Moth marvels

Some of the large moths, like the polyphemus (Antheraea polyphemus) and cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia, below) moths, definitely rival butterflies in their beauty and splendor. Before launching into a series on some Central American wildlife, I thought I’d share a couple recent moth-related spottings that I had.

The luna moth (Actias luna) is a large lepidopteran that entrances people and I recently saw one along a path in the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. Unfortunately, the insect had died but the cause was not apparent. Perhaps it was a parasitic fly that was originally introduced to help control invasive gypsy moths or perhaps it had simply reached the end of its life span.

This past year, I was fortunate enough to see the cocoons of both the polyphemus (left) and cecropia moths but I had not seen the large caterpillars associated with some large moths.

 

Then, just a few days before departing for a trip to Costa Rica, it was my good fortune to visit a garden that had two species of large hornworms. The tobacco hornworm is the immature form of the Carolina sphinx moth (also known as the tobacco hawkmoth; Manduca sexta). The tomato hornworm, the caterpillar of the brown and gray five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) looks very similar except that it has a black or dark blue horn instead of the orange one sported by the tobacco hornworm.

The tomato hornworm is distinguished by v-shaped marks (right) while the tobacco hornworm has beautiful black-bordered straight white lines on its body. I find both species attractive but particularly like the tobacco hornworm caterpillars.

                    

They are so cute with their rounded heads and little suction-cup-like feet.

Both species of caterpillar can be found on either tomato or tobacco plants as they consume the foliage of various plants in the nightshade family. The presence of frass (insect larvae poop) alerts you to which plants may be hosting the hornworms.

These moth species originated in Central America and are now considered by some people to be garden pests, especially when they eat tomatoes. It seems that planting marigolds next to the fruit can repel the caterpillars, who eventually pupate and then overwinter underground where they have fallen off plants.

 

There are parasitic wasps that also prey on the hornworms. One species attacks the tiny hornworm eggs, which are laid on leaves; another wasp lays its eggs in the body of the caterpillars.

 

The Kingsolver Lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is researching the hornworms among other insects, examining how environmental changes caused by humans (agro-ecosystems, introduction of invasive species, climate change) are evoking responses in the caterpillars. It was a treat to see lots of these caterpillars at different stages of their development.

                

Next up: a blog on one bird species I’ve watched frequently this summer in NC and then a virtual trip to Costa Rica. 🙂

 

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

It’s a bird! No, it’s not! It’s an insect??!!

Clearwing moth first photo©Maria de BruynSeveral years ago, as I was beginning to photograph wildlife more seriously, I became quite excited at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Buzzing around some profusely blooming flowers was what I thought might be the smallest hummingbird I had ever seen. I was not used to taking shots of something that was in almost constant motion, but I persisted until I got photos that made it at least a little recognizable. I lost the original photo when both my computer and my back-up hard drive crashed at almost the same time, but I “rescued” one of those first photos from a Word document.

Hummingbird clearwing moth brown IMG_2701 M de Bruyn resizedI soon learned that what I had seen was actually an insect – a hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) to be precise. This is likely one of the first insects that I ever got enthusiastic about.

I have seen a second, similar, species called the snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), seen below.

 

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_8436dddd nr MdBSnowberry Clearwing moth IMG_8492

So, how do you tell the species apart? The snowberry clearwing has a dark band running from its eye down its throat and thorax and its legs are black, while the hummingbird clearwing lacks the thick dark band and has yellowish or paler legs.

snowberry and hummingbird clearwing moths IMG_7461©Maria de BruynresSome people identify these moths as bumblebee mimics, which also makes sense since they are similar in size to bumblebees. Here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth next to a silver-spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus, one of the smaller butterflies).

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_8252dnr MdBAnd here you see a snowberry clearwing next to a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). The adult moths are about 1.25-2 inches (3.18-5 cm) long.

Large milkweed bug and snowberry clearwing moth IMG_6290©Maria de Bruynres

The clearwings have an upper body color that ranges from tan to green. They are quite “furry” and have cute little tufts at their posteriors. Underneath they are pale, whitish or yellowish.

Hummingbird clearwing moth brown IMG_1822 MdBHummingbird clearwing moth green IMG_2200 MdB

Both species have dark abdomens. The juvenile moths have dark wings but scales fall away as they mature leaving clear, transparent, panels in their wings. They would make good subjects for a stained glass artist!

Hummingbird clearwing moth IMG_0027 MdB

Like butterflies, these moths have a long proboscis (tongue) that they can curl up when resting or during flight. The adult moths sip nectar from a variety of plants including Japanese honeysuckle, beebalm, red clover, lilacs, phlox and thistles. In my yard, they are especially fond of the butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii), which I just discovered can be an invasive plant (so I have to keep them trimmed and make sure to lop off the dried flowers before seeds spread).

Hummingbird clearwing moth IMG_9982 MdBHummingbird clearwing moth green IMG_1955 MdB

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_4435©Maria de Bruyn resTheir caterpillars are called hornworms as they have a horn at the rear; I have not seen one yet but they must be around somewhere. They pupate in leaf litter and on the ground; since I leave the fallen leaves around, I’ve been providing them with a childhood and adolescent home! And that’s good as I really look forward now to welcoming them to my yard each year!

 

Moths to rival butterflies!

Friendly probole moth IMG_9681©Maria de BruynresThe past week has been incredibly busy with work and the next couple weeks will be so as well. But I hope to stick somewhat to my weekly schedule of (hopefully) entertaining and perhaps educating you a bit on the wonderful wildlife around us!

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a fellow Project Noah member, Jacob Gorneau, had mentioned me in his article about National Moth Week (http://nationalmothweek.org/2014/02/23/project-noah-hosts-the-second-annual-national-moth-week/), What he quoted me as saying – “I really did think of butterflies as being the beauties and moths as the plain cousins. It’s great to have learned so much about the beauty of moths!” – was  a result of having participated in that annual week. Just like birders do bird counts, “moth-ers” do moth counts. And it was through my joining in on that activity that I learned to appreciate just how gorgeous moths can be – like that Friendly Probole Moth (Probole amicaria) at the top of this blog! Here are a few more beauties I’ve seen over time.

Polka-dot wasp moth IMG_0107VThis polka dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epimoth, Cream-striped owl IMG_6548© Maria de Bruynlais) was visiting a plant in Mexico. And this is a cream-striped owl moth (Cyligramma latona), which was a welcome surprise in Namibia.

Zale moth IMG_4866©Maria de BruynMy backyard also reveals some interesting specimens. Moth Week induced me to go outside at night with a flashlight and I found these beauties on my crepe myrtle trees. Left is a Zale moth and below a black bit moth (Celiptera frustulum).

Black bit moth IMG_4867©Maria de Bruyn2

Splendid palpita moth IMG_4696©Maria de BruynThis splendid palpita moth (Palpita magniferalis) was on the ceiling of the roof overhanging my front porch. Gorgeous pattern, don’t you think?

Next week, I’ll share a few more of these beauties!