Instead of discarding feces, or frass, some insects save their waste matter for defensive purposes such as “fecal shields.” These are coverings over the back of the larvae that are made largely of feces and provide either physical or chemical barriers to predation. Adult Tortoise Beetles have a type of shield (hence, their name), but it is formed from expanded, hardened forewings, and is not a fecal shield. The larvae of these beetles have fecal shields which serve as chemical deterrents, preventing most predators from even touching them. The deterrent in the feces comes from the beetles’ food source — plants in the order Solanales. Tortoise Beetle larvae have what is known as a “fecal fork” on their last abdominal segment, which they hold over their body. The larvae maneuvers its muscular, telescopic anus, or “anal turret” in such a manner as to excrete its feces and bits of shed exoskeleton onto the fecal fork, forming an umbrella-like fecal shield.
At 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.