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Moths

Promethea Pupae Parasitized

12-21-15 promethea cocoon 257Although a lack of snow makes tracks difficult to find, there are other, more permanent, animal signs such as bird nests and cocoons that are visible this time of year. Among the more obvious is the cocoon of the Promethea Moth – a giant silk moth. When the time for pupating arrives the Promethea caterpillar selects a leaf and strengthens its attachment to the tree by spinning silk around the petiole of the leaf as well as the branch it grows on (to assure that it doesn’t fall off the tree). With more silk it rolls the leaf up into a tube and then proceeds to spin its cocoon inside the rolled-up leaf, leaving a valve-like structure at the top of the cocoon through which the adult moth exits in the spring.

Unfortunately for silk moths, many are parasitized by flies and wasps (there are nearly 100 natural parasites that affect the 24 species of silk moths east of the Mississippi River). Frequently flies or wasps lay their eggs in silk moth caterpillars and then develop inside them. Eventually the fly or wasp larva secretes a substance that causes the caterpillar to pupate, at which time the fly or wasp also pupates and then exits the moth pupa and cocoon (see exit hole in smaller photo), causing the death of the moth pupa. Silk moth populations are decreasing, in part as a result of these parasitoids. Among others, a non-native parasitic tachinid fly, Compsilura concinnata, is wreaking havoc on silk moths.

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Snowberry Clearwing Larvae Pupating

snowberry clearwing larvae 125The Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), a type of Sphinx moth, is one of several daytime-flying “hummingbird moths,” so-called because of their ability to hover while drinking nectar from a flower, and because of the humming sound they make, much like a hummingbird. The yellow and black bands of the Snowberry Clearwing’s abdomen also cause it to be mistaken for a bumblebee. The most distinctive thing about this moth is that a large portion of its wings are transparent, due to scales falling off.

Snowberry Clearwings are often seen around the time that beebalm is in bloom, in July and August. The females entice the males with a pheromone that they produce from glands at the tip of their abdomen. After mating, the females lay their tiny, round, green eggs on their larval food plants. Like many Sphinx moths, the larvae have “horns” at the end of their bodies. Most Snowberry Clearwing larvae are green, but they can be brown, as well. Both colors enable them to be well camouflaged as they feed on the leaves of honeysuckle, viburnum, hawthorn, snowberry, cherry, mint, and plum. The caterpillars are active until late fall, when they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. The pupa spends the winter hidden under the leaves, and the adult moth emerges the following spring. (Thanks to Tom Wetmore and Heidi Marcotte for photo opportunity.)

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Leaf Miners

9-29 leaf miners IMG_6836A leaf miner is the larval stage of an insect (primarily moths, sawflies and flies) that feeds on leaf plant tissue. Most of these insects feed for their entire larval period within the leaf, creating tunnels between the upper and lower leaf surfaces. Some will pupate within the leaf mine, while others cut their way out when they are full-grown and pupate in the soil.

The pattern of feeding tunnels, as well as the pattern of droppings, or frass, within them (darker sections of tunnels), combined with the species of plant on which they occur, can sometimes identify the species of insect that created the mines. A moth larva, the Common Aspen Leaf Miner (Phyllocnistis populiella), leaves delicate, serpentine mines (see photo) that are diagnostic of this species.

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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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Pandorus Sphinx Larvae About To Pupate

9-4-15 pandorus sphinx 033The family Sphingidae consists of sphinx (also called hawk) moths. In their larval stage, these moths are often referred to as hornworms, because of the horn, eyespot or hardened button they all possess at the far end of their bodies. (Many gardeners are familiar with the Tobacco Hornworm (Carolina Sphinx Moth), a voracious consumer of tomato plants.)

Before overwintering as pupae, hornworm larvae feed continuously. The pictured Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus) feeds on both grape and Virginia creeper foliage. This particular hornworm comes in four colors – green, orange, pink or cinnamon and can grow to a length of 3 ½ inches before pupating. Each of the white spots surrounds a spiracle, or tiny hole through which air enters the hornworm’s body. A horn is present up until the last instar, or stage, of the larva’s life, at which point it is replaced by a button (see insert) that resembles an eye. The larva will soon burrow into the soil, spend the winter as a pupa, and emerge as an adult moth in the spring.(Thanks to Sadie Richards Brown for finding and caretaking this caterpillar until I could photograph it.)

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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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Second Brood of Woolly Bears Hatches

8-18-14  woolly bear 093Typically we start seeing Woolly Bear caterpillars in October, when they are searching for sheltered spots in which to spend the winter as larvae. With only two months between now and then, it came as a surprise when my great nephew and budding naturalist Eli Holland discovered a very young Woolly Bear recently. It turns out that in New England, there are two broods of Isabella Tiger Moths (whose larval stage is the Woolly Bear). The caterpillars that hibernated last winter emerged from hibernation this past spring, pupated, transformed into adult Isabella Tiger Moths, and proceeded to mate and lay eggs. It is these eggs that have recently hatched, and the Woolly Bear caterpillars that are no bigger than the length of your baby fingernail right now will be eating dandelions, grasses, nettle and meadowsweet nonstop for the next two months in order to survive the coming winter.

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