Creatures of the Night

Luna moth with frame and sig
Luna moth (Actias luna) – he’s about 4 inches across

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.

Basswood leafroller w sig
Basswood Leafroller

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!

Mothing sheets (4)
Typical mothing setup at Mothapalooza

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.)

Kim holding polyphemus moth
Nighttime selfie with Polyphemus moth

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:

Regal moth w sig
Regal moth, another big one (Citheronia regalis)
Regal moth face view w sig
Face view of a Regal moth

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!)

Beautiful Wood-nymph moth - Eudryas grata w sig
Beautiful Wood-nymph — yes, beautiful is in its name!
Kim photographing moths- by angie (2)
That’s me trying to get the moth face shots I love so much (Thanks to Angie Cole for this shot.)

Kim with polyphemus moth on shoe by angie cole with caption

Luna moth face shot w sig Kim Clair Smith
Face view of a Luna moth — those thick bipectinate antennae are characteristic of male moths

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:

Pandorus Sphinx Moth - Eumorpha pandorus - caterpillar w sig

And then the adult moth:

Pandorus sphinx - Eumorpha pandorus w sig.jpg

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. 🙂

Cocooning

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.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar eating elm leaf - Sept 10 2018 blog
The lone survivor eating an elm leaf – Sept 10

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.

Polyphemus caterpillar turning brownish - blog
Polyphemus moth caterpillar turning darker near the end of September

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!

Polyphemus caterpillar's last photoshoot Oct 30 2018 - blog

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.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 10 am - blog

And this one was taken when I got home around 6:00 pm.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 6 pm - blog

And I took this final photo this morning.

Polyphemus cocoon finished on Nov 1 2018 - blog

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

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!

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!

Special Garden Visitors

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.

Tiger Bee Fly - blog
Tiger bee fly (Xenox tigrinus)

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.

boneset in my garden

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?

Stinkbug Hunter
Stinkbug hunter, a solitary wasp

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.

Grass-carrying Wasp - Isodontia mexicana
Grass-carrying wasp (Isodontia mexicana)

Next up is yet another wasp, the beewolf (Philanthus gibbosus), a species I hadn’t noticed before today.

Beewolf - Philanthus gibbosus
Beewolf wasp (Philanthus gibbosus)

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.

Ailanthus webworm moth - blog
Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea)

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!

The Wings That Lifted Me Up

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.

Cecropia moth on Rick's arm - full view from above
Cecropia moth on Rick’s arm

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.

Cecropia moth showing underwings and abdomen pattern
Rick gently lifted the wings so I could get this shot of the gorgeous pattern on the abdomen.

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.

Cecropia moth at Rick's house - close crop of antennae

Here’s another Cecropia still in its cocoon:

Cecropia moth 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:

Giant Swallowtail on wafer ash tree w sig

Here’s the chrysalis after the butterfly emerged out of it:

Giant swallowtail chrysalis after the butterfly has emerged - smaller file size

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.