I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees. I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud
It stands to reason that if you want to see things that are out in the dark, you need to become a creature of the night as well. And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend.
You’ve certainly heard of events celebrating birds and butterflies, but you may not have heard of Mothapalooza. It’s an event held in southern Ohio every other year, and the main activity at the weekend affair is gathering at lighted sheets in the middle of the night to look at moths. This was my first time to experience it, and I loved the geekiness of it all, and the chance to see so many stunning moths. The lodge at Shawnee State Park is the headquarters, and that’s where the talks and meals take place. Many attendees stay in the lodge and more fill the two dozen cabins behind the lodge. I stayed in a cabin with my friends George, Angie, and Jackie.
Most people don’t give moths a second thought unless they’re swatting them away from the porch light to keep them out of the house. Did you know that many moths are pollinators? Yep, butterflies and bees do this important work during the day, while moths work the night shift. It’s so cool to realize that the ecosystem doesn’t sleep when we do; there are critical interactions happening all night long!
I’ve tried setting up my own light system to attract moths here at home, but have had limited success with that so far. (I think it’s partly because I hesitate to use a bright enough light for fear my neighbors will complain about the crazy bug lady.)
As you can see from this photo, some of the moths are huge, but there are also micromoths that are hard to see without a hand lens. I focused on photographing the larger ones this time, but maybe next time I’ll be calmed down enough to try the smaller ones. When I walked up to the first mothing sheet on Friday night, I was blown away by the beauty and variety of insects that had gathered there. I hope I can convey some of that excitement to you by sharing a few photos.
The sizes of these moths range from about 6 inches (wingspan) for the big silk moths, down to less than a tenth of an inch for the micromoths. I’d say most of the moths I photographed fall in the range of about 1-3″ wingspans.
So here’s how Mothapalooza works:
Each evening the organizers set up lights and sheets around the lodge area, and we could go visit the sheets at our leisure, walking through the night with flashlights to get from one station to the next. I joked that I felt like I was going trick-or-treating as we walked through the cabin area in the dark, visiting the moth sheets of other people to see what they’d attracted. They also had a half dozen remote locations set up, and they offered a shuttle service to take us to those. Mothing was scheduled from 10 pm to 2 am each night, but I know quite a few people who stayed up much later than 2:00. I learned that the moths tend to come to the lights at different times, so there are apparently some that you won’t see unless you’re willing to check the lights all through the night. I barely made it until 1:00 the first night and 2:00 the second night, despite being a night owl in my normal life. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could sleep until noon the next day, but there’s so much cool wildlife to see down there that we all felt we should be awake and exploring for as many hours as possible. (Moths by night, dragonflies and butterflies by day!)
Black-waved Flannel Moth
Face view of same moth
A couple years ago I got my first look at the spectacular caterpillar of the Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), and this weekend I saw the adult form of the same animal. First the caterpillar:
And then the adult moth:
Is that not a marvelous creature?! The host plants for the caterpillar are grape and Virginia creeper, and when my friend and I found the caterpillar, it was indeed feeding on grape leaves. I was so enchanted by that caterpillar that I can’t resist scanning every grape leaf I pass on my walks, just in case I can find another one. And this moth is quite substantial, so when one of them crashes into your head, you definitely notice it.
I’m going to put a lot more photos on my blog’s Facebook page instead of posting them all here. So if you’re on Facebook, you can “Like” and “Follow” my page to see more cool photos than you can see here. (Here’s the link.)
I’m so glad I had this exciting experience! I got a change of scenery, met new friends, learned more about the natural world, and was inspired to share it with you here. I hope this might motivate some of you to hang a sheet outside and point a light at it and see what shows up. You just never know what surprises are out there in your own backyard!
Here’s a brief video to show what it’s like at a mothing station:
I took a couple extra days after Mothapalooza to drive around the southern counties of Ohio looking for dragonflies, so I’m still trying to get rested and get myself back on a normal schedule. I’ll have some fun dragon stories and photos to share next time, so I hope you’ll come back. 🙂
The weather here in northwestern Ohio has turned colder and wetter as we enter the depths of autumn. Humans turn to furnaces and fireplaces for comfort and survival, and insects have their various methods of doing the same.
This year I’ve been raising a polyphemus moth caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus). I was given about a half dozen of the tiny early instar caterpillars back on August 23. They were feeding on maple leaves when I got them, but they can feed on a variety of tree species, so I was able to change them over to elm leaves. I have two maple trees but they’ve been trimmed so high that I can’t reach the leaves without a ladder. The elm tree has enough low-hanging branches that I could reach more fresh leaves each day.
I was excited to begin this adventure with a species I’d never raised before. Raising monarch butterfly caterpillars (cats) is a relatively quick and easy project, as they only feed for a couple weeks before going into their chrysalis form. I knew the polyphemus moth cats would take a bit longer, but I didn’t know much about what to expect along the way.
As it turned out, there were some surprises. The first was that I would only end up with one caterpillar. I’m not sure if the little guys somehow escaped the enclosure or if they ate each other, but after a couple weeks, there was only one left. You may remember that I wrote about my experience with milkweed tussock moth caterpillars back in August, in which I believe they cannibalized each other. You’d think that would have made me more cautious with this species, but I guess I assumed that the tussock moth cat behavior was some sort of anomaly. And besides that, these guys were so tiny and had enormous amounts of food available to them, I couldn’t imagine they would eat each other. I don’t think they could have escaped from their enclosure either. But whatever happened, I ended up with just the single caterpillar after a couple weeks.
I fed him fresh elm leaves each day and waited eagerly for signs of impending pupation. And waited. And waited.
Near the end of September, he started to turn a darker olive green at the head end. I hoped that meant he was almost ready to make a cocoon, but it didn’t. I also wondered if he was sick or had been parasitized somehow. But after a couple weeks like that, he turned back to his bright green color and continued eating.
Before you go on, if you haven’t done it yet, I suggest clicking to enlarge one of these photos so you can fully appreciate the body structure of this fascinating insect. I just love the brown alien-looking face, and the colorful bumps that adorn much of the body. And the backside, which I’ve come to call the butt flap, where the relatively large pellets of waste are ejected. You can see one of the “pellets o’ poo” on a leaf in the background of this photo.
I took him out of his enclosure on Tuesday to take some more photos, and this turned out to be his very last photo shoot. Is he not amazing?! Look at those gripping feet!
Take a look at the various dots of color along the abdomen in this photo. There are some with hairs (or setae) coming out of them, and then there’s a row of brownish spots without hairs; those are the spiracles. The caterpillar doesn’t have lungs like we do, but instead breathes through those spiracles. And by the way, if you’d like to read much more detail about the life cycle of this moth, check out this site from the University of Florida.
And it wasn’t until yesterday — finally — that he crawled into a dried elm leaf and began spinning silk to enclose himself. This photo was taken around 10:00 in the morning. Notice a few strands of silk on the left end of the leaf.
And this one was taken when I got home around 6:00 pm.
And I took this final photo this morning.
He’s tucked in there nice and cozy now, and will spend the winter and early spring “napping.” And it’s weird, but I don’t quite know how to think about him in this phase. With monarch butterflies spending such a short time in their chrysalis form, it’s easy to imagine that they’re actively transforming into butterflies each day. But with these guys, I have no idea what happens in that cocoon for so many months. Does he stay in this caterpillar form, only transforming into a moth right before emerging in the spring? Or does he begin the transformation as soon as he’s wrapped up? I’d like to know the answer to that, but I also love wondering about it, letting my imagination run with the possibilities.
I’ve now put him in the garage for the winter, along with the four black swallowtail chrysalises that are wintering in there. Both of these species need to be exposed to the cold of winter so that their emergence in the spring will be at the same time as the rest of their species. That’s important so that they can find mates. The polyphemus moth doesn’t even have mouth parts to feed, so it will live as an adult moth for less than a week, just long enough to reproduce the next generation.
I’m anxious to see the moth and the butterflies eclose from their winter abodes next year. It’s going to be so hard to wait. I can imagine trudging into the garage all bundled up in February to get the snow shovel and seeing this cocoon tucked in the corner, with the caterpillar doing whatever it’s doing in there. I think that will bring a smile to my face no matter how much I hate shoveling snow. #FindingTheJoy
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.
They look very different as they molt into larger instars, as shown here:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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!
On 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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!
In my previous post, I wrote about some yellow-striped armyworm caterpillars (Spodoptera ornithogalli) I’d brought home to raise.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
At the risk of getting ahead of myself before I catch you up to real time in the new native garden series, I want to share some observations from my garden today. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the primary reasons I’m creating a garden full of native plants is to provide food for our native insects at all stages of their lives, from larva to adult. As I get started with the garden, I’ve been eagerly documenting every insect I can find on my plants. These are just five of the species I found today as I did yard work.
This first one was near the garden but not feeding, at least while I was watching. This is a tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus), and I just found out that it’s a predator of carpenter bees, which probably explains why it’s in my yard — I have plenty of those. This very large fly lays its eggs at the entrance to a carpenter bee tunnel, and when the fly larvae hatch, they find and eat the bee larvae.
I always enjoy learning about the relationships between various insects and plants, so this is a fascinating discovery.
These next four species were all feeding on common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), one of my favorite native plants. Whenever I see this plant in other places, it’s covered with insects, so I had high hopes for seeing a good variety of bugs when I planted this.
In this picture the boneset is the tall one with white flowers at the back of the bed.
Not only is it pretty, it has a subtle sweet fragrance I adore. So here are four species I found on the boneset today.
First is the stinkbug hunter (Bicyrtes quadrifasciatus) — isn’t that a great name?
I’ve read that this wasp preys on the non-native brown marmorated stinkbug, making it a most welcome insect in my yard!
Next up is another wasp, the grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana). Interestingly enough, this species sometimes uses abandoned carpenter bee nests for its own young. One more inter-species relationship discovered today.
Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.
And finally, one of my favorite diurnal moths, the lovely little ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea). They’re very common but I always get a thrill when I find them.
I had trouble getting a sharp photo today because it was breezy and this guy was moving pretty quickly as he crawled around the flowers to feed. But just look at the pretty patterns of orange, black, and yellow. Most of us are well aware of the beauty of butterflies, but fewer people notice that there are lots of gorgeous moths as well. That’s probably because most moths fly at night, but there are quite a lot of them that are daytime feeders (diurnal) too.
So there you have it — my nascent native garden is already proving its value to the ecosystem!
I just had the most extraordinary experience thanks to the kindness of a friend. I’d been feeling down for a few days and was keeping to myself, refusing to socialize with anyone. I knew I just needed some time away from people to get myself re-centered after a couple of bad experiences earlier this week. So I was spending my days with my hands in the soil, transplanting my many native plant seedlings. It was good and fulfilling work, and I could feel myself slowly getting ready to face the world again.
By the way, I read about a study years ago that showed that microbes in soil can actually lift your mood, and my experience seems to back that up.
So anyway, my friend Rick didn’t know I was going through this, but he happened to call today to ask if I wanted to come watch him release his two newly-emerged Giant Swallowtail butterflies. It took me about a half second to say “Yes, of course!” I was so excited I could barely contain myself. Not only did he have those beautiful butterflies to show me, but this would be my first visit to his extensive and award-winning native plant garden. He’s been one of my mentors in my new native gardening project, and so I was just as excited about talking plants with him.
As I arrived at his house, he was standing in the yard holding an aquarium containing the two swallowtails. As I oohed and ahhed over them, he said he had yet another surprise for me. We walked into the back yard and he showed me a freshly-eclosed Hyalophora cecropia, aka Giant Silkworm moth! I almost jumped out of my skin because I’d been dying to see one of these for a long time.
Is that not stunning?! I still can’t believe I finally got to see this species, the largest moth in North America with a 6″ wingspan. And not only that, I was able to let it crawl around on my arm and feel the prickles of its tiny feet! I was rather surprised to notice that as it walked, that gorgeous fat abdomen just dragged along under the wings. I would have expected it to be lifted up. I may need to do some research about that to see if maybe that was just because it was newly-eclosed.
This moth had been in its cocoon all winter long and will live just long enough to mate and lay eggs for the next generation. If you’d like to see photos of the entire life cycle of this fascinating insect, go here.
As with all moths, it had lush comb-like antennae, as shown below. We believe this one is female because the antennae on the males are much larger than those on the female.
Here’s another Cecropia still in its cocoon:
I sometimes forget to make the distinction between a cocoon and a chrysalis. A butterfly emerges, or ecloses, from a chrysalis. A moth emerges from a cocoon. #ScienceTidbit
Here’s one of the Giant Swallowtails after we placed it on a wafer ash tree in Rick’s yard:
Here’s the chrysalis after the butterfly emerged out of it:
The camouflage is perfect, isn’t it? If I saw that branch in nature, I’d probably not even notice the chrysalis. Here’s a short video of the butterfly resting before making its first flight:
I’m incredibly grateful for the timing of Rick’s call today, and that I was able to spend a couple hours soaking up the beauty of his yard and the knowledge in his native-plant-growing brain. And, of course, I left his house with a few more native plants in my arms.
This is proof that, sometimes, one small gesture can turn your day around. The second I saw those crisp new life forms fluttering their delicate wings, I forgot all about the things in the human world that had made me sad. Once again, nature was my therapy.
This summer I started paying much closer attention to moths than ever before. Most of us don’t think about these critters unless we’re swatting them away from the porch light so they don’t get into our houses. We rarely stop to look at them, much less to think about their role in the ecosystem. But they’re often just as pretty as their daytime counterparts, the butterflies, and just as important.
Along with being a popular food for birds, moths serve the same purpose as butterflies and many other insects: to pollinate plants. But most of them do this important work under cover of darkness, while we’re snug in our beds. One easy way to enter the world of night-flying moths is to leave your porch lights on and study the insects that come to rest on the walls or windows. It’s also popular these days to shine a black light on a white sheet, or even put out moth bait, to attract a wider variety of species.
I’ve put out my black light a few times this year (without too much success), but have also found lots of different moths just by walking around in my yard and seeing what flies out of the vegetation around me. For example, I found this plume moth while mowing the yard just a week ago:
These little “fighter jets” with their rolled-up wings are fairly common in my yard, and I can never resist trying for a better photo of them. There are almost 150 species of plume moths in North America, and I can’t identify this one.
Imagine finding something like this and having to flip through photos of thousands of similar brown moths:
It’s one thing if the moth is relatively “fresh” and unworn, so the markings are still clear. It gets much more difficult when they’re faded and tattered.
Some moths are diurnal, or daytime feeders. And so far, it seems that the diurnal moths are generally easier to identify. For instance, here’s one I found feeding on mums in my yard in late October:
This is a Corn Earworm Moth (Helicoverpa zea), clearly in a very worn and faded state near the end of its life. You can still see faint markings on the tattered wings, vague remnants of its earlier beauty.
Another daytime-feeder I really like is the Yellow-collared Scape Moth shown here:
And here’s the similar-looking Virginia Ctenucha moth:
This Ailanthus Webworm moth is diurnal too, and not native to this part of the country but now fairly common here.
I’ll save some of my other moths for another time, but I just have to share these photos of a spectacular moth I just photographed for the first time yesterday. This is the Buck Moth, a daytime flyer with bold markings of black, white, and orange. On my first outing to see this species a few days earlier, I’d seen dozens of them flying erratically around a meadow, sometimes bumping clumsily into branches and tall grasses. But we couldn’t find any resting ones to take photos of on that day.
But this time we got there early enough that some of them weren’t yet flying, and we found this one still roosting on a small sapling where it was easy to photograph from inches away. We spent a good five minutes taking shots of this gorgeous male before he finally woke up and flew off to join the other males in search of females. The adult moths don’t have functional mouth parts and cannot feed. Their only task is to reproduce and then die, leaving their eggs to overwinter so the caterpillars can emerge the following spring.
After this one flew off, we were able to net a couple other individuals. I was captivated as I got to hold one in my hand and feel his furry little body as he gently walked up my arm. He almost made it up to my shoulder before suddenly taking flight and zigzagging back out on his mating mission.
All of the moths in these photos were found in Lucas County in northwestern Ohio, either in my yard or in the various metroparks and nature preserves. There’s such diversity represented here already, and I know there are a gazillion more species out there just waiting for me to find them and show them to you!