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Larvae

Caterpillars Eating & Molting

The larval stage of a butterfly or moth is spent doing little but eating.  Only as a caterpillar will these insects have chewing mouthparts, and they waste no time in using them. As they eat, caterpillars increase in size and their skin (exoskeleton) becomes tighter and tighter, as it doesn’t grow larger.  The caterpillar grows a new, larger exoskeleton underneath the outer skin and then sheds, or molts, the old one. Most caterpillars molt five times.  At first, the new exoskeleton is very soft and not very protective, but it soon hardens. The shed exoskeleton is often eaten before the caterpillar ingests more plant food.

There are names for the caterpillar’s stage of development in between each molt, called “instars.”  When the caterpillar hatches from its egg, it is referred to as a “first instar” caterpillar.  After its first molt, the caterpillar is referred to as a “second instar,” and so on up until the exoskeleton is shed for the final time, revealing the chrysalis (if it’s a butterfly).

The Monarch in the photograph is a very new 4th instar instar caterpillar (see antennae which haven’t hardened).  It has shed three times.  Its third exoskeleton (which it has just shed) is on the milkweed leaf behind the caterpillar. To see a real-time video of a Monarch molting go to   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbHyq3RwtxI.

(Thanks to Otis Brown for his keen eye in finding this Monarch caterpillar before it ate its just-molted skin.  Also to Ba Rea ((www.basrelief.org) for her instar confirmation.)

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Black Swallowtail Larvae Defending Themselves

7-8-19 black swallowtail larva 0U1A0103Caterpillars, the larval stage of moths and butterflies, are very susceptible to predators (escaping quickly is not an option). Much of their energy in this stage is devoted to defense mechanisms to thwart would-be predators. A partial list of these defenses includes irritating bristles with detachable tips (Tussock Moths), toxic “breath” (Tobacco Hornworms, consumers of tomato plants, tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family, release toxic, bad-smelling nicotine), toxic bodies (Monarchs) and anti-coagulant venom (Giant Silkworm Moths).

Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) larvae defense mechanism strategies change as they develop. In early stages, or instars, they mimic bird droppings (not an appealing meal for most predators) and older larvae possess bright yellow-orange, horn-like organs behind the head known as osmeteria (see photo inset). When threatened, larvae rear up, extrude the osmeterium, and attempt to smear potential predators with a chemical repellent.

Black Swallowtail larvae are frequently sought after by parasitoids, which can locate their hosts by chemicals in the hosts’ feces (frass). To decrease their chances of being parasitized, Black Swallowtail larvae toss their fecal pellets away from themselves with their mandibles.

To learn much more about both moth and butterfly larvae, go to http://www.thecaterpillarlab.org.

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Black Swallowtails Laying Eggs

6-14-19 black swallowtail 0U1A0073Looking every bit like the Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) flower buds on which they were laid, the pale yellow eggs of a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) are next to impossible to find unless one is fortunate enough to see them in the act of being laid. Members of the parsley family (Golden Alexander, Wild Parsnip, Queen Anne’s Lace, Dill, Carrot) are host plants for most ravenous Black Swallowtail larvae, and thus that is where you will find their eggs. As they eat, the caterpillars absorb toxins from their host plant, which does not harm them but makes them distasteful to avian predators.

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Woolly Bears Seeking Hibernacula

10-10-18 isabella tiger moth 119

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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Ladybugs Maturing & Seeking Shelter

9-27-17 ladybug IMG_6065

Ladybugs, along with roughly 88% of all insects, pass through four separate stages (egg, larva, pupa, adult) in their life cycle. This form of maturation is referred to as complete metamorphosis. Like many other insects that experience complete metamorphosis, the larval, pupal and adult stages do not closely resemble one another. While most of us would have no trouble recognizing an adult ladybug, the two middle stages are strikingly different from the adult spotted beetle we’re familiar with. After a ladybug egg hatches, the larva emerges, looking a bit like a tiny alligator. Anywhere from seven to twenty-one days later and after several molts, the larva attaches itself to a leaf and pupates. The pupa assumes yet another bizarre form, which some feel resembles a shrimp. Within a week or two the pupa matures and transforms into an adult ladybug. Most species of ladybugs hibernate (technically enter “diapause,” as it’s referred to with insects) as adults in large groups under leaf litter, logs and other protected spots.


Geometrid Larvae Dangling

9-5-17 geometrid larva 049A4212

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.


Golden Tortoise Beetle Larvae Feeding

8-18-17 golden tortoise beetle larva 049A2063

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)