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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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Clymene Moths Active

8-4-14 Clymene moth 140The Clymene Moth, Haploa clymene, is noted for the striking upside-down cross pattern on its forewings. Because of this design, some people refer to it as the “Crusader Moth.” A member of the Tiger Moth family (as is the Woolly Bear/Isabella Tiger Moth), the Clymene Moth can be seen flying day or night. Typically they inhabit deciduous forests and fields adjacent to them where the black, bristly larvae feed on a wide variety of plants, including willows, oaks, and members of the Aster family. In contrast to its white forewings, the Clymene Moth’s hind pair of wings is bright yellow. Its long proboscis allows it to reach deep inside the nectar-bearing hoods of Common Milkweed.

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Caterpillars Molting

6-25-14 caterpillar molting 044A caterpillar is the larval stage of a moth or butterfly. It is the only stage that has chewing mouthparts, and therefore a caterpillar spends most of its waking hours eating. This consumption of food results in massive growth, making its skin/exoskeleton very tight. When this happens, a hormone called ecdysone is produced, prompting the caterpillar to molt, losing its old exoskeleton (to left of caterpillar in photo) under which is a new and larger exoskeleton. After the molt, while the new exoskeleton is still soft, the caterpillar swallows a lot of air, which expands its body. Then, when the exoskeleton hardens, it lets the air out and has room for growth. Caterpillars molt four or five times as they grow. Each different caterpillar stage is called an instar. (Photo: Forest Tent Caterpillar)

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Fern Balls

fern ball 216At 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.

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Rosy Maple Moths Emerging

6-9-14 rosy maple moth 161This is the time of year when moths rule the nights. Many moths in the silkmoth family, Saturniidae, emerge in June, including giant silkmoths such as Luna Moths and Cecropia Moths. A smaller member of this family also appears at this time of year. While the 1 to 2-inch Rosy Maple Moth (Dryocampa rubicunda) wingspan doesn’t come close to many of the giant silkmoths’ 5 to 6-inch wingspan, its pink and white or yellow coloring is stunning. Adults emerge mid-May through mid-July in the late afternoon, and they mate in the late evening. Females begin laying eggs at dusk the next day in groups of 10-30 on leaves of the host plants (Red, Sugar and Silver Maples, as well as Box-elder and some oak trees). The eggs hatch in about 2 weeks and the larvae are referred to as Green-striped Mapleworms. They occasionally do considerable damage to their host trees when their population soars. In New England there is only one brood per summer, with the larvae pupating and overwintering underground.

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Showy Orchis Flowering

6-4-14 showy orchis 267A walk in deciduous woodlands at this time of year could result in the sighting of several species of orchids, one of which, Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabili), has a stalk of several flowers which typically bear lavender hoods (one variant is white). Potential pollinators, most of which are long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bees, land on a white petal below the hood which acts as a “landing pad.” The insect next heads for the tip of the nectar-filled spur located at the back of the flower. In getting there it brushes against, and often picks up, packets of pollen (pollinia) before moving on to the next blossom, where cross-pollination ideally takes place. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Promethea Moth Cocoon

4-22-14  promethea cocoon 478When a Promethea Moth caterpillar, one of our giant silk moths, is ready to pupate at the end of the summer, it strengthens the stem, or petiole, of a leaf on its host plant with silk and then attaches the silk to a nearby branch, assuring that the leaf will remain attached to the tree. (Imagine having the instinctive foresight in your youth that this caterpillar had!) The caterpillar then curls the leaf around itself and spins its cocoon inside the curled leaf. The cocoon dangles from the host plant throughout the winter and in early summer the moth emerges. Now is the perfect time for finding a Promethea Moth cocoon, as last year’s leaves are gone on most trees, and this year’s buds have yet to open. Look for a tree or shrub that has just one dead leaf hanging from one of its branches. (Cecropia caterpillars favor black cherry, poplar, ash, maple, oak and willows trees among others.)

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Cecropia Moths Pupating

11-11-13 cecropia cocoon dissected  056Our largest North American native moth, the Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia, spends the winter as a pupa inside a cleverly-crafted 3” – 4”-long shelter, or cocoon, which it creates and attaches lengthwise to a branch while still in its larval stage. The Cecropia caterpillar, with the silk glands located near its mouthparts, spins not one, but two silk cases, one inside the other. In between the two cases, it spins many loose strands of very soft silk, presumably to enhance the insulating properties of the cocoon. Inside the inner case, the caterpillar splits its skin and transforms into a pupa. Come spring, an adult moth will emerge from the pupal case and exit the cocoon through one end which was intentionally spun more loosely, allowing the moth to crawl out the somewhat flexible tip. (Note: dissected cocoon was not viable.)

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Bruce Spanworms Emerging & Mating

11-7-13 winter moth IMG_4880I try not to repeat post topics, but in the past two days the sudden emergence of inch-long, tan moths in the woods has been so dramatic that I couldn’t not mention them. These ghost-like, light tan moths are referred to by entomologists as Bruce Spanworm moths, Operophtera bruceata, named after an entomologist by the name of Mr. Bruce. They are often called Winter Moths, due to the fact that they are one of the latest moths to be seen flying, as well as Hunter Moths, as they share the woods with hunters at this time of year. From October to December Bruce Spanworm moths emerge, mate and lay eggs. While this timing is unusual, it makes sense when you think about it — many birds, their primary predators, have left for their wintering grounds. All the moths you see in the air are males — females are wingless and cannot fly. The females crawl up the trunk or branch of a tree and send out pheromones to attract winged males. After mating, the female lays eggs which hatch in the spring, and the larvae feed on a wide variety of deciduous leaves, favoring Trembling Aspens, Sugar Maples, American Beeches and willows. Periodic outbreaks of these caterpillars can result in heavy defoliation.

NB: “This is easily confused with Operophtera brumata – Winter Moth, which is an introduced species from Europe and an abundant pest in the Northeast. Also easily confused with Autumnal Moth (Epirrita autumnata).” Kent McFarland


Witch Hazel Flowering and Dispersing Last Year’s Seeds

10-11-13  witch hazel flower and fruits 055Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is nature’s final fanfare of the fall. As colorful fall foliage disappears, the yellow strap-like petals of Witch Hazel’s fragrant flowers brighten denuded woods. These flowers are pollinated by moths that are still active this late in the season, and develop into small, hard capsules that remain dormant throughout the winter. During the following summer, these capsules develop to the point where they expel two shiny black seeds 10 to 20 feet away from the tree. The seeds take another year to germinate, making the length of time from flowering to germination approximately two years. (In photo, the yellowish-tan capsules were formed this summer, and the one brown, year-old capsule has opened and dispersed its seeds.)

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Apple Scat

10-4-13 woolly bear scat 028At this time of year it’s not unusual to find the scat of various mammals consisting mostly of apple. Red Foxes, White-tailed Deer, Cottontail Rabbits, Porcupines and Black Bears, in particular, are all avid consumers of this appetizing fruit. Birds, including Purple Finches, Cedar Waxwings and Northern Mockingbirds, also include apples in their diets . While many insects drink the juice of apples, it’s not that often you see an insect like this Woolly Bear caterpillar (the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth) consuming a sizable chunk of a McIntosh apple and leaving behind tell-tale scat. (Discovery by Sadie Richards)

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Abbott’s Sphinx Moth Larva

7-26-13  Abbott's Sphinx Moth larva 066Abbott’s Sphinx Moth larvae feed on grape and Virginia creeper leaves during the night. During the day they tend to rest on the woody vines of the plants they are eating, and because they are well camouflaged, they remain hidden from most humans’ eyes. Both as larvae and adults, these moths are well equipped for survival. Older larvae have two color forms, one resembling unripe green grapes (in photo), and the other is brown and looks much like a branch. In their last stage, or instar, both forms have a rear eyespot which looks like a human eye, right down to the white reflection spot in it, which scares off potential predators. If the caterpillar is pinched or prodded, it squeaks and tries to bite the attacker. The adult moths, which emerge next summer after pupating all winter, also defend themselves with both color and behavior. They are brown with yellow bands on their underwings, which make them look something like a bumblebee, and when they fly, they create a buzzing noise. (Thanks to Heidi, Tom and Simmy Wetmore for photo op.)


Moth Eyes and Biomimicry

7-1-13 luna eyes 020Because moths need to use every little bit of light available in order to see in the dark, their eyes are highly non-reflective. (This is also helpful in decreasing the chances of predators spotting them.) Scientists, through biomimicry, have come up with a number of technological advances, including the development of a film that can be applied to solar cells which helps keep sunlight from being reflected off of them before the light can be utilized. Man-made materials based on the structure of moth eyes could someday reduce the radiation dosages received by patients getting x-rayed, while improving the resolution of the resulting images. Research on recreating the pattern found on moths’ eyes onto plastic could lead to reflection and glare-free display screens for televisions, cell phones, computer monitors, eyeglasses, speedometers and more.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Bruce Spanworm Moths Flying

If you’ve walked in New England woods recently, chances are great that you’ve noticed light tan moths with a one-inch wing span flitting about — an odd sight for this late in the year. These are male Bruce Spanworm Moths (Operophtera bruceata), also called Winter Moths, as the adults are active from October to December. They belong to the Geometer family of moths, the second largest family of moths in North America, which includes many agricultural and forest pests. The males are seeking wingless, and therefore flightless, females to mate with. Eggs are laid in the fall, hatch in the spring, the larvae pupate in the summer, and emerge as adult moths in the fall. Bruce Spanworm larvae periodically defoliate hardwood trees, preferring the buds and leaves of sugar maple, American beech and trembling aspen trees.


Woolly Bears on the Move

Although it’s fun to try to predict the severity of the coming winter by the amount of brown on a woolly bear caterpillar (the more brown = the milder the coming winter, according to folklore), the coloration of any given woolly bear caterpillar has more to do with its diet and age than the coming weather.  The more a Woolly Bear eats, the more frequently it molts, and each time it molts a portion of the black hairs (setae) is replaced by brown ones.  A Woolly Bear can molt up to six times — the best fed and oldest woolly bears, which have molted the most number of times, have the widest brown bands. (After overwintering as caterpillars, Woolly Bears pupate and emerge as small, brown moths called Isabella Tiger Moths, Pyrrharctia isabella.)


Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth

You could hardly be blamed for not recognizing that this bright yellow-green, half-inch-long, oval creature is the larval stage of a moth!  Possessing suction cups rather than prolegs, the Yellow-shouldered Slug (Lithacodes fasciola) glides, rather than crawls, over the leaf it is consuming.  Perhaps this is why these caterpillars show a preference for smooth-leaved trees and shrubs such as basswood, beech, cherry, maple and oak (although this particular individual was found on a witch-hazel leaf).  The Yellow-shouldered Slug pupates inside a cocoon all winter, and in the spring a small, brown moth emerges.


Spined Soldier Bug

The Spined Soldier Bug is a predatory stink bug which preys on a variety of other insects (over 90 species), especially the larvae of butterflies, moths and beetles. It is one insect that farmers actually welcome, as it preys heavily on the larvae of the European corn borer, Mexican bean beetle, cabbage looper, Colorado potato beetle, flea beetles and many other crop pests. The adult Spined Soldier Bug has a prominent spine on each “shoulder.” It also has piercing-sucking mouthparts which it uses to impale prey and suck out their internal juices. The photograph shows a Spined Soldier Bug dining on the innards of a monarch caterpillar.