Creatures of the Night, Again

I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!

In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that these are not exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.

Using a UV flashlight to light up a caterpillar
A few of my friends on the hunt for caterpillars

Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them.  Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.

Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:

Waved sphinx moth w sig - blog
Waved sphinx moth larva (Ceratomia undulosa)

I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal.  So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.

Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.

Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!

Io Moth caterpillar
Io moth (Automeris io)

During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:

Io moth on Angie's pant leg - blog

I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern.  In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.

This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.

This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:

Promethea moth caterpillar close head crop - blog
Promethea moth caterpillar (Callosamia promethea)

I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.

Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.

Tiger swallowtail caterpillar - blog
Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)

Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.

Stick mimic moth caterpillar - blog

As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes.  I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings.  On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.

Pawpaw sphinx moth caterpillar - blog
Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar (Dolba hyloeus)

The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.

And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!

White furcula moth caterpillar - blog

That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator.  Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!

Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest.  That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)

Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.

Spring peeper - blogOkay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!

And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.

Kim on night hike
Kim the Bugdork (don’t judge me, LOL)

Odes in Winter: Where Are They Now?

Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.

I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)

And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - MBSP (1) w sig
Flag-tailed spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus)

Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.

This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:

Frozen pond at MBSP - blog
Frozen fishing pond at Maumee Bay State Park, just a stone’s throw from a frozen Lake Erie

Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!”  Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog
Empty exuviae of a dragonfly, possibly one of the darners

Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.

If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.

Dragonfly exuviae w sig KCS blog
Exuviae of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuviae I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.

I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)

According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival.  I think I can make it.  In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!

Black-shouldered spinyleg - really cool pic w sig
Black-shouldered spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

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!