The Isabella Tiger Moth typically has two broods during the summer. The caterpillars (Woolly Bears) in the first brood pupate and emerge as adult moths mid-summer. The second brood overwinters as caterpillars and pupate in the spring. The Woolly Bears we see crossing roads at this time of year are second-brood caterpillars in search of protective hibernation sites (hibernacula).
Old-timers predicted the severity of the coming winter by the relative lengths of the black and brown bands of the caterpillars when they became easy to observe in the fall – the longer the black sections and narrower the brown section, the harder a winter they were in for. In fact, this may have had some validity, as brown hairs (setae) are added to the middle band every time the caterpillar molts. Therefore, the older the caterpillar, the wider the brown band. If winter comes early, the caterpillar’s brown band would be relatively narrow due to the fact it didn’t have time to mature fully and develop a wider brown section before hibernating.
The adult stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth is often overlooked, due to the appeal of the larval stage. This tan moth, with a wingspan of 1 ½ – 2 inches, has tiny black markings on its wings. Male and female are sexually dimorphic and can be distinguished by the color of their hind wings. Males have yellow-pale orange hind wings while the hind wings of females are rosy. (Photo: Woolly Bear; photo inset: female Isabella Tiger Moth)
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The larvae of moths in the family Geometridae (the second largest family of moths in North America) are known as loopers, inchworms and spanworms. These names are derived from the looping gait of the caterpillars. They generally have only two or three pairs of prolegs (at the hind end) rather than the usual five pairs of most moth and butterfly larvae. The lack of prolegs in the middle of their body causes them to move by pulling the hind prolegs up to the true legs on the thorax in the front of their body, thereby forming a loop, and then extending the body forward.
Many Geometrid caterpillars evade predators by flinging themselves from trees and dangling by a silk thread that is attached to the tree at the other end (see photo). After the danger passes, they climb back up the silk and return to their leaf-eating.
When it comes to ingenuity, the Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata) larva has all others beat! Instead of discarding its feces, it collects them and uses them as a means of chemical protection. Golden Tortoise Beetle larvae have a “fecal fork” on their last abdominal segment which they hold over their body. They also possess a muscular, telescopic anus which they can manipulate in such a manner as to deposit their feces onto their fecal fork. Bits of shed exoskeleton combined with days of feces accumulate on this fork and create an effective fecal shield. Golden Tortoise Beetle feces contain alkaloids from the plants that they’ve eaten (Bindweed and other plants in the family Convolvulaceae) and consequently the shield wards off predators. (Photo: Golden Tortoise Beetle larva with fecal shield; inset – adult Golden Tortoise Beetle)
The striped caterpillar that is crawling along the surface of fresh snow is the larval stage of a noctuid or owlet moth known as the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba). Noctuids are dull-colored, medium-sized, nocturnal moths that are attracted to lights in the summer. They usually possess a well-developed proboscis (mouthpart) for sucking nectar. The Large Yellow Underwing larva is one of many species known as cutworms that feed on herbaceous plants. Introduced from Europe to Nova Scotia in 1979, this species has since spread north to the Arctic Ocean, west to the Pacific, and south to the Gulf of Mexico.
Larvae sporadically feed through the winter months whenever temperatures are above the mid-40s. The Large Yellow Underwing larva has been nicknamed the winter cutworm and the snow cut-worm for its ability to feed actively when other cutworms are dormant for the winter. Occasionally on warmer winter days, such as we had last week, you see them crawling on the snow.
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