Posts Tagged ‘butterflies’

Misunderstood Moths


Friday, July 26th, 2013


Pictured Tiger Moth

Pictured Tiger Moth © Leroy Simon, Visuals Unlimited

In the lepidoptera family, butterflies are royalty. They’ve even got royal names like Monarch and Viceroy.

Butterfly gardens are popular attractions around the world. If you want, you can even order boxes of live butterflies, Monarchs and Painted Ladies, that can be released at your wedding or other festive occasion.

Can you imagine anyone releasing moths at a wedding? Guests would be horrified. They’d run screaming to the hills. You might just as well release bats. How about a commercial moth garden? Think it would attract many customers? Not on your life!

If butterflies are royalty, moths are the underclass…Lepidopteral Peons.

They’re night creatures. Most of us only see the “ugly” grey or dusky brown varieties. They flutter menacingly around your porch lights to no apparent purpose. And if you touch one, a creepy kind of dust comes off of it. And, of course, they hide in your closets and snack on your best shirts.

If Bart Simpson were to yell “Eat my shorts!” at a moth, some of them would reply “Gladly!”

But moths are victims of stereotyping. True, some of them are pests — not just to damaging clothing, but also wreaking havoc on forests and grain storage.

There are over 135,000 different varieties of moth in the world, and 13,000 in North America from over 70 families. Ten to fifteen times more moths than butterflies.

Some of them are dazzling, and people usually confuse them with butterflies. Many of them have wonderful names — like Blinded Sphinx or Confused Eusarca or Vagabond Crambus or Darling Underwing. How can you dislike creatures with names like that?! For beautiful moths, check out the Ornate Tiger Moth or the Spanish Moon Moth. Or the Zigzag White Banded Noctuid, combining impressive name and impressive color and patterns.

Io Moth

Io Moth showing eyespots © E. R. Degginger, Color-Pic, Inc.

Some butterflies look like moths (especially the skippers), and some moths look like butterflies. How do you tell the difference? It’s all in the antennae. Moths have feathery, thickened, comb-like or threadlike antennae, not hooked or knobbed like butterflies. And moths usually fold their wings in, like bees.

National Moth Week is not a joke. Check out these misunderstood fluttering wonders and share your sightings on NatureShare.

Species Spotlight: Luna Moth


Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Species Spotlight: Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

If you’ve ever walked out your door in the morning and encountered a Luna Moth clinging to the underside of a light or on the screen door, you know what a delight it is to see these large, lime green moths. The Luna, known as the “moon moth,” is perhaps the most famous among giant silkworm moths. Its 4 ½-inch wingspan, together with the delicate wing coloration and the added grace of its tails, make it a striking creature to see. It ranges east of the Great Plains.


  • When the Luna hatches its first instar is 6 – 8 mm (.23inches) and grows to 65mm (2.5 inches) before pupating.
  • Luna Moths are only found in North America and is quite common throughout its range
  • Female Luna’s release a potent perfume by contracting muscles in the abdomen.  It is almost undetectable to humans, but the scent is detected by a male Luna up to a half a mile away.
  • Female Lunas prefer to deposit their fertilized eggs on hickory, birch, sweet gum or persimmon trees.
  • Luna’s deposit their eggs on trees where other species of moths have laid their eggs, making stiff competition for the caterpillars.

Giant silkworm moths are hard to spot because they prefer to fly high in the trees. The caterpillars are lime green with yellow bands, and red and silver tubercles (small, knob-like or rounded protuberances that sometimes bear a spine).

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Celebrate Moth Week 201 by sharing your Moth sightings on NatureShare.

To find a Moth Week event near you visit Moth Week.

Nature Stories: Rare Alpine Butterflies in White Mountains, NH


Sunday, October 21st, 2012

White Mountain Fritillary (Boloria titania montinus) 14 August 2003, Mt. Washington © Kent McFarland

Nature Stories: Rare Alpine Butterflies in White Mountains, NH by Kent McFarland

Perched atop the Presidential Range in the unique alpine tundra vegetation are two butterfly species that exist no where else in the world. Their closest relatives live over 850 miles north in the arctic tundra. The White Mountain Arctic (Oeneis melissa semidea) and the White Mountain Fritillary (Boloria titania montinus) have not been in contact with their relatives for nearly 9,000 years, when tundra covered much of the region. But as the climate warmed and forests began to cover much of the land, the summits of the Presidential Range provided just the right climate for tundra vegetation and a small population of these butterflies to live, while their relatives slowly moved northward with the receding tundra.

White Mountain Arctic (Oeneis melissa semidea) 12 July 2002, Mt. Washington © Kent McFarland

It is hard to imagine butterflies with wing spans of one and a half inches surviving the fierce weather of Mount Washington, but they are specially adapted. It takes two short summers of nocturnal dining on Bigelow’s Sedge for the White Mountain Arctic caterpillars to mature and then pupate the third summer under moss or a rock. The butterflies emerge, mate and lay eggs for only a few weeks in late June to mid-July and then their life is over. White Mountain Fritillary caterpillars hatch and mature over a summer while eating violets and willows. The following summer they pupate and during the first two weeks of August the adults mate and feed on the nectar of Alpine Goldenrod.

Although these two species may seem secure on the wild and protected summits, there may be several threats to their future viability such as global climate change, atmospheric pollution, and recreation.

Monarchs on the Move: You can Contribute!


Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Monarchs on the Move: You can Contribute! by Kent McFarland

Monarchs Butterflies

Monarch © Rick Cech

Monarchs are on the move southward and the story of this massive migration is truly amazing. To follow their annual flight, let’s begin their story in the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico.

Not far from Mexico City there are 13 known sites in the mountains that contain what is believed to be the entire population of Monarchs from east of the Rocky Mountains. These are small peaks ranging from 7,800 to 11,800 feet in elevation and covered with Oyamel Fir (Abies religiosa), a species closely related to the balsam fir found on the mountain tops here in northeastern North America. In 1984, a study found that there may have been as many as 60 overwintering sites that can be used by the butterflies, but commercial and illegal logging has now destroyed many them. A site may contain up to 4 million monarchs per acre and cover as little as one-tenth up to 8 acres of fir forest.

Monarchs Butterflies

Monarch, male © Rick Cech

The butterflies arrive from the north in November to late December and hang out on the trees metabolizing fat reserves that they have built up during migration. Remarkably, they actually gain weight on migration and arrive on the wintering grounds with fat reserves for the winter, unlike songbirds, which require huge fat stores to burn on migration.

The overwintering sites begin to break up in March and early April and they migrate to the Gulf Coast of the southeastern US where females arrive just as the milkweed is sprouting from the ground. They lay eggs on the fresh plants and then most die. One or two generations of Monarchs are raised in the south before it is too hot and dry for milkweed to persist. The young and fresh adults continue the northward migration laying eggs along the way.

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed © Justine Riegel

Finally, they arrive in New England at the end of May and early June just as the milkweed begins to sprout. This generation mates, lays eggs and dies. Monarchs may raise 2 or 3 generations in the north. Each female Monarch can lay about 400 eggs on average. With each generation the population grows larger and larger and larger, if they conditions are right.

Monarchs Butterflies

Monarch with caterpillar © E. R. Degginger, Color-Pic, Inc.

But, why is one year good for Monarchs but not another? Scientists are just beginning to understand what may cause boom and bust cycles in Monarch populations. A continent-wide study called the Monarch Larval Monitoring Project was developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota to collect long-term data on reproduction in their milkweed habitats. The goal of the project is to better understand how and why monarch populations vary each year and in each region.

Beginning in mid-August the amount of daylight signals a physiologic change in Monarchs causing them to migrate to the wintering sites in Mexico. Incredibly, the late summer and fall adults in have never seen Mexico. They are 5 or 6 generations beyond those that wintered there. Yet, somehow they are guided back to these small sites thousands of miles away.

The winter generation lives up to 8 months while the successive spring and summer generations are lucky to live 5 weeks. It takes up to 6 generations of spring and summer Monarchs to produce the final “super-Monarch” that migrates to Mexico in the Fall and then back to the southern United States in the Spring.

monarchs Butterflies

Monarch caterpillar © Amanda Jones

How do we know that New England Monarchs actually make it to Mexico? Many of us have been trying to find out by tagging adults during fall migration in cooperation with Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization at the University of Kansas. Using small tags like tiny bumper stickers with unique identification numbers on them, volunteers capture and place them on the Monarch’s wings in the fall. With over 10 million butterflies out there the odds of a recapture are very poor. Here in Vermont we have had a few lucky folks. There have been 16 Monarchs tagged in Vermont and found in Mexico! Maybe you could be a lucky tagger. Anyone can do it. Just visit Monarch Watch for more details.

You can also watch Monarchs move southward on the internet as people like you report sightings to Journey North. Whether you find eggs or caterpillars, see them nectaring or actively migration southward, you can add your sightings to the database to help get a picture of the migration across the continent.

Monarchs are on the move! Let all of us at NatureShare know how the migration is going in your region.

Nature Stories: Keep Your Eyes on the Winged Wildflowers – Become a Butterfly Watcher


Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Nature Stories: Keep Your Eyes on the Winged Wildflowers – Become a Butterfly Watcher by Kent McFarland

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Mourning Cloak © Rick Cech

It had been a good morning censusing birds.  As we ambled back to the car, my accomplice spotted a large butterfly gliding along the dirt road.  “There goes a Mourning Cloak,” he exclaimed.  I had never given butterflies a close look before; my eyes and ears had always been tuned to bird life.  As the butterfly landed, I was immediately astounded by the brilliant colors; the vibrant spread wings edged with bright yellow and a band of sky blue dotting a dark brown background. “These overwinter as adults,” he said, “in the fall they feed and store fat, then hibernate in a hollow log or a tree cavity until spring when they mate.”  That was 1992 and I have been hooked on butterflies ever since.

As the poet/naturalist Vladimir Nabokov noted in his memoirs, “It is astonishing how few people notice butterflies.” So why watch butterflies?

Mustard White Butterfly

Mustard White, summer © Rick Cech

Butterflies are excellent indicators of environmental health and change.  For example, in the Northeast researchers found that the Mustard White butterfly population had declined due to the cutting of the forest and subsequent loss of the plant toothwort (Dentaria diphylla), which grows only in rich forests. This, coupled with the invasion of the common wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris), which attracts egg laying adults, but is not palatable to the caterpillars like their native host toothwort, is suspected to be the environmental changes responsible for their decline.  With the increase of forest cover during the past quarter of a century the Mustard White may once again become abundant.  However, population changes will only be known through continued close monitoring.  By monitoring a butterfly species we are able to detect and monitor changes in the entire ecosystem.

Crinkleroot Wildflowers

Crinkleroot © K. P. McFarland

Documentation of lepidoptera distribution, seasonality, habitat and food requirements aids in conservation and helps monitor long-term environmental change. Keeping track of the species in your area can help document the distribution of butterflies; data that can help scientists monitor changes to the local environment. You may even discover a rare species in need of conservation.

Identifying butterflies can seem difficult compared to birds; their size alone making it tough to distinguish field marks.  Many professional and amateur lepidopterists collect specimens as vouchers for their identifications.  Considering the dynamics of insect populations this seldom leads to any conservation problems.  Today, butterfly watching is similar to birding with the turn of the century presenting a transition period from collecting to watching.  Recently, the advent of close focusing binoculars and digital field guides designed for easy identification individual species are making observers less intrusive and abusive.

I follow the butterfly distribution in my town as closely as I can without collecting a single live specimen.  There are several techniques to document butterfly sightings; visually identifying them through binoculars or close observation, documenting them in notes, or photographing them.  When encountering a species that is difficult to identify, I capture it in a harmless insect net and transfer it to a clear envelope.  Identification can then be made using a field guide, the species may be photographed and then released.  And finally (a technique that turns heads) is the collection of butterflies killed by vehicles along highways.  These unfortunate victims make excellent voucher or reference specimens and can be found in remarkably good shape.

Butterfly watching is quickly becoming as popular as bird watching.  In 1975, Sally Hughes of the Xerces Society founded the first annual Fourth of July butterfly count, conducted by 76 people in 28 places on the east and west coasts and Colorado.  The Xerces Society founded the count to address the conservation of invertebrate species, and sponsored the count for 18 years.  The organization was appropriately named after the Xerces Blue butterfly, a former resident of sand dunes near San Francisco and the first butterfly species to become extinct due to human intrusion.  This year’s count is expected to have over 2,000 people in over 250 locations counting butterflies. On a given day within a period around the Fourth of July volunteers gather in their designated areas and spread out to count every butterfly, caterpillar and egg they can find.  The results are tallied and reported by the fledgling North American Butterfly Association (NABA), which assumed the sponsorship of the count from the Xerces Society.  The two year old NABA is comprised of over 2,000 members from all areas of North America.  The organization emphasizes the use of binoculars over nets in the pursuit of butterfly watching.

Butterfly watching can be as rigorous or relaxing as you choose.  You can study the distribution and behavior of your area intensely, join a group of butterfly fans on a Fourth of July count, or simply appreciate the individuals passing through your garden.  Sharpen your observation skills and contradict Nabokov’s words.  Keep your eyes on the winged wildflowers!

Gypsy Moths


Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Gypsy Moths in Manitoba by Gene Walz

Gypsy Moths

Gypsy Moths © E. R. Degginger/Color-Pic, Inc.

My yard was supposed to be sprayed overnight. I live in one of the two areas of Winnipeg where Gypsy Moths (Lymantria dispar) have recently been found. How they got here is anybody’s guess.

We’re proud of our motto, “Friendly Manitoba”, but we’re treating these newcomers in a most hostile manner. A crop-duster full of the insecticide Btk (Bacillus thuringiensis) was supposed to douse my neighborhood. A thunderstorm, heavy winds, and rain gave us a temporary reprieve from last night’s scheduled spraying. The crop-duster never showed up. By the time you read this, it will have given my yard a bacterium bath.  Ah, well.

Btk is said to be “a naturally occurring bacterium that only kills caterpillars.”  I hope so. Since the city started wholesale spraying for mosquito and inchworm prevention, many of the formerly common birds here have disappeared. No more orioles, wrens, or mourning doves in my yard. I miss their songs.

The Gypsy Moth is one of North America’s worst introduced pests. We can thank a misguided scientist named Leopold Trouvelot of Medford, Massachusetts for importing the moths from their native Asia in 1868. Since then the caterpillars have wreaked havoc on forests across the continent, defoliating trees at alarming rates.

I hope this regime of treatments is effective. I don’t want Gypsy Moths in my world. I want my trees to thrive. I don’t want a second round of spraying next year or a third. I want more birds around. They’ve got enough to cope with already.

Did You Know? Facts about Butterflies


Friday, August 10th, 2012

Some butterflies are particularly foul tasting, and they advertise the fact with bright and distinctive colors.

Monarch Butterflies

Monarch with caterpillar © E. R. Degginger, Color-Pic, Inc.

If an insect tastes bad it wants birds to know it.  Monarch butterflies have a bitter taste that is disliked by birds and mammals.  The taste comes from milkweed, which is food for monarch larvae.

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed © Justine Riegel

The Viceroy butterfly is famous for mimicking the Monarch, and birds which have learned to avoid Monarchs also keep clear of the look-alike Viceroy. Viceroys also get protection from their mildly fearsome appearance, with its hunched and horned foreparts.

Viceroy Butterflies

Viceroy, northern © Rick Cech

Another nasty tasting and brilliantly colored butterfly is the “Pixie” which discourages attackers by imitating distasteful tropical moths. The Pixie is a member of a South American genus called Melanis, with contains some of the most brightly colored butterflies in the world.

Red-bordered Pixie Butterflies

Red-bordered Pixie © Rick Cech

Invader, Meet Invader


Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Invader, Meet Invader – Garlic Mustard by Julie Craves

The non-native, invasive plant Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), is such an abundant part of my urban landscape that I often don’t even notice it. So I surprised myself one day walking through my field site because, although my thoughts were elsewhere, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a Garlic Mustard plant with chewed leaves. Part of the success of many invasive, non-native plants is that they flourish in regions where they have no natural enemies. Not much eats Garlic Mustard in North America. Apparently I was so used to seeing intact leaves that these obviously browsed ones triggered a response in my subconscious.

Garlic Mustard Wildflowers

Garlic Mustard © K. P. McFarland

When I stopped to take a look, I saw two small Cabbage White (Pieris rapae) butterfly larvae feeding on the leaves. That’s another non-native, widespread species that’s so ubiquitous I hardly register their ever-presence. I found two more Garlic Mustard plants nearby that each had a Cabbage White caterpillar feeding on it.

Here, the plot thickens.

Cabbage White larvae feed on many species of plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). This includes crop species introduced into North America, including Brassica oleracea (from which cabbage, broccoli, kale, and other vegetables are derived), mustard greens, and turnips. In Europe, Cabbage Whites also use Garlic Mustard as a host plant.

Cabbage White Butterflies

Cabbage White © Rick Cech

Both Cabbage Whites and Garlic Mustard were first recorded in North America in the mid-1800s, in Quebec and New York, respectively. Despite long association in both their native and introduced ranges, there are relatively few reports of Cabbage Whites using Garlic Mustard as a host plant in North America.

Studies have suggested this may be due to the fact that the butterflies have so many delicious choices of host plants here that they can choose those that they prefer (mustard greens are a favorite), and don’t need to resort to Garlic Mustard. There is an organic garden and lots of “preferred” choices within 100 yards of where I found these caterpillars. Why Garlic Mustard was chosen instead in this case is a mystery.

I brought the four Cabbage White caterpillars indoors and successfully raised them to adulthood on wild Garlic Mustard. I released the adults, hoping that perhaps they might go on to begin a population with a taste for a host from the homeland that wasn’t also destined for own our dinner plates.

Did You Know? Moth Facts


Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Facts about Moths

The Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

If you’ve ever walked out your door in the morning and encountered a Luna Moth clinging to the underside of a light or on the screen door, you know what a delight it is to see these large, lime green moths. The Luna, known as the “moon moth,” is perhaps the most famous among giant silkworm moths. Its 4 ½-inch wingspan, together with the delicate wing coloration and the added grace of its tails, make it a striking creature to see. It ranges east of the Great Plains.

  • When the Luna hatches its first instar is 6 – 8 mm (.23inches) and grows to 65mm (2.5 inches) before pupating.
  • Luna Moths are endangered due to deforestation and pesticides.
  • Female Luna’s release a potent perfume by contracting muscles in the abdomen.  It is almost undetectable to humans, but the scent is detected by a male Luna up to a half a mile away.
  • Female Lunas prefer to deposit their fertilized eggs on hickory, birch, sweet gum or persimmon trees.
  • Luna’s deposit their eggs on trees where other species of moths have laid their eggs, making stiff competition for the caterpillars.

Giant silkworm moths are hard to spot because they prefer to fly high in the trees. The caterpillars are lime green with yellow bands, and red and silver tubercles (small, knob-like or rounded protuberances that sometimes bear a spine).

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

Tiger Moths

The Rattlebox Moth is one of the few moths active during daylight hours.

Rattlebox Moth

Rattlebox Moth © James H. Robinson

  • They can be found in the American Southeast and Texas.
  • They are brightly colored with pink hind wings bordered by black, and orange-yellow forewings, which have white accents speckled with black.
  • The Rattlebox got its name because the caterpillar feeds on rattlebox, a genus of herbaceous plants, as well as sweet clover and sweet fern.
  • The caterpillar has a red head, yellow body, white side stripes, and alternating black and white stripes on its back.
  • The Lichen caterpillar feeds on lichens, which are usually shunned by insects.
    • Lichen Moths are often mistaken for netwing beetles because of their similar color, pattern, size and tendency to be found on the same flowers.
  • The caterpillar of the Woolly Bear is said in folklore to predict the severity of the winter based on the number of black hairs, rather than red ones, on the species.
    • This myth does actually have a bit of truth to it: Cold weather in early autumn causes a Woolly Bear to seek shelter sooner, and at this time, their black hairs are more grown in than their red hairs.

Facts on Other Moths:

  •  The pupas of Polyphemus Moths emerge from the cocoon as brownish-yellow with an eyespot on each hind wing and without any tails.
Polyphemus Moth

Polyphemus Moth showing eyespots © Tom Vezo

  • Cecropia caterpillars spend their lives on ash, elm, willow, and lilac trees.
    • These caterpillars are green with blue side shading and red, yellow, and blue tubercles.
    • This pupa spins a cocoon along a twig that must hold up all winter long.
    • The Io Moth is known for its small size, with a wingspan three inches or less, which still enables the moth to flash a warning to predators.
        • The Io caterpillar has venomous spines
  • The White-lined Sphinx Moth whir like hummingbirds and is found in meadows and gardens especially where portulaca grows.
  • The Hummingbird Moth is often mistaken for a hummingbird because of its soft buzzing and outstretched wings while sipping nectar.
  • The Lappet Moth, commonly found in Michigan, is named after its caterpillar that has small lobes, or “lappets,” on the sides of its body.

The Color of Poison


Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

The Color of Poison – Moths by Kent McFarland

Scientists have catalogued about 160,000 moths around the world. There may be another 200,000 species yet to be discovered and described. In the United States alone there are over 11,000 moth species. Most of us think of moths as just drab brown, gray or white creatures of the night, but many are dressed as flashy as their butterfly cousins and can be seen flying in bright daylight.

Rattle Box Moths

Rattle Box Moth © Kent McFarland

One of the most striking diurnal moths is the beautiful Rattlebox Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). It’s the only moth in eastern North America with pink-orange colored forewing marked with rows of white-ringed black spots. There’s good reason for the bright colors; they’re a warning. This moth tastes terrible. Their caterpillars dine on the leaves of Rattlebox (Crotalaria mucronata), which contain powerful alkaloids that the moths can store making themselves quite distasteful and unpalatable.

Predators don’t always heed to colorful warnings. These alkaloids don’t smell. For a predator like a spider, they have to taste it. But a mere taste from a spider could be fatal. The moths combat this with a volatile frothy blend of chemicals emitted from special ducts in their thorax. Disturb an adult moth and the bubbling brew is quickly exuded.

Scientists from Cornell University found during their research that even the moth’s eggs are protected from predators by these chemicals. Ants won’t touch them. Lacewing larvae stay back. Even parasitoid wasps won’t attack the eggs. But how are they protected before they are able to hatch and eat Rattlebox plants?

Incredibly, both the male and the female contribute nasty alkaloids to the eggs. The females transfer some that they sequestered as larva. The male contributes the fowl chemistry to the eggs when he mates with the female. He transfers a package that contains not only sperm, but also a pile of alkaloids that the female can quickly assimilate into her body and eventually to the eggs.

Mating lasts a long time; up to 9 hours. Just one mating will protect a female for the rest of her 30-day life. But that apparently isn’t enough. She’ll mate with up to 20 different males. How do the scientists know how many times a female mated? Each time a male passes a spermatophore to a female it is dissolved by the female and leaves behind a tiny hard ring. When the female dies, through dissection they can count the rings in her storage pouch. Each donut shaped ring represents a mating.

During this first ever National Moth Week, take time to enjoy and celebrate the wild colors of moths, just don’t taste them.