NMW: The Exploding Moth

a pretty cool looking ctenuchine moth...
Finishing up a splendid National Moth Week,  I give you 'the exploding moth!'  It may not compare to fireworks or the exploding genitalia of male honeybees, but it is still pretty impressive.  When a student first grabbed one in Costa Rica, he was startled to find his hand covered with a sticky foam-like material.
... with an even cooler behavior
The 'foam' is actually a mass of filaments that are laced with toxic chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids.  The male moth collects these chemicals from the surface of plants that produce them and in doing so it incurs protection from spiders and other predators.  These filmaents (collectively called flocculent) are very light and it seems that even the slightest puff of air scatters it everywhere:
Flocculent containing toxic chemicals deters predators
 Perhaps most interestingly, the male moth releases filaments as part of courtship and covers his mate with the flocculent, providing her (and her eggs) with chemical defense against predators.

Thanks to Anthony Deczynski for pointing out this unique behavior to me.

NMW: Saddleback Caterpillar

Acharia stimulea the saddleback caterpillar, Delaware
There are two methods for finding the saddleback caterpillar.  The first is careful searching of a variety of its plant hosts, looking for evidence of feeding and flipping leaves over to see the larvae.  The second method is to put on a pair of shorts from 1982 and stride confidently through shrubby vegetation until you feel the caterpillar.  Like many other species in the family Limacodidae, the saddleback's spines will deliver a painful sting - I have (accidentally) encountered many of them this way.

The Limacodidae are called the 'slug caterpillars' because their prolegs (the grippy legs at the rear) are modified into one big pad.  Members of this group also have turtle-style retractable heads, which I think contribute to their exotic appearance.  This video might show you what I mean:

NMW: Masters of Disguise

Do you see anything unusual on these blazing star flowers?

How about now?
For most caterpillars, life is about 4 things:
don't get eaten.

That last one is a doozy - caterpillars make up a huge portion of the diet of most songbirds.  There is a lot of pressure to not be seen.  Nothing does 'I'm not here' better than the Camouflaged Looper, Synchlora aerata.

Theses little loopers are quite common, but it took me years of looking to finally see one.  The larva snips off pieces of the plant that it is eating and uses silk to attach tiny bouquets to its back, taking on the very color and texture of its host plant.  As generalists, they feed on a wide variety of host plants and therefore come in a rainbow of colors, I have featured them in orange, green, and purple, and they have become a favorite of mine to photograph.  The adult is a delightful emerald moth:
As with so many things; patience is the secret for finding these guys.  I find flowers on known host plants and simply stare at them from different angles until one of the blossoms wiggles or poops.  It happens more often than you might imagine!

NMW: Moth Fashion!

Who knew fur leg warmers could be so fashionable in the tropics?

National Moth Week continues with some bold fashion accessories demonstrating the amazing diversity of this group.

  The moth above is from Costa Rica.  I can only guess why it has evolved leg warmers - except that I severely doubt they are for warming legs.  Maybe they are for brushing away would be attackers, or dampening bat sonar?  They could be for putting the moves on a female, or they might work great for blending in on my dog (again very unlikely).  It's a mystery for now.  Any ideas?

Sphingidae, Costa Rica
Sphinx moths are pretty speedy on the wing - but this one looks fast just sitting still.  With the swept wings and the tail fin - it's hard to look at it without the 'Top Gun' theme song popping into your head.

Adult moths aren't the only ones with intense ornamentation, caterpillars are often just as striking as their adult counterparts.  The Costa Rican Saturniid below is covered in spines that may make it difficult for a parasitoid fly or wasp to land and lay an egg.  At the same time bright colors advertise to larger predators that the spines are capable of delivering a painful sting.

The Delaware native paddle caterpillar below also employs it's adornments for defense against parasitoids.  When touched, the caterpillar thrashes its head from side to side, sending the 'paddles' flailing wildly - a formidable challenge for a small wasp.  Instead of stinging, the caterpillar (larva of the funerary dagger moth) hides out during the day doing its best impression of bird poop.

Acronicta funeralis

Our last fashion victim is horned spanworm or filament bearer.  The tentacles may help disguise the caterpillar as a dead leaf, but then bothered, they expend to twice their normal length.  It is one of the most bizarre caterpillars I have yet to encounter:
Nematocampa resistaria, Delaware

NMW: Think Pink! The Rosy Maple Moth

Dryocampa rubicunda the 'green striped mapleworm' feeds gregariously in its early life stages
Have you ever seen a moth that was so bright pink that you thought it couldn't possibly be real?  I have been seeing beautiful adult rosy maple moths at our porch light from time to time but had not come across caterpillars before Kiri brought these to my attention (she is on a roll!)  I took one home and provided it with fresh Acer rubrum leaves until if pupated:
 You can clearly see the outline of feathery antennae on the head (right) side of the pupa.  For some reason it is still always a little shocking to me when pupae move around - this guy was particularly wiggly!

The adult is pretty small for being in the family of 'giant silk moths' but what it lacks in size it makes up for in vibrant colors!  The heavy bodied moths tend to sit pretty still when at rest; when one of my neighbors asked 'is that really real?' prodding the moth into movement wasn't all that convincing.

They are indeed real, and just one of the many species of fascinating moths that can be found right here in Delaware!
 Dryocampa rubicunda

NMW: Some Costa Rican Moths

Scape moth, Monteverde, Costa Rica
Kicking off National Moth Week with a quick sample of moth beauty and diversity!  Finding these moths was as easy as turning on a light.  In parts of Costa Rica where natural areas abound, these moths showed up under a porch light within minutes of it's being switched on:

There is a downside to the attraction to lights.  In places where the lights never go off some moths will be content with bashing against the bulb until they perish, rather than flying off to find a mate.  That's right: some moths like porch lights better than sex.  All-night lights can hurt local moth populations, so it's best to turn that porch light off when you're finished.  In the meanwhile, enjoy these beauties that stop by to check it out:
Hieroglyphic Moth Diphthera festiva.  No, google, I did not mean to type "Diptheria festival."  Yikes!
This one might blend in well on a mossy tree, or the eye-spots might spook a would-be predator
Can't go wrong with a red bow-tie
What an impressive Ctenuchine!  Many of these guys are wasp mimics - this one is a bit over the top!
Eat your heart out butterflies!  Moths can be just as colorful!

 That's just the smallest taste of what moth diversity has to offer!  Check out more at the National Moth Week website, and stay tuned for some local leps!

Gearing up for national moth week...

Ailanthus webworm (Atteva aurea) moth on goldenrod, Pennsylvania
July 23rd to 29th is National Moth Week!  Moths get short shrift compared to their diurnal relatives; I have seen a guidebook claiming to 'help distinguish between beautiful butterflies and damaging moths.'  The negative rap is unfortunate as this diverse group is critical to ecosystem function, and fascinating and colorful to boot!

To celebrate NMW, I will be posting about moths all week, including photos of tropical species as well as moths you can find right in your own backyard.  Don't miss the bizarre insect fashion accessories, stinging caterpillars, common garden visitors, or the fantastic exploding moth!

For me, moth week will culminate in a guided caterpillar hunt along the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens Lepidoptera Trail.  If you are nearby check out the link for more details, otherwise visit the NMW website for scheduled events all across the country.
Shag-carpet moth caterpillar Prothysana felderi, Costa Rica

Death By Maggot

This leaf-footed bug (family Coreidae) has succumbed to a attack by a parasitic fly.  A fly in the family Tachinidae laid an egg on the bug's head (it is visible near the eye).  The larval fly tunneled out of the bottom of the egg and into the body of its host, where it consumed it from the inside out.  Finally, the maggot chewed out of the coreid and formed the puparium pictured, where it will undergo metamorphosis and emerge as an adult fly.  Tachinid flies are 'parasitoids' because they are parasites that eventually kill their host.



I've noticed a few mantispids showing up on some of my favorite blogs in recent weeks, so I thought I'd add my own photos to the trend.  My coworker found this one a few weeks ago.  So far I've only ever seen three of these.  What a cool insect!


Thamyra Satyr - Costa Rica


Slow posting this week, but here is Taygetis thamyra (probably) resting in Costa Rica.  Why does it only have four legs?  The Thamyra Satyr is a member of the insect family Nymphalidae, or the 'brush-footed butterflies,'  all of which have very small front legs.  The Nymphalidae is the most species rich family of butterflies, and includes the familiar Painted Lady, Blue Morpho, and Monarch butterflies.

Happy In(sect) dependence Day!

Nothing says 'American work ethic' like Apis mellifera.  It's from Europe.
Break out the fireworks, flags, and apple pie.  It's July 4th!  Many of us will celebrate our independence from tyranny at picnics; a great opportunity to appreciate some of our 6-legged compatriots!  Would we have ever thought up polka-dots without the iconic 7-spot ladybeetles?  What could be more American than a honeybee?

The answer is: just about anything could.  Both of these species are natives to Europe (incidentally, so are polka-dots).  They are as American as mushy peas and red phone booths.  So if we are so keen on giving king George III the heave-ho, why did we then go and pick European insects to represent our states?

States that designate the "European Honeybee" as their state insect:

North Carolina
New Jersey
South Dakota
West Virginia

Cocinella septempunctata
States that designate the European 'Seven-spot ladybeetle' as their state insect:

New Hampshire

With 91,000 named insect species in the United States, I think we could probably find one cool enough without having to borrow from another continent.  Maybe we just miss being colonies.  What do you think?

Thanks to this discussion over at the Entomological Society of Canada blog for reminding me about this entomological pet peeve of mine.

First Dog-day Cicadas of 2012

After several years as a subterranean juvenile, a Tibicen species Cicada molts to its adult stage
Kiri has been finding a lot of cool stuff lately!  Two nights ago she found this Dog-day cicada molting - I had never caught one in the act before.  After several years feeding on the roots of the sycamore tree behind our house, the cicada climbed up from the soil, and shed its nymphal skin.

Fluid is pumped into the insects wings, which then harden for flight
It takes some time for the insect's exoskeleton to harden.  We call these soft-shell crab style insects 'teneral.'  While teneral this cicada was a vibrant green!  The cicada's call is one of those summer sounds that makes me smile - but this one will not be singing, rather it will be the object of the song as she's a female!
Ninja Cicada?
The striped structure in the center of her face is called the clypeus.  It houses strong muscles that help suck plant juices from trees.  I first saw this 'mask' as a kid and ever since cicadas have reminded me of a certain character from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:

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