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Moths

Woolly Bears Seeking Hibernacula

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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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Fall Webworms

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For several weeks white webs on the tips of branches have been apparent on many trees.  These silken tents are the work of the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea), a moth most associated with its larval stage. Fall Webworm caterpillars construct a web over the end of a branch, enclosing leaves on which they feed.  As the hairy, white caterpillars grow, they enlarge the web to encompass more leaves, with tents sometimes extending two to three feet.

Often mistaken as the work of Eastern Tent Caterpillars, the tents of these two moths can be distinguished by the season they appear (ETC are active in the spring, Fall Webworms in the fall) as well as the location of the tents (ETC are usually in the crotches of trees, Fall Webworms at the tip of branches). As soon as the eggs hatch in early summer, the Fall Webworm larvae begin to spin small silk webs over the foliage of the deciduous trees on which they feed (over 90 species). By fall the tents are conspicuous. A look inside one  reveals caterpillars, dead partially-eaten leaves, and fecal droppings.

The larvae feed together inside the increasingly large web for roughly six weeks, at which point they often start feeding independently before pupating in the ground over the winter and emerging as adult white moths the following summer.

If your favorite tree has one or more Fall Webworm nests in it, there’s no cause for alarm. These caterpillars may defoliate a tree occasionally, but rarely kill it, and usually only build tents on a handful of branches, if that. The larvae have more than 50 natural predators and 36 parasites that help control them. Also bear in mind that Fall Webworms do not eat the buds of next year’s leaves and the leaves they are feeding on will soon to drop to the ground. Next year leaves will appear on the currently affected branches with no sign of last year’s damage.

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Second Brood of Snowberry Clearwing Moths In Flight

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Clearwing moths are strong and fast fliers with a rapid wingbeat, like the other members of the Sphingidae family. Most species in the group are active at dusk and feed much like hummingbirds, hovering in front of a flower and sipping nectar through their extended proboscis.  In most species, the larval stage is called a “hornworm” because the caterpillar’s posterior end has a horn-like appendage protruding upward.

Like its close relative, the Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) is a day-flying moth, has transparent wings and is a mimic.  While they both hover at flowers, the Hummingbird Clearwing is said to mimic a hummingbird, while the Snowberry Clearwing is considered a bumblebee mimic.  To distinguish these two clearwings, if it has black legs and a black band that crosses the eye and travels down the side of the thorax, it’s a Snowberry Clearwing.

In addition to thistle, adult Snowberry Clearwings feed on honeysuckles, snowberry, hawkweed, lilacs and Canada violets. (Thanks to Barbara and Knox Johnson for photo op.)

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larvae Maturing

7-23-18 Abbott's sphinx moth_U1A2632The larvae of sphinx moths, commonly called hawk or hummingbird moths, are easily recognized by the horn, eye spot or hardened button that is near the tip of their abdomen.  Most readers are probably familiar with the larval stage of tobacco and tomato hornworms (Carolina Sphinx Moth and Five-spotted Hawk Moth, respectively) which are found on tomato plants. A less observed sphinx moth, Abbott’s Sphinx Moth (Sphecodina abbottii), can be found on grape and Virginia creeper vines.  As a larva it molts several times and assumes three different appearances by the time it pupates.

Abbott Sphinx Moth larvae start out green, with a horn near the tip of their abdomen, like most other sphinx moths. However, when they are about half-grown, they turn blue-green and the horn develops into an orange knob (see inset).  In the last stages before they pupate, the larvae molt and the knob turns into an “eye,” complete with a black pupil and encircling iris.  The finishing touch is a white reflection spot that makes the eye appear moist and shiny.  At this point, the larvae may be either brown with a “wood-grain” pattern (resembling grape vines, a host plant) or brown with ten pale green saddles along the back (thought to resemble grapes).  Pictured are the second and third stages of a brown “wood-grain” Abbot’s Sphinx Moth larva.

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Polyphemus Moth Cocoons

12-15-17 polyphemus cocoon2 IMG_4455The Polyphemus Moth is a giant silk moth, a member of the Saturniidae family which includes some of the largest species of moths. Giant silk moths derive their name from both their size as well as the fine silk they use to spin the cocoons which serve as protection for the pupal stage in their life cycle.

Most Polyphemus Moth cocoons start out attached to a tree branch, although some are spun among leaves or grasses on the ground (see pictured cocoon). They are oval, roughly 1 ½” long and nearly an inch wide. Cocoons in trees are susceptible to attack by squirrels and woodpeckers, whereas mice are the biggest threat to cocoons on the ground.

The moth overwinters as a pupa inside the cocoon. Unlike most other giant silk moths’ cocoons, the Polyphemus Moth cocoon lacks an escape “valve” at one end. In order to emerge (as an adult) from the cocoon the summer after it spins it, the moth secretes an enzyme that digests and softens the silk at one end. Then it moves about the cocoon in a circular pattern, tearing the softened silk with two spurs located at the base of each wing on its abdomen. Eventually it escapes  by splitting the silk and pushing the top up.


Bruce Spanworm Moths Emerging

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If you’ve walked in northern New England woods recently, chances are great that you’ve noticed light tan moths with a one-inch wing span flitting about — with temperatures in the 20’s, this seems slightly incongruous. However, there are some insects that are active in cool weather, among them the Bruce Spanworm Moth (Operophtera bruceata), also called Winter Moth and Hunter Moth (these moths are active during deer hunting season, which approaches winter). The adults of this species are active from October to December.

Bruce Spanworm Moths belong to the Geometer family, the second largest family of moths in North America. All the flying moths you see are males seeking wingless, and therefore flightless, females to mate with. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays her eggs which hatch in the spring. Larvae pupate in the summer and adult moths emerge in the fall.

Many Geometers are considered agricultural and forest pests. Bruce Spanworm larvae periodically defoliate hardwood trees, preferring the buds and leaves of Sugar Maple, American Beech and Trembling Aspen trees. In 1958 in Alberta, Canada, at the peak of a 10-year infestation, over 50,000 acres were moderately or heavily affected by Bruce Spanworm larvae.


Newborn Milkweed Tussock Moth Larvae A Bonanza For Predatory Stink Bugs

8-7-17 milkweed tussock moth larvae, first instar and (3) (003)Monarch larvae aren’t the only insects equipped to feed on the toxic cardiac glycoside-filled leaves of milkweed. Milkweed Tussock Moth larvae also dine on them, avoiding veins due to the latex-like, sticky white sap that could glue them in place. When they first hatch, Milkweed Tussock Moth larvae tend to stick together in “herds,” all feeding on the underside of the same leaf. This behavior provides a gold mine for predators such as predatory stink bugs (pictured) that discover them. Unlike their (plant) sap-sucking stink bug relatives, predatory stink bugs feed on more than 100 species of insect pests, often attacking insects much larger than themselves, drinking their body fluids with their needle-like beak. (Photo taken and kindly donated by Chris Doyle)