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Caterpillars

Gypsy Moth Caterpillar Explosion

e-gypsy moth caterpillars 273The Gypsy Moth was introduced into the United States in 1869 by a French scientist living in Massachusetts. Since then its range has expanded to include the entire Northeast south to North Carolina and as far west as Minnesota and Iowa.  The consequence of the introduction of this insect is staggering.  According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, since 1980, the Gypsy Moth has defoliated close to a million or more forested acres each year. In 1981, a record 12.9 million acres were defoliated. This is an area larger than Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut combined.

The Gypsy Moth females lay their eggs, usually on host tree trunks, in late summer.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  Gypsy Moth caterpillars feed on a variety of species of shrubs and trees, with White Oak being their preferred host, metamorphose, mate and repeat this process.   Usually their numbers are not overwhelming, but due to the weather conditions we’ve been experiencing, the caterpillar population has skyrocketed in some areas, especially in southern New England.

Conditions were very dry in parts of New England in May 2014 and May 2015, which impeded the growth of a certain kind of Japanese fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) that keeps the Gypsy Moth caterpillar population under control. Without this fungus present to keep their numbers in check, Gypsy Moths have flourished.   Although there was some rain this spring, there were many areas that did not get enough to benefit the fungus, and in these areas, trees are now stripped of their leaves.  It is possible in places in southern New England to track the pattern of rainfall simply by looking at where trees are still in full leaf.  Fortunately, the time has come for Gypsy Moth caterpillars to pupate, so most of this year’s destruction has already occurred.  Here’s hoping for a rainy May next year.

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Second Generation Calico Paint Moth Larvae Feeding & Resting

9-16-15 calico paint 111In the Northeast, Calico Paint Moths (Cucullia convexipennis), also called Brown-hooded Owlets, produce two generations a summer. The larvae of the first generation mature in July, and the second generation matures from late August into October. Calico Paint larvae are often found on aster and goldenrod plants, resting on stems (often head down) in plain sight during the day. First generation larvae feed on the leaves and the second generation consumes the flowers of these plants. The comparatively drab, brown adult moths they turn into can often be found on Wild Bergamot and Common Milkweed flowers in the early evening. (Thanks to Joan Waltermire for photo op.)

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Saddleback Caterpillars Preparing to Pupate

10-6-14 saddleback moth 006There is a group of moths (family Limacodidae) which are known as “slug caterpillar moths” due to the manner in which they travel during their larval stage, secreting a semi-fluid silk from their ventral pores as they move. These caterpillars come in all sizes and shapes. Among them is the Saddleback Caterpillar, which is much more colorful than the brown adult moth it eventually turns into. Saddleback Caterpillars are best known for their stinging (urticating) spines. Reputedly far worse than that of a bee, the sting of the Saddleback Caterpillar may be the most potent of any North American caterpillar. The larva’s bright colors serve to warn predators of its toxicity. Soon these caterpillars will be spinning cocoons (which can contain spines, as well) in which they will pupate until emerging as moths next spring. (Thanks to Rick Palumbo for photo op.)

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Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars Feeding

milkweed tussock moth2 038Female milkweed tussock moths lay their eggs in masses on the underside of milkweed and dogbane leaves, which their larvae will eat. The hatching caterpillars are gray and hairy, but in no time they have developed the tufts of hairs that give them their name and make them resemble little mops. When still fairly young, the siblings stay together, skeletonizing the leaves they consume, leaving only the strongest veins that contain sticky latex. As they mature, the caterpillars tend to wander, and it’s unusual to find large groups of them on a single leaf. At this point they often cut through a vein in order to prevent the latex from reaching the area of the leaf where they are feeding. (Older monarch caterpillars use this same tactic.) Like monarchs, milkweed tussock moths, because they’ve consumed the cardiac glycosides contained in milkweed and dogbane leaves, are toxic to predators.

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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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