One of my favorite destinations for insect collecting is the Gypsum Hills region in Barber County of south-central Kansas. I first went there in May 1986 after seeing a diverse selection of more typically Texan Buprestidae that J. Richard Heitzman, an iconic lepidopterist in the Kansas City area and author of Butterflies & Moths of Missouri, had collected there on soapberry (Sapindus saponaria). I had my own success with Buprestidae as well during that trip, but in recent years I have returned to Barber County several times during the fall to look for one of North America’s most beautiful tiger beetles, Cicindela pulchra (Beautiful Tiger Beetle). This species had been recorded in the area by the well-known cicindelophiles Ron Huber and Dave Brzoska, who suggested that I look in the red clay hills just west of Medicine Lodge. My first trip to look for this beetle in 2004 was unsuccessful, and I suspect the early September timing of my trip may have been a tad too early. I returned again in 2005, this time in early October and also enlisting the help of local entomologist “Beetle Bill” Smith, who knew of a population on private land near his home in Hardtner (south of Medicine Lodge). Although at first it looked like success might again elude me, in the end I saw a robust population of these spectacular beetles and published an account of that marvelous experience (MacRae 2006).
As with so many of the things that I have seen over the years, they came before my interest in photography, and I now find myself wanting to re-find some of the more spectacular insects that I’ve previously found so that I can properly photograph them. Such is the case with C. pulchra, so in October of last year I returned to Barber County in hopes of seeing this species armed not only with an aerial net, but also a Canon 50D. Sadly, this would not come to pass – the same sudden cold snap that dashed my hopes of finding this species in nearby Woodward/Major Counties, Oklahoma would keep any tiger beetle activity to a bare minimum the following day in Barber County as well. Despite bright sunny skies, I would see only two tiger beetles the entire day, both representing the dreadfully ubiquitous Cicindela punctulata (Punctured Tiger Beetle). Not all insect activity, however, was squelched, and after scanning the red soils for an hour or so without seeing the object of my desire I began to notice some of these other not-so-temperature-finicky species. One of the more magnificent of these is shown in the photo below — Euhagena nebraskae in the family Sesiidae (cess-EYE-id-ee) (formerly Aegeriidae).
Although I wasn’t sure of the species at first, I recognized it immediately as a clearwing moth. I had an interest in this family of moths for a time in my early days as a field entomologist with the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Many species are important pests of woody plants in orchard and ornamental landscapes, and it was during that time that synthetic pheromones became widely used for monitoring purposes. I often walked around with a pheromone tag pinned to my bag to attract the male moths — it was fun watching people seeing these moths “buzzing” me and thinking I was under attack by the wasps that they so effectively mimic (despite my calmness in these situations, I still found it hard to actually grab one from the air with my hand – so convincing is their mimicry).
Euhagena nebraskae is one of two species in the genus in North America, both of which develop as larvae in the roots of plants in the evening primrose family (Onagraceae) (Eichlin and Duckworth 1988). In fact, I had seen its congener — E. emphytiformis — many times in the 1980s in pheromone traps that I used to place in the glades of Jefferson County just south of St. Louis, where it presumably breeds in one or both of two Oenetherea species growing there (O. gaura and O. macrocarpa). Euhagena nebraskae is a more western species that does not occur in Missouri, occurring instead across the Great Plains west to California and from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan south to Mexico. It is likely that many entomologists never see this species, as adults are active only during late fall. Thus, its perception as an uncommon species may be an artifact of its late seasonality.
I thought it odd that nearly every individual that I saw was sitting on the ground rather than perched higher on a plant. At first I wondered if the cold temperatures were a reason for this, perhaps causing the moths to seek out the ground as a source of radiant heat. This seems doubtful, however, since females always seemed to be “calling” – their tufted abdominal tips raised in the air with the scales spread apart, apparently releasing pheromone. I was fortunate to find this mating pair, which shows nicely the rather high degree of sexual dimorphism seen in these moths. Note the much more highly bipectinate antennae of the male (pectinate = resembling a comb, bipectinate = ‘teeth’ on both sides of the main stem) versus the simple antennae of the female — males use their antennae for detecting female pheromones, and the bipectinate form presumably provides greater surface area for placement of sensory pores. Note also the male’s smaller size, “hairier” head and thorax, and greater amount of white coloration on the abdomen and wings. Engelhardt (1946) supposed that the excessive hairiness of adult Euhagena species was an adaptation to their late-season emergence (principally during October and sometimes as late as November), a time when frosty nights prevail in their high-elevation haunts.
Eichlin, T. D. and W. D. Duckworth. 1988. The Moths of America North of Mexico, Fascicle 5.1, Sesiodea: Sesiidae. Wedge Entomological Research Foundation, Washington, 176 pp.
Engelhardt, G. P. 1946. The North American clear-wing moths of the family Aegeriidae. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 190:1-222.
MacRae, T. C. 2006. Beetle bits: The “beautiful tiger beetle”. Nature Notes, Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society 78(4):9–12.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010