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Caterpillars

Fern Balls

fern ball 216At this time of year, many new sterile fern fronds have “fern balls” at their tips – something has taken the last few inches of the tip of the frond and stitched it together into a ball-shaped shelter bound with silk. If you open one of these balls, you may find frass – droppings from the immature insect that was dwelling within the ball while consuming the terminal leaflets of the fern. Sometimes, but not always, you’ll find the larva responsible for the frass. Many species of ferns, as well as other plants, are host to many species of larvae, and many of these larvae are immature moths. Pictured is Christmas Fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, which is likely the host of the larva of Herpetograma sphingealis, the Serpentine Webworm Moth, or its close relative, H. aeglealis. Larvae live in these shelters for about a month before pupating and emerging as small, brown moths.

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Eastern Tent Caterpillars Hatching & Building Tents

eastern tent cat. FINAL 090The adult Eastern Tent Caterpillar moth lays her eggs in late spring or early summer on a tree whose leaves its larvae will eat (black cherry and apple trees are favorites). Two to three hundred eggs are deposited in a mass that encircles a thin branch. Within three weeks fully formed caterpillars develop inside the eggs. The caterpillars remain there until the following spring, when they chew their way out of the eggs just as the buds of the host tree are starting to open. As soon as the caterpillars emerge, they construct a silk tent within which they reside, enlarging it as they grow in size.

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Cecropia Moths Pupating

11-11-13 cecropia cocoon dissected  056Our largest North American native moth, the Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia, spends the winter as a pupa inside a cleverly-crafted 3” – 4”-long shelter, or cocoon, which it creates and attaches lengthwise to a branch while still in its larval stage. The Cecropia caterpillar, with the silk glands located near its mouthparts, spins not one, but two silk cases, one inside the other. In between the two cases, it spins many loose strands of very soft silk, presumably to enhance the insulating properties of the cocoon. Inside the inner case, the caterpillar splits its skin and transforms into a pupa. Come spring, an adult moth will emerge from the pupal case and exit the cocoon through one end which was intentionally spun more loosely, allowing the moth to crawl out the somewhat flexible tip. (Note: dissected cocoon was not viable.)

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Bruce Spanworms Emerging & Mating

11-7-13 winter moth IMG_4880I try not to repeat post topics, but in the past two days the sudden emergence of inch-long, tan moths in the woods has been so dramatic that I couldn’t not mention them. These ghost-like, light tan moths are referred to by entomologists as Bruce Spanworm moths, Operophtera bruceata, named after an entomologist by the name of Mr. Bruce. They are often called Winter Moths, due to the fact that they are one of the latest moths to be seen flying, as well as Hunter Moths, as they share the woods with hunters at this time of year. From October to December Bruce Spanworm moths emerge, mate and lay eggs. While this timing is unusual, it makes sense when you think about it — many birds, their primary predators, have left for their wintering grounds. All the moths you see in the air are males — females are wingless and cannot fly. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays eggs which hatch in the spring, and the larvae feed on a wide variety of deciduous leaves, favoring Trembling Aspens, Sugar Maples, American Beeches and willows. Periodic outbreaks of these caterpillars can result in heavy defoliation.

NB: “This is easily confused with Operophtera brumata – Winter Moth, which is an introduced species from Europe and an abundant pest in the Northeast. Also easily confused with Autumnal Moth (Epirrita autumnata).” Kent McFarland


Black Swallowtail Larvae Soon to Form Chrysalises

8-29-13 black swallowtail larva and QALace 028In its younger days, this Black Swallowtail larva resembled a bird dropping, but in successive molts a green (or white), yellow and black pattern develops. Often discovered in vegetable gardens on carrot, parsley and dill plants, it also feeds on wild members of the carrot/parsley family (Apiaceae), including its favorite, Queen Anne’s Lace (pictured). Seeds as well as leaves are rapidly consumed, as the time for one last molt and the development of a chrysalis in which to overwinter approaches.

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The Give and Take of Food in a Paper Wasp Nest

8-7-13  paper wasp nest 011Like all adult wasps, bees, and ants, adult paper wasps are limited to liquid diets – they have no chewing mouthparts, and the passageway between their head and abdomen, where food is digested, is so narrow that pieces of food wouldn’t fit through it. Wasp larvae (the white grub-like organisms in the upper third of the pictured wasp nest cells) are able to eat a wider range of food, due to mouthparts and their body structure. Adult paper wasps capture and feed caterpillars and other insects to their larvae. The larvae then digest their food and produce saliva rich in nutrients. The adult wasp proceeds to scrape her abdomen across the nest, producing a vibration that signals to the larvae to release some of their carbohydrate-rich saliva which the adult then drinks. (Cells covered with white paper nest material contain wasp pupae.)

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larva

7-26-13  Abbott's Sphinx Moth larva 066Abbott’s Sphinx Moth larvae feed on grape and Virginia creeper leaves during the night. During the day they tend to rest on the woody vines of the plants they are eating, and because they are well camouflaged, they remain hidden from most humans’ eyes. Both as larvae and adults, these moths are well equipped for survival. Older larvae have two color forms, one resembling unripe green grapes (in photo), and the other is brown and looks much like a branch. In their last stage, or instar, both forms have a rear eyespot which looks like a human eye, right down to the white reflection spot in it, which scares off potential predators. If the caterpillar is pinched or prodded, it squeaks and tries to bite the attacker. The adult moths, which emerge next summer after pupating all winter, also defend themselves with both color and behavior. They are brown with yellow bands on their underwings, which make them look something like a bumblebee, and when they fly, they create a buzzing noise. (Thanks to Heidi, Tom and Simmy Wetmore for photo op.)


Caterpillar Survival Strategies

6-14-13 camouflaged catterpillar 049The larvae of moths and butterflies are very susceptible to predation, especially by birds, and they utilize many different strategies to protect themselves. Shapes, colors and behavior all contribute to their survival. Some larvae take on the appearance of less appetizing things, such as bird droppings, twigs or leaves. Some have large eye spots which presumably scare predators. Others have cryptic coloration which makes them all but invisible. The pictured green caterpillar uses both color and behavior to visually disappear on the fern it is consuming.


White Admiral/Red-spotted Purple Caterpillars Emerge from Hibernation

5-15-13 white admiral larva 133Butterflies in the family Nymphalidae are also referred to as brush-footed butterflies (their front pair of legs are much reduced, brush-like and nonfunctional). Several species of Admiral butterflies belong to this family, and one of the most common in New England is the White Admiral, also known as the Red-spotted Purple. White Admirals overwinter as caterpillars and emerge in late April to feed for several weeks on the young leaves of cherries, willows, poplars and birches, as well as other trees, before forming chrysalises and transforming into butterflies. It is relatively easy to recognize the larva of any species of Admiral butterfly, as they are our only horned bird-dropping mimics. Quite an effective way to discourage predators!


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Cecropia Moth Cocoon

This past summer there seemed to be more giant silkmoths than usual, including Cecropia Moths (Hylaphora cecropia).  (see http://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/cecropia-moth-2/ ). Assuming many of these moths bred and laid eggs, and that most of the larvae survived, there are probably a large number of Cecropia cocoons in our woods.  Even so, it is not an easy task to find them, as they are so well camouflaged, and are often mistaken for a dead leaf.  Cecropia caterpillars spin silk and fashion it into a three-inch long, tan cocoon (giant silkmoths make the largest cocoons in North America) which they attach lengthwise to a branch or stem.  There is a tough but thin layer of silk on the outside, which protects an inner, thicker and softer layer of silk on the inside.  The caterpillar enters the cocoon through loose valves it makes in both layers, which are located at the tip of the cocoon’s pointed end.  Shortly after the larva crawls inside both of these layers, it pupates.  Its skin splits, revealing a dark brown pupa. For the rest of the winter and most of the spring, it remains a pupa.  In early summer it metamorphoses into an adult moth and exits the cocoon through the same valves  through which it entered.

 


Woolly Bears on the Move

Although it’s fun to try to predict the severity of the coming winter by the amount of brown on a woolly bear caterpillar (the more brown = the milder the coming winter, according to folklore), the coloration of any given woolly bear caterpillar has more to do with its diet and age than the coming weather.  The more a Woolly Bear eats, the more frequently it molts, and each time it molts a portion of the black hairs (setae) is replaced by brown ones.  A Woolly Bear can molt up to six times — the best fed and oldest woolly bears, which have molted the most number of times, have the widest brown bands. (After overwintering as caterpillars, Woolly Bears pupate and emerge as small, brown moths called Isabella Tiger Moths, Pyrrharctia isabella.)


Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth

You could hardly be blamed for not recognizing that this bright yellow-green, half-inch-long, oval creature is the larval stage of a moth!  Possessing suction cups rather than prolegs, the Yellow-shouldered Slug (Lithacodes fasciola) glides, rather than crawls, over the leaf it is consuming.  Perhaps this is why these caterpillars show a preference for smooth-leaved trees and shrubs such as basswood, beech, cherry, maple and oak (although this particular individual was found on a witch-hazel leaf).  The Yellow-shouldered Slug pupates inside a cocoon all winter, and in the spring a small, brown moth emerges.


Giant Swallowtail Caterpillar Defenses

The Giant Swallowtail (Papilio crestphones) appears to be extending its range northward into Vermont.  It was first confirmed here two years ago, and more sightings have been made each summer since then.  The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in North America, with roughly a 4-6-inch wingspan. Because of the caterpillar’s preference for plants in the citrus family, this butterfly is generally is found further south.  However,  Prickly Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum) is found in northern New England, and it is a member of the citrus family.  With this food source, and increasingly warm winters, the Giant Swallowtail may be here to stay.  The larval stage, or caterpillar, is as, or more, impressive as the adult butterfly.  Its defense mechanisms have to be seen to be believed.  The caterpillar looks exactly like a bird dropping (it even appears shiny and wet), making it appear unpalatable to most insect-eaters.   As if that weren’t enough, when and if it is threatened, a bright red, forked structure called an osmeterium emerges from its “forehead” and a very distinctive and apparently repelling odor to insect-eaters, is emitted.


Hickory Tussock Moth

 

Most tussock moths, such as this Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae), are densely covered with hair-like structures called setae that bear microscopic barbs.  Many people are sensitive to these setae and get an itchy rash if they handle a Hickory Tussock Moth.   Even touching the cocoon of a tussock moth can cause irritation, as the setae are woven into it.  Many tussock moths display warning coloration with their black, white, red, orange or yellow setae.  What looks like two Hickory Tussock Moth larvae in the photograph is actually one adult caterpillar (left) and its shed skin (right).   You can find these larvae feeding on hickory, walnut, ash, oak and many other trees in the woods right now.  After spending the winter pupating in a cocoon in the leaf litter, a small spotted, tan moth emerges.


American Lady Larva

The American Lady larva is very distinctive with its branched spines and white bands across its abdomen.  One of its favorite foods is Pussytoes, a member of the Aster family.  The larva feeds inside a shelter it makes by tying up several leaves with silk.  In the photograph, the larva has incorporated the flower heads of Pussytoes into its shelter.  Not only is the larva feeding and growing inside this 1 ½ ”-long  cavity, it also shed its skin.  To see an adult American Lady butterfly, go to http://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/american-lady-common-milkweed-pollinia/ .  Soon after the larva forms a chrysalis and pupates, a butterfly emerges and starts its migration south for the winter.


Spined Soldier Bug

The Spined Soldier Bug is a predatory stink bug which preys on a variety of other insects (over 90 species), especially the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles. It is one insect that farmers actually welcome, as it preys heavily on the larvae of the European corn borer, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles and many other crop pests. The adult Spined Soldier Bug has a prominent spine on each “shoulder.” It also has piercing-sucking mouthparts which it uses to impale prey and suck out their internal juices. The photograph shows a Spined Soldier Bug dining on the innards of a monarch caterpillar.


Monarch Butterfly Eggs Hatching

It appears that this may be a good year for monarchs in the Northeast, as with very little looking, you can find their eggs as well as young monarch caterpillars. Look on the underside of the top leaf or two on young milkweed plants – these leaves are tender and monarchs often lay their tiny, ribbed eggs there (usually one per plant) as they (leaves) are ideal food for young larvae. The first meal a monarch larva eats is its egg shell. It then moves on to nearby milkweed leaf hairs, and then the leaf itself. Often the first holes it chews are U-shaped, which are thought to help prevent sticky sap (which can glue a monarch caterpillar’s mandibles shut) from pouring into the section of leaf being eaten.


Milkweed Visitors

Milkweed is in full bloom right now, presenting the perfect opportunity for young and old alike to discover the multitude of butterflies, beetles, bees and other insects that are attracted to these magnificent flowers. If you visit a milkweed patch, don’t leave before getting a good whiff of the flowers’ scent – one of the sweetest on earth. How many of the insects you find are carrying milkweed’s yellow pollen “saddlebags” on their feet? You might want to check out my children’s book, MILKWEED VISITORS, which I wrote after spending the better part of one summer photographing the various insects I found visiting a milkweed patch. ( http://basrelief.org/Pages/MV.html )


Cecropia Moth

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Who would ever associate a lime green caterpillar with colored knobs with a large, brown moth? Thanks to someone’s keen observation, we know that these are both stages of one and the same insect — a Cecropia Moth. It is North America’s largest native moth — individuals with a wing span of over six inches have been documented. Cecropia Moths are emerging from their 3-inch cocoons this month, as are other giant silk moths, including the Luna Moth and Prometheus Moth.
NOTICE: I will be away for the next week in northern Maine, trying to photograph the largest member of the deer family. Blogs will resume on Monday, June 11.


Delayed Greening of Young Leaves

Many plants practice “delayed greening” of their leaves, including this Red Maple (Acer rubrum).  An initial lack of chlorophyll prevents the leaves from photosynthesizing and making food, which means they have little nutritive value, and thus, appeal, to an herbivore.  Most plants that delay greening have reddish leaves due to the presence of anthocyanin, a pigment which appears reddish.  A majority of herbivorous insects and invertebrates cannot detect colors in the red range of the color spectrum. Young leaves suffer the greatest predation from invertebrate herbivores.  Red leaves would be perceived by these leaf eaters as somewhat dark and possibly dead – not a choice food material.  It is possible that the red coloration of new leaves allows the plant to make them unappealing to the herbivores that would otherwise eat them.


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