that it was a Wabash river cruiser, a hard-to-photograph hybrid species. And indeed, that’s what it was! I couldn’t believe my luck, and took probably 70 photos of it, even though it barely moved. I always try to get multiple views of any dragonfly, because sometimes you need to see multiple field marks to confirm an identity. The diagnostic field mark on this species is the moth-shaped yellow mark near the end of the abdomen.

And not only did I get a killer view of this dragonfly, I photographed a really interesting behavior: the transfer of a sperm packet.

Wabash River Cruiser transferring sperm packet

Wabash river cruiser transferring sperm packet prior to mating

Prior to mating, the male has to transfer sperm from his primary sexual organ to his secondary genitalia, where the female will have access to it when they link their bodies in the mating process. This photo shows him doing exactly that.  And this made me believe that I’d seen two different individuals; the first one I saw below the dam might have been the female.

I felt great that I’d gathered some valuable data for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (the Wabash river cruiser did turn out to be a new species for Fulton County), and I left that park with a smile a mile wide.

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800I’m so glad I take the time to write about these nature experiences; not just to share them with you, but for myself too. They’re fantastic memory joggers as I reminisce in the winter, sitting beside a crackling fire counting down the days until the first ode sighting next spring. I’m also planning to do some hard-core studying this winter, as I’ve been enlisted to lead the annual dragonfly field trip for Toledo Naturalists’ Association in June. I don’t need to be an expert by then, but I’d like to be as prepared as possible so everyone has fun and learns something on our outing.

A couple years ago I wrote about this little reminder I kept on my refrigerator, and it’s still working well for me. As long as I keep making plans for interesting things to do, life is good. 🙂

 

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And Now We Wait

My friend Annie planted fennel in her garden this year with hopes of attracting Eastern Black Swallowtails to lay their eggs there. Fennel is one of their many host plants (things that their caterpillars can eat when they hatch), along with carrots, celery, parsley, dill and others.

And sure enough, she got a bumper crop of swallowtail caterpillars on her fennel, and offered to let me take some of them to raise. I was hesitant at first because I had my hands full with monarchs and a few new moth species, but eventually I couldn’t resist any longer and accepted four of them in various stages of growth.

Here’s one of the smaller ones, with its white saddle of uric acid deposits that are thought to help protect them from harmful chemicals in the diet.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - early instar - w sig - blog

They look very different as they molt into larger instars, as shown here:

Black swallowtail caterpillar and molted skin w sig - blog

You can see the shed skin behind this one; he’ll turn around and eat that skin. Yum.

So we were off and running on this new adventure. I kept them supplied with celery, parsley, and dill, and they continued the work of eating, pooping, and molting. Caterpillars generate a lot of frass (poo) as they get larger, and it’s a challenge to do the daily cleanings of their container without disturbing them too much, but I make my best effort.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - middle instar - w sig - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar on 9-3-18 w sig - blog

Finally, on September 10, one of them crawled up on a stick I’d provided and assumed the pre-pupa posture, hanging below the stick. I got excited and kept checking it throughout the day, but nothing happened other than a slight scrunching up, like a Slinky toy being pressed together.

Things started happening the next day though. This is how he looked at 3:30 in the afternoon:

Black swallowtail caterpillar beginning to pupate - w sig - blog

You can see he’s anchored the end of his abdomen to the stick and is spinning a loop of silk that will wrap around his upper body to support it. By 9:30 that night he’d completed his silk harness and looked like this:

Black swallowtail caterpillar chrysalis almost done - w sig - blog

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t change positions on the stick; I just took some of the photos from the other side.  I thought this stage was beautiful, with the subtle greens and browns, and the varying surface textures of the chrysalis.

And then the next day the chrysalis was in its final form, with gorgeous brown and white marbling.

Black swallowtail chrysalis - final form w sig - blog

The black swallowtail chrysalis can be green or brown, and all four of mine are brown like this one. I’ve read some suggestions that the color is determined by the surroundings, perhaps to blend in with foliage or something. But these guys were in a room with green walls, and they made brown chrysalises, so that theory doesn’t hold water in this case. Or I suppose it would be more likely that he’s brown because the stick is brown, in which case the theory holds. Ah, so many questions!

And now comes the big mystery: Will these guys emerge in a couple weeks, or will they stay in their chrysalises all winter long? I haven’t found any information that would tell me how to know what to expect, so my plan is to watch them closely for the next couple of weeks. I would love to see them emerge so I can release them before the weather gets too cold. But if they turn out to be the overwintering types, I’ll put them outside in a semi-sheltered spot and wait for the “big reveal” next spring. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching this amazing process unfold.

I was just talking to a friend today about the process of metamorphosis. It’s something we all learn as children. We grow up knowing that caterpillars turn into butterflies, but I’d guess that most of us don’t really and truly think about it too much. I know I never appreciated what an incredible thing it is, until I became intimately involved in their lives as I shared my home with them.

Since I’ve been raising butterflies over the past few years, I’ve had days where I just sit and watch them in utter amazement as I think about their lives. A butterfly lays a microscopic egg on a plant. The miniscule caterpillar hatches and begins feeding on the leaves. If she lives long enough, there comes a day when she turns into an unrecognizable mass of goo that hardens into a beautiful shell-like structure. Then, inside that structure her body somehow liquifies and gets reassembled into an animal with big, soft wings. My mind can’t even comprehend it, really, but it brings me so much joy every single time I see it happen.

I don’t like to use the word “miracle,” but sometimes I feel like that’s the word I need to describe a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

Black swallowtail female

Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

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Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog

Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

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Just Call Me “Moth Mama”

In my previous post, I wrote about some yellow-striped armyworm caterpillars (Spodoptera ornithogalli) I’d brought home to raise.

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar Aug 22 2018

Giving him some fresh air one day while I was cleaning the container and adding food

Many caterpillars have beautiful markings, and this one was no exception. I didn’t notice this pretty geometric design on the dorsal side until the last instar.

Yellow-striped armyworm caterpillar - blog

There’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in identifying the species of a caterpillar because they can look very different depending on their life stage. Sometimes they’ll have completely different patterns in their early instars than they do in later instars, after molting several times. And my primary field guide doesn’t usually show more than one, or maybe two, instars for each species. So I have to consult multiple sources to confirm an identification; usually one or more of Mississippi State University’s “Moth Photographers Group,” BugGuide.net, or various Facebook groups like Mothing Ohio, Butterflying Ohio, or Caterpillars Ohio.

I didn’t know what to expect as far as how or when they would pupate, but it turned out I didn’t have to wait long to find out. On the morning of August 23, I discovered a little brown pellet lying on the bottom of the enclosure and a shriveled up exoskeleton beside it.

Yellow-striped armyworm in cocoon day one - blog

Pupa with molted exoskeleton lying on the left

It surprised me because I’d thought they would need to hang from a stick or dig under some soil or something.  I also thought a moth cocoon would be hairy or have a rough texture, so this smooth, shiny capsule intrigued me. (Correction: thanks to a kind reader I know that this isn’t a cocoon at all, but the actual pupal form of the moth.) I moved it into a separate little container, placed it on the kitchen counter, and waited for the others to pupate.

In the meantime, my research told me that this species would not overwinter in this form, but would instead emerge as an adult moth in only 9-22 days. That was exciting, because the idea of waiting all winter long to see its adult form seemed rather anticlimactic, after all the drama of finding it, identifying it, and then seeing it pupate.

So I marked September 1 as the first possible date of emergence. That day came and went. As did September 2. Then, at 7:00 on the morning of September 3, I was awakened by an unusual noise. My cat Sam and I both jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen. We found Sophie on the counter pawing at the little container — which now had a moth fluttering around inside! So he only spent 11 days as a pupa.

The photos came out pretty dark, so I lightened this one to show his beautiful patterning:

Yellow-striped armyworm moth - blog

Newly-eclosed yellow-striped armyworm moth

I say this often, but it bears repeating: You will be amazed when you take the time to look closely at anything in nature. There’s so much hidden beauty right under our noses every day! My camera’s macro lens is one of my prized possessions; it changed my life by opening up a whole new world to me.

It may seem silly, but I was bursting with “parental pride” at having raised him from caterpillar to adult moth. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the first time I raised a monarch butterfly, but it was still enough to make me smile when I was barely awake enough to see what he looked like. This guy was quite agitated in his container and I had concerns that he would damage his wings, so I took a few photos as quickly as I could, and then placed his container in the garden under the sheltering leaves of a large hosta. I often find moths hiding there during the day, so I thought that would be a good place for him to hang out until he was ready to explore his new world.

Yellow-striped armyworm - underside view - blog

Underside view of newly-eclosed yellow armyworm moth

If there are any farmers reading this, they might be annoyed that I raised this insect because it’s considered an agricultural “pest” and is a frequent target of crop pesticides.  I guess that would be a fair point, but I also think that it was a great learning experience for me and it’s not like I’m raising bunches of them. In fact, only one of the armyworm caterpillars I found survived to adulthood.  And I’m sharing what I learned too, so the educational value of raising this single moth is multiplied.

Also, I read in Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Wagner, 2005) that the adult moths of this species migrate here from the southern U.S. in the spring. They can have several broods throughout the summer, but they can’t survive the winter up here. Wagner doesn’t mention the adults migrating south again in fall, so does that mean that any of them that are here in the winter will perish and our population will get replenished in the spring when new adults migrate here? I’d still like to know the answer to that.

Polyphemus caterpillar on 9-1-18 - blog

Polyphemus caterpillar on September 1, the day I adopted him (Antheraea polyphemus)

Having said all that, it’s been quite rewarding to successfully raise a moth for the first time.  The Speyer’s cucullia caterpillars I showed in my previous post have burrowed into the soil already; if all goes well they’ll emerge in the spring. I’m continuing to raise the polyphemus moth caterpillars I mentioned previously too. They seem to be growing much more slowly than I’m used to seeing with monarch caterpillars.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

And just a couple days ago my friend Annie gave me four black swallowtail caterpillars from her garden. That’s yet another new species for me, but I’ve already noticed that these butterfly caterpillars are growing much faster than the moth caterpillars. I wonder if it’s generally true that moth caterpillars grow slower than butterfly caterpillars; that sounds like something I should add to my list of winter research projects.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll have a few monarch butterflies emerging, and then I’ll look forward to releasing my very first black swallowtail butterflies. I can’t wait!

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Wordless Wednesday

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Lepidoptera Life Lessons

I’ve written here about raising monarch butterfly caterpillars in the past couple of years. It’s even more exciting now that I have my very own milkweed plants and can watch the butterflies laying eggs in my yard and then bring the eggs inside to raise. It’s very satisfying to take them from egg to caterpillar to adult butterfly and then release them back onto the same plant where their lives began only a few weeks earlier.

Recently I’ve begun trying to raise butterflies of the night (moths) as well. This wasn’t planned at all and I’m still learning on the fly, so to speak. It all began a couple weeks ago when a friend posted a photo of dozens of milkweed tussock moth caterpillars in her yard. I asked if I could take a few of them to raise and she was more than happy to oblige.

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar 8-12-18

Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle)

I really only knew two basic facts about the moth life cycle: the metamorphosis of a moth takes place in a cocoon instead of the butterfly’s chrysalis, and they can stay in their cocoon for months rather than mere days. So when I arrived home with three fuzzy wuzzy caterpillars, I knew I had to quickly find out whatever I could about the needs of these guys so I could keep them alive.

It turns out there’s not a whole lot of information available about the life cycle of this species. Or at least I couldn’t find much. I wanted to know how many instars they would go through so I would be able to predict the time when they would form cocoons. I couldn’t find that information, so I resigned myself to just keeping a close watch on them.

I was thrilled to capture this video of one cat as he had just molted into a new instar one day. The black piece at the bottom of the screen is his discarded head capsule, and the fuzzy piece at the top is his old discarded “skin” that he has wriggled out of. I love seeing him writhing around getting used to his new larger body. It reminds me of how we stretch our arms and legs upon awakening in the morning to get the blood flowing. Or, in this case, the hemolymph (caterpillars don’t have blood). In this video, the action starts about 27 seconds in.

I kept them fed with fresh leaves of common milkweed each day, and then one day I could only find two caterpillars in my enclosure. Hmmm, that was weird. I’ve had monarch caterpillars escape their enclosure before, but I couldn’t see how these big fuzzy cats could have possibly gotten through the tiny slits in the lid of the new container. Just in case, I searched and searched around the room but couldn’t find the missing caterpillar. I wondered, could the others have eaten it?

I read somewhere that caterpillars will sometimes resort to cannibalism when they don’t have an adequate food supply. I’d fed them plenty of milkweed though. Just in case they didn’t like the common milkweed, I put two other kinds of milkweed in the enclosure. And the next day there was only ONE caterpillar! I think they must have been eating each other, although I can’t understand why.

So now I had only one caterpillar left and I was worried. Would he starve for some reason because he wouldn’t eat the plant food? And what if he was ready to make his cocoon but I hadn’t provided him with the right conditions? I’d put sticks inside in case they needed to crawl up and hang from them. I’d also tried putting a couple inches of soil in the bottom of the container in case he needed to burrow under, but after a few days I noticed mold growing on the soil, so that had to go. I was screwing this up and felt awful about it.

I finally made the decision to release the remaining caterpillar into my garden rather than keep him contained and maybe be responsible for his death too. It’s frustrating not knowing what happened, and I had hoped to be able to publish some information about raising this species to help other people who might want to do it. I guess this might at least serve as an example of what not to do.

Speyer's cucullia as of Aug 22 2018 (4)

Speyer’s cucullia moth caterpillar (Cucullia speyeri)

I’ve got some other moth caterpillars now, and I sure hope I get better results with these guys. About a week ago I was volunteering with our local metropark system, helping them remove large amounts of marestail (Conyza canadensis) from their native seed propagation field. While doing that work I found quite a few interesting caterpillars feeding on that invasive weedy plant (which also grows in my own yard, by the way). After asking permission, I brought one of them home, identified it as a Speyer’s cucullia moth (Cucullia speyeri), and began feeding it fresh marestail each day.

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar Aug 22 2018

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar (Spodoptera ornithogalli)

A few days later I went back to volunteer again and got a couple more of the same species, as well as a couple yellow-striped armyworm cats (Spodoptera ornithogalli) that were also feeding on the same plant. I thought I had four total, and then one day I found another tiny one in the enclosure. It’s so easy to overlook the smallest ones; he probably hitched a ride on one of the plants I brought in as food for the other guys.

And then I got another surprise yesterday as I was cleaning out the container, preparing to put in fresh marestail. This guy was also in there!

Cabbage Looper moth caterpillar v2

Cabbage Looper Moth caterpillar (Trichoplusia ni))

This is a cabbage looper moth caterpillar, the first of these I’ve ever seen. It’s easier to understand how I missed him because he’s so well camouflaged against the green vegetation.

I still worry that these guys won’t survive to make their cocoons though. And to be honest, someone in a mothing group online pointed out (rather snarkily) that the cabbage looper moth cats are considered agricultural pests and I shouldn’t be caring for this guy. Fair point, but I’m only going to raise this one as a self-education project; I’m not planning to raise hundreds of them. And with my moth track record so far, his chances of surviving with me are probably not much better than his chances if left outdoors.

Here’s one more thing I have to worry about while raising these guys…cat vs. cat!

That’s why I keep the caterpillars in their own room. I let Sam go in with me one day so he could satisfy his curiosity by sniffing around the enclosure, but quickly realized he could do some real damage by pawing at them. Out he went!

And just this morning, as I was finishing up this post, I got a text from a friend asking if I’d like some Polyphemus moth caterpillars to raise. Um, that would be a YES! Click that link to see what a beautiful Polyphemus moth looks like. These other moths I’m raising are mostly rather drab after they emerge, but a Polyphemus…now THAT will be exciting. And luckily those guys can eat maple leaves, which I have an endless supply of. That will make my life much easier as I try to keep them fed until they make their cocoons. Stay tuned!

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Wordless Wednesday

Wabash River Cruiser reduced size w sig

Wabash River Cruiser (Macromia wabashensis)

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