Posts Tagged ‘moths’

Misunderstood Moths

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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

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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.

Facts:

  • 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.

Gypsy Moths

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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? Moth Facts

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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.

Facts:
  • 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

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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.

Bats and Moths: An Arms Race

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Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Bats and Moths: An Arms Race by Kent McFarland

For nearly 65 million years bats and moths have been locked in battle. Bats developed ultrasonic sound to track moth prey at night. Moths countered with ears capable of hearing the bats. The bats responded by changing their frequencies. Tiger moths, responded with the ability to actually create their own ultrasonic sound. They are locked in a coevolutionary predator verses prey race for survival.

Many moths in the Noctuidae family have tiny organs in their ears that can hear the echolocation calls of bats. Weak calls, indicating the bat may be some distance away, causes the moth to flee from detection. A strong detection of an approaching bat instantly produces erratic flight. The moth’s wing muscles literally go into spasms causing their flight to be an unpredictable loop, twist or twirl. A last ditch effort by the moth is the complete folding of wings causing a free-fall. The moth responds to the detection of bat calls in a mere 40 to 100 milliseconds. Be quick or be eaten.

Bats and Moths

The foul tasting Virgin Tiger Moth (Grammia virgo) warns daytime predators such as birds with its bright color and nocturnal predators like bats by emitting sound. © Kent McFarland

The Tiger Moth (Bertholdia trigona) in the southwestern United States has actually developed the ability to jam a bat’s echolocations. It has an organ on its body called a tymbal and it works like the popper in the board game “Trouble”. Push it down and it snaps back with a clicking noise. Biologists have measured up to 450 clicks in just one-tenth of one second coming from this organ. When a bat locks onto its target, the moth begins to rapidly click its tymbal. The bat becomes confused, slows down and misses the moth. What’s next for the bats?

Flower Trap

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Thursday, June 28th, 2012

European Skipper with pollinia on feet © Kent McFarland

Like a Chinese finger trap, the European Skipper was struggling to free itself from the milkweed flower. On another flower nearby only a leg remained from a previous struggle. Survey enough milkweed flowers and eventually you’ll find a few dead insects, usually small species, hanging from a leg or two.

European Skipper nectaring © Kent McFarland

They are not a carnivorous plant; trapping and death are just an accident. Instead, milkweed has solved the problem of pollination in a unique manner. There are five pinkish hoods with horns where the nectar is located. Milkweed produces copious amounts of sweet smelling nectar in the hoods to attract insect pollinators. Between each of the hoods is a dark spot with a long slit leading down from it. With most of the flowers in the umbel hanging downward, these slits are a natural place for insects to grab with their feet while syphoning nectar upside-down.

Legs with pollinia © Kent McFarland

Unlike most flowers, milkweeds don’t produce tiny grains of pollen to be carried away piece by piece. Instead, the flower produces sticky, orange packets of pollen, called pollinia, which are designed to stick to an insect’s leg. In each of the five slits are two pollinia waiting to be accidentally snagged and carried off.

Common Milkweed © Kent McFarland

In order for an insect to pick up one of the pollinia from a milkweed flower, its leg has to slip into a tiny slit between the anthers along the side of the flower.  As the insect struggles to pull its leg back out of that tiny opening, it might emerge with a pollinia or two stuck to it. If the insect is too small or too weak, the only way it can escape the flowers grip is to leave its leg behind. Worker bumblebees, much smaller than spring queens, that forage on milkweed often are missing a claw or leg part.

Common Milkweed © Kent McFarland

If the flower is lucky, the insect will travel to another milkweed flower in search of nectar and deliver the pollinia. To do this successfully, they must again pass their leg through one of the anther slits in another flower and have the pollinia come into contact with a very small area at the base of the stigma lobe. There’s a cost to the insect for this delivery service. Bumblebees with pollinia attached forage about 25 percent more slowly.

Common Milkweed © Kent McFarland

The odds for successful pollination are slim. Seed set in milkweeds is often quite low with only a flower or two in the entire umbel producing seed. But a few flowers are enough to produce clouds of drifting seeds each autumn to sow a new generation in some far off field.

Close up of a European Skipper on Milkweed with its legs in pollinia © Kent McFarland

Lost leg on Milkweed © Kent McFarland

What’s the Buzz on Pollinators: Moths and Butterflies

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Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Butterfly & Moth Pollination Facts:

Silver-spotted Skipper on a Buttonbush © Kent McFarland

Like hummingbirds, butterflies target brightly colored flowers because of their weak sense of smell. Butterflies go after clusters of the same flower, with a flat landing platform. When butterflies and moths feed on plants, the pollen sticks to their legs, which is then transferred to the next flower they feed on.

Video of Butterflies feeding and pollinating.

More Butterfly and Moth Facts:

1.) Butterflies actually use their feet in order to detect chemicals that signal whether or not a plant is the right to lay her eggs based on chemicals.

2.) Butterflies occasionally snack on mud! In order to get the minerals and salts necessary for their diet, butterflies sip from mud puddles.

3.) Ever wondered how butterflies got their name? Myths and legends say the Yellow Brimstone Butterfly of Europe was first seen in early spring also referred to as the “butter” season. Another myth says that witches transformed into butterflies to steal milk and butter.

4.) Butterflies have been idolized for centuries because of their beauty and grace. Dating back to the ancient Hopi, Mayan and Aztec culture, the butterfly is a recurrent theme in myths and legends.

Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) © Kent McFarland

5.) A flowers scent is similar to the pheromones that butterflies generate to appeal to the opposite sex. Naturally, butterflies are attracted to scented flowers.

6.) Monarch Butterflies feed on milkweed, which makes them distasteful to other predators. This is one of their biggest defenses along with their bright orange bodies.

7.) The Hawkmoth is well known for its long tongue, which is twice the length of its body and is used to retrieve nectar while hovering over the plant.

Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) © Kent McFarland

Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) © Kent McFarland

Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) © Kent McFarland

The Moth that Came from the River

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Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth by Julie Craves

One of a child’s first natural history lessons is usually that caterpillars grow up to become butterflies or moths. Eager to witness this transformation, we seek out caterpillars in yard and field to shepard through this remarkable metamorphosis. We soon learn the importance of raising the larvae on the same species of plant on which they were found. For many of us, this is our introduction into the interdependence of plants and animals, and the complex life cycles of even common organisms around us.

A couple of years ago I was doing an insect survey on a property along the Detroit River. I noted a pretty little moth which was quite common; many appeared freshly emerged, which made me curious about what the caterpillars fed on. From my photograph (above) I identified the moth as a Chestnut-marked Pondweed Moth. “Pondweed” is a pretty generic term, but I’ve generally heard it refer to submerged plants in the genus Potamogeton. Sure enough, Potamogeton is the host plant for this species…and the larvae are aquatic. I consider myself pretty well-versed in various butterfly and moth species and their host plants, but aquatic caterpillars were new to me.

This moth is not unique. In this same genus are species whose larvae feed on waterlilies, watermilfoil, and other water plants. Most feed on submerged parts. Other moths in the same family feed on algae scraped from rocks or diatoms trapped in silken sheets spun by the caterpillar. Many have gills for all or part of their larval stage. Females of some species may submerge themselves in an air pocket to lay eggs up to four meters underwater! Members of a number of other moth families are also known to have aquatic larvae.

When I think of flying insects that have an aquatic larval stage, my first thought is always dragonflies. Then many species of flies, as well as beetles, caddisflies, and some true bugs. Now I can add moths to this list, something I never imagined when I raised my first sphinx moth from a “tomato worm” as a bright-eyed child.

I Pledge Allegiance to the Foliar Flag

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Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
Luna Moth

Luna Moth

 

I’m sure there is some bias here but I absolutely love our Nation’s Flag. It’s one of the best flags around and has so many meanings behind what makes up the flag itself. Not all flags are meant to distinguish States or Nations, however. Some flags are used to bring attention to others in a different way. In this case, the “others” would be migrant birds and other animals in search of food before the snow flies.

Contrast between colors is something every living being on the planet uses to discern different items from each other. In its simplest form, contrast is the difference between shades and colors. This is the basic premise behind foliar flags. The general hypothesis behind foliar flags is the early color contrast between berries and foliage is timely in such a way to attract birds and other animals to feed. They then spread seeds as they drop scat (containing the seeds) in other areas. In early fall, as berries ripen they contrast very heavily with what’s in the background. This bold color difference acts as a spot light or “flag” to bring birds and animals in to feed. A perfect example of a foliar flag is the Flowering Dogwood Tree. In early fall, its ripened berries turn a vibrant red which contrasts with the still green leaves. Another example would be the Staghorn Sumac that doesn’t necessarily have berries, but an edible fruit that migrants are attracted to. The foliar flag for this species is its brightly colored red leaves in early fall. These insanely bright leaves can bring in even the highest flying migrant as well as other species in the area.

Nature seems to have done everything first (maybe with the exception of the amazing iPhone!) Nature’s foliar flags are in many ways used for reasons that can relate to why humans use flags. Whether it’s a Country’s flag or a non-official flag that calls attention to the masses for other reasons, it’s all about grabbing attention. Nature is able to use something as simple as contrast to trigger species to come near and spread seeds so that plants can continue spreading and surviving. Awesome!