One-shot Wednesday: swamp milkweed leaf beetle

Labidomera clivicollis on Asclepias incarnata | Hickman Co., Kentucky

Labidomera clivicollis on Asclepias incarnata | Hickman Co., Kentucky

Technically this photograph of Labidomera clivicollis (swamp milkweed leaf beetle) doesn’t qualify as a “one-shot”, as I did take a few other shots as well. However, this was the only shot out of the handful that I didn’t throw away. It’s not perfect—the right front and left rear legs are raised awkwardly, and the lighting is a bit harsh. However, the important parts of the beetle are in focus, the composition is acceptable (with all parts of the beetle within the frame), and there is pleasing value contrast between the orange and black body of the beetle, the green plant on which it sits, and the clear blue sky in the background. The plant’s flowers have even added a smidgen of pink. All of the other photos lacked either focus or composition, neither of which are easily “fixable” in post-processing. The difficulty in getting a better photo is a result of the beetle’s refusal to settle down and stop walking and my lack of desire to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for this to happen as opposed to finding the insect I was really looking for (more on that in a future post).

I found this beetle on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Hickman Co., Kentucky. As the common name suggests, swamp milkweed is one of the main hosts for this rather large beetle (at least, by leaf beetle standards). However, they can and do feed and develop on other milkweeds, especially common milkweed (A. syriaca), and even related genera such as swallow-wort (Cynanchum) and twinevine (Funastrum) (all belonging the family Asclepiadaceae).

Labidomera clivicollis is part of the orange and black milkweed mimicry complex, which includes monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes spp.), large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii), milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes), and others. Most of these insects have evolved mechanisms for avoiding or detoxifying cardenolides (produced by milkweed as a defense against herbivores) and sequestering them within their bodies for their own defense against predators. This represents a classic example of a Müllerian mimicry ring, in which multiple insect species—sometimes from different families and even different orders—share a common warning color. Predators learn to avoid these colors and, thus, avoid all of the species within the mimicry ring.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Hairy milkweed beetle

Across the Great Plains of North America, sand dune fields dot the landscape along rivers flowing east out of the Rocky Mountains. Formed by repeated periods of drought and the action of prevailing south/southwest winds on alluvium exposed by uplifting over the past several million years, many of these dunes boast unique assemblages of plants and animals adapted to their harsh, xeric conditions. Some are no longer active, while others remain active to this day. Among the latter is Beaver Dunes in the panhandle of northwestern Oklahoma.

Beaver Dunes, Oklahoma

Beaver Dunes State Park, Beaver Co., Oklahoma

As I explored the more vegetated areas around the perimeter of the dunes, I spotted the characteristically hairy, fleshy, opposite leaves of Ascelpias arenaria. Known also as “sand milkweed,” this plant is associated with sand dunes and other dry sandy soil sites throughout the central and southern Great Plains. I always give milkweeds a second look whenever I encounter them due to the association with them by longhorned beetles in the genus Tetraopes. It wasn’t long before I spotted the black antennae and red head of one of these beetles peering over one of the upper leaves from the other side.

Tetraopes pilosus on Asclepias arenaria

Tetraopes pilosus on Asclepias arenaria | Beaver Dunes State Park, Oklahoma

This was no ordinary Tetraopes, however. Its large size, dense covering of white pubescence, and association with sand milkweed told me immediately that this must be T. pilosus (the specific epithet meaning “hairy”). Like its host, this particular milkweed beetle is restricted to Quaternary sandhills in the central and southern Great Plains (Chemsak 1963), and also like its host the dense clothing of white pubescence is presumably an adaptation to prevent moisture loss and overheating in their xeric dune habitats (Farrell & Mitter 1998).

Tetraopes pilosus

Species of Tetraopes have the eyes completely divided by the antennal insertions—thus, “four eyes.”

Tetraopes is a highly specialized lineage distributed from Guatemala to Canada that feed as both larvae and adults exclusively on milkweed (Chemsak 1963). Larval feeding occurs in and around the roots of living plants, a habit exhibited by only a few other genera of Cerambycidae but unique in the subfamily Lamiinae (Linsley 1961). Milkweed plants are protected from most vertebrate and invertebrate herbivores by paralytic toxins, commonly termed cardiac glycosides or cardenolides. However, a few insects, Tetraopes being the most common and diverse, have not only evolved cardenolide insensitivity but also the ability to sequester these toxins for their own defense. Virtually all insects that feed on milkweed and their relatives have evolved aposematic coloration to advertise their unpalatability, and the bright red and black color schemes exhibited by milkweed beetles are no exception.

Species of the genus Tetraopes are characterized by the completely divided eyes.

Adult beetles, like the leaves of their hosts, are clothed in white pubescence.

As  noted by Mittler & Farrel (1998), variation in coloration among the different species of Tetraopes may be correlated with host chemistry. Milkweed species vary in toxicity, with more basal species expressing simpler cardenolides of lower toxicity and derived species possessing more complex and toxic analogs. Most species of Tetraopes are associated with a single species of milkweed, and it has been noted that adults of those affiliated with less toxic milkweeds on average are smaller, have less of their body surface brightly colored, and are quicker to take flight (Chemsak 1963, Farrell & Mitter 1998). Thus, there seems to be a direct correlation between the amount of protection afforded by their host plant and the degree to which the adults advertise their unpalatability and exhibit escape behaviors. Asclepias arenaria and related species are the most derived in the genus and contain the highest concentrations of cardenolides. In fact, they seem to be fed upon only by Tetraopes and monarchs while being generally free from other more oligophagous insect herbivores such as ctenuchine arctiid moths and chrysomelid beetles that feed on less derived species of milkweed (Farrell & Mitter 1998). Accordingly, T. pilosus is among the largest species in the genus and has the majority of its body surface red. Also, consistent with it being more highly protected than others in the genus, I noted virtually no attempted escape behavior as I photographed this lone adult.

Asclepias arenaria

Asclepias arenaria (sand milkweed) growing at the base of a dune.

In addition to metabolic insensitivity to cardenolides, adult Tetraopes also exhibit behavioral adaptations to avoid milkweed defenses (Doussard & Eisner 1987). The milky sap of milkweed is thick with latex that quickly dries to a sticky glue that can incapacitate the mouthparts of chewing insects that feed upon the sap-filled tissues. Adult Tetraopes, however, use their mandibles to cut through the leaf midrib about a quarter of the way back from the tip. This allows much of the sticky latex-filled sap to drain from the more distal tissues, on which the beetle then begins feeding at the tip. Leaves with chewed tips and cut midribs are telltale signs of feeding by adult Tetraopes.

REFERENCES:

Chemsak, J. A. 1963. Taxonomy and bionomics of the genus Tetraopes (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae). University of California Publications in Entomology 30(1):1–90, 9 plates.

Doussard, D. E. & T. Eisner. 1987. Vein-cutting behavior: insect counterploy to the latex defense of plants. Science 237:898–901 [abstract].

Farrell, B. D. & C. Mitter. 1998. The timing of insect/plant diversification: might Tetraopes (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae) and Asclepias (Asclepiadaceae) have co-evolved? Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 63: 553–577 [pdf].

Linsley, E.G. 1961. The Cerambycidae of North America. Part 1. Introduction. University of California Publications in Entomology 18:1–97, 35 plates.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Gulf Fritillary in southern Missouri

Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) | Mississippi Co., Missouri

I’m not sure, but I think this might be the first time I’ve photographed a butterfly caterpillar. Not a bad subject to start with, as few butterflies have caterpillars that are more colorful than the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae. A common resident in the southern states and further south, this member of the nymphalid subfamily Heliconiinae is less commonly encountered in Missouri—in fact, I had never seen (or at least noticed) these caterpillars before encountering a few feeding hungrily on the foliage of maypop (Passiflora incarnata) growing in a city park in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands. While the stunning colors of these caterpillars are a delight to human eyes, their function, as in most butterfly caterpillars, is to advertise the unpalatability of their toxin-laced bodies. In the case of this species, the toxins include cyanogenic glycosides that the larvae sequester from the tissues of their host plants (ironically these compounds are supposed to serve the same protective function for the plant that produces them, but butterflies have become master specialists at evolving mechanisms to sidestep toxic impacts).

According to my friends Richard & Joan Heitzman, long-time students of Missouri Lepidoptera, this species is a sporadic migrant that occasionally forms summer colonies in Missouri, especially in the western half of the state, until the first hard freeze destroys the colony (Heitzman & Heitzman 1987).

REFERENCE:

Heitzman, J. R. & J. E. Heitzman. 1987. Butterflies and Moths of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 385 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

West Indian seagrape sawfly

I spent a few days in Puerto Rico last month. A quick in-and-out for work, there was little chance to do any real exploring. Nevertheless, I booked my return on the last possible flight out so that I would have at least part of a day to look around before needing to go to the airport. I’ve only been to Puerto Rico twice before—once in 1982 on a one-day visit during my honeymoon cruise (with a far-too-rushed guided tour to El Yunque), and again in 1999, also a quickie for work. Given my limited previous opportunities to explore San Juan, you might think I would choose La Forteleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Old San Juan for my day’s destination. After all, they were designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 1983. Tempting, but when I looked at the map of San Juan a nice, big, chunk of green immediately caught my eye—Bosque Estatal de Piñones (Pine State Forest). Call me single-minded, but not even a World Heritage Site can match the siren call of 1,500 acres of moist, subtropical forest!

Sericoceros krugii female guarding eggs on leaf underside of sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) | Bosque Estatal de Piñones, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Mangrove forest covers much of the reserve, accessed by a wide (and annoyingly elevated) boardwalk—an interesting stroll but unsatisfying to me since I couldn’t root around at ground level. One can get only so much enjoyment from distinguishing red, black, and white mangrove before the sameness of the canopy and exclusion from the ground flora/fauna starts to become monotonous. I went back towards the parking lot (photographing a few lizards along the way—more on them in a future post) and had just begun walking the perimeter of a picnic area when I encountered some very large seagrape (Coccoloba uvifera) plants. I’ve seen a lot of seagrape in Florida and have never found any insects on it, so I initially didn’t make much effort to go over and have a closer look at them. However, even from afar I could see that these particular plants had been very heavily damaged by some type of defoliating insect. The first few branches I looked at showed no outward evidence of who the culprit was, but I reasoned it must have been some sort of lepidopteran caterpillar. As I was inspecting the branches, the insect in the above photo caught my eye—at first I thought it was some type of “homopteran” because of the apparent egg-guarding behavior it was showing, but a closer look revealed that it was actually a sawfly! An egg guarding sawfly; who would have thought?!

Female ovipositing her clutch of eggs, which are solid red when first laid.

Predictably, subsequent identification was quite easy as there is only a single species of sawfly in Puerto Rico—Sericoceros krugii in the family Argidae. About 20 species make up this Neotropical genus, occurring from southern Mexico south to Argentina; however, S. krugii is the only species occurring in the West Indies and in addition to Puerto Rico is found in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic (Smith 1992). The species in this genus seem to specialize on Coccoloba spp. (family Polygonaceae) as host plants; however, one species is reported from Triplaris caracasana—also in the Polygonaceae (Smith & Benitez Diaz 2001), and another from Lonchocarpus minimiflorus in the family Fabaceae (Smith & Janzen 2003).

Larvae consume all but the largest veins of the foliage.

Wolcott (1948) describes how this species often defoliates long stretches of seagrape on the beaches of Puerto Rico, leaving “windrows of excrement on the sand underneath the naked branches and leaf midribs…” He also describes its apparent lack of natural enemies (although it has since been recorded as a host for a tachinid fly—Bennett 1999) and the fact that birds do not seem to eat them as possible reasons for its abundance and frequent outbreaks. To me, the screaming red/black coloration of the adult and apparent unpalatability to birds suggest the presence of chemical defenses, and although I couldn’t find any information on this specific to Sericoceros spp., many social species of sawflies are typically well-defended chemically and, thus, aposematic. Despite this apparent defensive capability, the remarkable maternal guarding behavior exhibited by the adult females suggests the eggs still need additional protection from predators and parasitoids. Sericoceros spp. are not the only sawflies to exhibit this behavior, which apparently has evolved across numerous sawfly lineages (see Social Sawflies, by James T. Costa).

This mature larva will soon spin a coccoon on the bark for pupation.

There were only a few, apparently mature larvae still around on the trees that I could find. Wolcott (1948) describes most outbreaks as occurring during the fall and winter months, after which the insects might completely disappear for many months or even a year. I must have caught the tail end of one such outbreak, although the number of females that I saw guarding eggs suggests another wave of defoliation would soon be occurring.

Congratulations to itsybitsybeetle, who showed up late to the party but still managed to pull out the win for Super Crop Challenge #13. Brady Richards came in a close 2nd, while Sam Heads and Mr. Phidippus share the final podium spot. The overall standings remain the same, with Sam leading Brady by a single, slim point and Mr. Phidippus only six points further back. There will be two more challenges in BitB Challenge Session #6, so it’s still possible for somebody to make a late run, especially if one or more of the leaders falters down the stretch. Remember—the top three points earners at the end of the session will get a choice of some loot, so don’t hesitate when the next challenge rolls around.

REFERENCES:

Bennett, F. D. 1999. Vibrissina sp. (Diptera: Tachinidae) a parasite of the seagrape sawfly Sericoceros krugii (Hymenoptera: Argidae) in Puerto Rico: a new record. Journal of Agriculture of the University of Puerto Rico 83(1–2):75–78.

Smith, D. R. 1992. A synopsis of the sawflies (Hymenoptera: Symphyta) of America south of the United States: Argidae. Memoirs of the American Entomological Society 39:1–201.

Smith, D. R. & Benitez-Diaz. 1991. A new species of Sericoceros Konow (Hymenoptera : Argidae) damaging villetana trees, Triplaris caracasana Cham. (Polygonaceae) in Paraguay. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Washington 103(1):217–221.

Smith, D. R. & D. H. Janzen. 2003. Food plants and life histories of sawflies of the family Argidae (Hymenoptera) in Costa Rica, with descriptions of two new species. Journal of Hymenoptera Research 12:193–208.

Wolcott, G. N. 1948. Insects of Puerto Rico. Journal of Agriculture of the University of Puerto Rico 32(4):749–975.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Tucuras, langostas, y saltamontes

Staleochlora viridicata | Cordoba Province, Argentina (March 2011)

Tucuras, langostas, and saltamontes are names in Argentina for what we in North America call grasshoppers (order Orthoptera, superfamily Acridoidea). Argentina certainly has its share of species, some of which can only be described as “gigantes”! During my first week out in the field at my home base here in western Buenos Aires Province, I encountered the hefty-bodied female in the photo below and was immediately reminded of a similar-looking individual I had photographed in neighboring Córodoba Province during my March 2011 visit. Both had short but well-developed wing pads that at first suggested they might be mature nymphs of an incredibly large species. However, when I noted both were females I decided they likely represented adults of some type of lubber grasshopper (family Romaleidae), many of which—especially the females—are brachypterous (short-winged) and heavy-bodied as adults. A little searching revealed that both belong to the genus Elaeochlora, each looking very much like the species pictured on an Argentine postal stamp and identified as E. viridis (update 9 Mar 2012 – Sam Heads has identified these as Staleochlora viridicata).

Staleochlora viridicata| Buenos Aires Province, Argentina (March 2012)

Getting at least a genus name for these individuals then prompted me to go back to photographs I had taken last year of other types of grasshoppers. One of these, Eutropidacris cristata, is truly one of the largest grasshoppers I have ever seen (update 9 Mar 12 – Sam Heads notes that Eutropidacris is now a synonym of Tropidacris). This individual was seen in a soybean field in the northern Argentina province of Chaco. These insects, known in Argentina as “La tucura quebrachera,” apparently occur in outbreak numbers periodically and, understandably owing to their monstrous size, generate a lot of attention. In Brazil the sepcies is known as “gafanhoto-do-coqueiro” (coconut tree grasshopper),

Tropidacris cristata | Chaco Province, Argentina (March 2011)

One of the more colorful grasshoppers I have seen in Argentina is Chromacris speciosa. The individual below was photographed last March in eastern Córdoba Province, also on soybean. It’s tempting to presume that the green and yellow coloration has a cryptic function, but apparently the nymphs of this species are brightly colored red and black and have the habit of aggregating on foliage. This is classic aposematism (warning coloration) to indicate chemical protection from predation, so perhaps there is a similar function to the adult coloration as well.

Chromacris speciosa | Cordoba Province, Argentina (March 2011)

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Do you think I’m tasty?

As I hiked the upper stretch of the Shut-Ins Trail at Sam A. Baker State Park in southeastern Missouri, I encountered this 2-inch long millipede slowly making its way across the rocks.  Many millipedes, of course, produce hydrogen cyanide (HCN) as their primary method of defense against predation, and the bright yellow markings of this individual were an obvious sign that this particular species is no exception.  The wrinkled dorsal surface and black coloration with yellow wedge-shaped posterolateral markings identify it as a species of Pleuroloma (BugGuide), and of the four species known from North America (Shelley 1980) only the widespread Pleuroloma flavipes (literally meaning “yellow legs”) occurs as far west as Missouri (Shelley et al. 2004).  A similar pattern of coloration is seen in a number of related genera, e.g. Apheloria, Boraria, and Cherokia—all belonging to the order Polydesmida, presumably functioning across the group as an aposematic (warning) signal to predators that they should be left alone.  Another feature shared by the members of this group is the lateral expansion of the dorsal segments into “paranota,” giving the species a much more flattened appearance than other millipedes with the more typical cylindrical shape.  While all millipedes exhibit diplosegmentation (embryonic fusion of paired body somites and associated legs, spiracles, and ventral nerve cord ganglia), members of the Polydesmida have taken this condition to its culmination with no evidence of external sutures (Myriapoda.org).

The bright coloration of this species was an interesting contrast to the cryptic invisibility of the copperhead snake I had seen just a few moments earlier during the hike—opposite strategies with identical goals.  Defense compounds are, of course, widely employed by many plants and animals; however, only millipedes and a few insects have developed the ability to utilize HCN, a highly toxic compound that halts cellular respiration in most animals through inhibition of the mitochondrial enzyme cytochrome c oxidase.  Evidence suggests that Pleuronota flavipes and other millipedes can tolerate HCN because they possess a resistant terminal oxidase that makes their mitochondria insensitive to the effects of HCN (Hall et al. 1971).

Perhaps some of you will be interested in this recent checklist of the millipedes of North and Central America (Hoffman 1999).

Update 6/13/11: My ID as Pleuroloma flavipes must be considered tentative, as Rowland Shelley has sent me an email with the following comment:

It could be Pleuroloma flavipes Rafinesque, 1820, or it could be Apheloria virginiensis reducta, I can’t really tell from the photos.

 

REFERENCES:

Hall, F. R., R. M. Hollingworth and D. L. Shankland. 1971. Cyanide tolerance in millipedes: The biochemical basis. Comparative Biochemistry 34:723–737.

Hoffman, R. L.  1999.  Checklist of the millipedes of North and Middle America. Virginia Museum of Natural History Special Publication No. 8, 584 pp.

Shelley, R. M. 1980. Revision of the milliped genus Pleuroloma (Polydesmida: Xystodesmidae). Canadian Journal of Zoology 58:129–168.

Shelley, R. M., C. T. McAllister, and S. B. Smith. 2004. Discovery of the milliped Pleuroloma flavipes in Texas, and other records from west of the Mississippi River (Polydesmida: Xystodesmidae). Entomological News 114 (2003):2–6.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Clown beetle surprise

As I slowly scanned my flashlight through the darkness across the mixed-grass prairie in the Glass Mountains of northwestern Oklahoma last July, there was one thing that I hoped not to see (prairie rattlesnake, unless from afar) and one thing that I hoped more than anything to see (Great Plains giant tiger beetle, Amblycheila cylindriformis). Fortunately, I encountered none of the former and found several of the latter.  It took awhile before I saw the first one, but in the meantime I saw all too abundantly the clown beetle, Eleodes suturalis.  A member of the family Tenebrionidae, this species is one of the most conspicuous components of the Great Plains beetle fauna.  Adults are commonly encountered walking about the grasslands or crossing roads, especially after summer rains.  I recall my first encounter with this species when I made my first insect collecting trip to the Great Plains in 1986, marveling as I literally watched hundreds of individuals crossing a remote highway in southwestern Kansas.  Now, they were just an annoyance – close enough in size and appearance to the object of my search that I had to pause and look at each one I encountered to verify its identity.¹

¹ In fact, a mimetic association has been suggested for Amblycheila cylindriformis and Eleodes suturalis due to their similarity in size, shape and coloration (black with a reddish-brown sutural stripe) (Wrigley 2008).  This may be true, as Eleodes suturalis is an abundant species capable of defending itself with noxious sprays that contain benzoquinone and other hydrocarbons, while Amblycheila cylindriformis is a much rarer species (as mimics tend to be) that lacks defensive compounds.

After finding a few of the Amblycheila, I encountered this particular individual clinging to a root sticking out of the side of a wash.  My closer look caused it to immediately assume its characteristic defensive headstand pose (from which the name ‘clown beetle’ comes), so I decided to take a few photographs (not an easy task at night).  The photos have been sitting on my hard drive since, but in examining them more closely, I realized that this particular beetle is not E. suturalis.  Rather, it is one of several similar appearing species that co-occur with E. suturalis in the Great Plains and sometimes resemble it due to their large size, sulcate elytra, and occasional presence of a similar reddish-brown sutural stripe.  From these species, E. suturalis is at once distinguished by its broadly explanate (flanged) pronotum and laterally carinate, distinctly flattened elytra.  This individual clearly exhibits more rounded elytra and as best as I can tell keys to E. hispilabris – distinguished from E. acuta and E. obscurus by possessing a normal first tarsal segment (not thickened apically) on the foreleg (Bennett 2008).  Presumably this and the other related species of Eleodes also possess chemical defenses similar to E. suturalis – an example of Müllerian mimicry where multiple species exhibit similar warning coloration or behavior (in this case headstanding) along with genuine anti-predation attributes.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/14), Canon 100mm macro lens, Canon MT-24EX flash (1/4 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Post-processing: levels, unsharp mask, slight cropping.

REFERENCES:

Bernett, A. 2008. The genus Eleodes Eschscholtz (Coleoptera: Tenebrionidae) of eastern Colorado. Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society 81(4):377–391.

Wrigley, R. A.  2008. Insect collecting in Mid-western USA, July 2007.  The Entomological Society of Manitoba Newsletter 35(2):5–9.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The Moth and Me #11

The Moth and MeWelcome to issue #11 of The Moth and Me, the monthly carnival devoted to the “forgotten” lepidopterans. Most people – even entomologists – regard these as the lesser leps, denizens of the night, as if to hide their somber-colored drabness from the flashy brilliance of their rhopaloceran relatives. Of course, this simply isn’t true, as the contributions to this month’s issue well demonstrate. Butterflies may be among the largest insects on earth, but the largest lepidopteran in the world is a moth. They may also be as gaudily colored as the rainbow itself, but what butterfly is more colorful than the Urania day-flying moths (the genus name literally means, “The heavenly one”).   And, they may be almost universally accepted by a largely insect-indifferent public, but who among us does not think back to that first sight of a luna moth as the most stunning insect we had ever seen to that point.  Yes, moths are all that butterflies are, and for this month’s issue of TMaM, 15 contributions by nine writer’s show us why.

Family Saturniidae – Giant Silkworm & Royal Moths

Tales from the Butterfly Garden: LepcuriousLuna moths belong to the royal moths of the family Saturniidae, and as the name implies they are not the only stunningly beautiful member of the group. Kristen at Tales from the Butterfly Garden: Lepcurious writes about an encounter with the Sweetbay Silkmoth (Callosamia securifera).  Like other members of the family, larvae of this species are rather particular about the type of tree that they utilize for food, which in the case of this moth is sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana).  I’m a little too far north here in Missouri for this tree, so I have never seen this moth.  However, I have seen (and reared) some of its close relatives, the Promethia Silkmoth (Callosamia promethea) which hosts on several plant species and the Tulip-tree Silkmoth (Callosamia angulifera) which hosts on Tulip Tree (Liliodendron tulipifera).

Family Zygaenidae – Leaf Skeletonizer Moths

xenogereJason Hogle at xenogere is fond of the unusual and has a gift for finding it. In his post The Unmoth, Jason shows us a male grapeleaf skeletonizer (Harrisina americana) – not your typical moth!, The uniformly black color and bright red neck collar just screams “Don’t eat me – I’m poisonous”, and indeed species in this family are among the few insects capable of producing hydrogen cyanide!  As the name suggests, larvae skeletonize the leaves of both wild and cultivated grapes (Vitis spp.), as well as the related Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

Family Noctuidae – Noctuid Moths & Tiger Moths

Tales from the Butterfly Garden: LepcuriousRoyal moths are not the only stunningly colored moths that Kristen at Tales from the Butterfly Garden: Lepcurious has found in Florida, as she shows in this post on Oleander Moths (Syntomeida epilais) and a companion piece on its Oleander host plant.  This striking day-active moth, also called Uncle Sam Moth (for its red, white, and blue colors) and Polka-Dot Wasp Moth (for obvious reasons), may seem like an easy-to-spot target for would be predators, but its gaudiness is actually warning of the toxic chemicals it has sequestered in its body from the Oleander on which it fed as a larva.  Oleander contains the toxins oleandrin, a cardiac glycoside, and neandrin and is toxic if ingested.  Although oleander is an Old World exotic, oleander moths may also be found feeding on devil’s potato vine (Echites umbellata), which may have been their native Florida host before the introduction of oleander to the United States.

See TrailAside from the underwings (genus Catacola) and the recently incorporated tiger moths, Noctuids are typically thought of as the “basic brown moths” – relying on just the aforementioned groups to add a splash of color to the family’s otherwise drearyness.  Nothing could be further from the truth – check out the stunning Eight-spotted Forester (Alypia octomaculata) in this post by Matthew York at See Trail. Larvae of this beautiful little moth feed on ampelopsis, Virginia creeper, and other plants in the grape family (similar to the grape leaf skeletonizer above). “A great moth; brilliant color, diurnal…… and yes… Noctuid. Some moths, like people, don’t go with the trends.”

See TrailFor the most part, tiger moths shun the daytime in preference for the safety of the night. That does not mean, however, that they are any less colorful, as Matthew York at See Trail shows in his post Poor Grammia. Notarctia proxima, the Mexican Tiger Moth, and its relatives have had a bit of name shuffling over the years at the hands of taxonomists – formerly placed in the genera Grammia and Apantesis. Whatever name you call it, the striking white and black striped forewings give a clue about their common name of tiger moths, and the red, black-tipped abdomen not only add to its beauty, but belies the defensive compounds it surely contains.

Speaking of tiger moths and defensive compounds, watch the video that Chris Grinter at The Skeptical Moth included in his post Moth Perfume. In it, Chetone angulosa gives a striking display of a common defensive mechanism for the group – excreting hemolymph (sweating blood, so to speak!). So spectacularly does the moth do this that you can actually hear the hissing sound of the fluid being pumped from the body. Moreover, there seem to be at least a couple of active ingredients in the froth – one that smells like peppermint, and another that causes numbing of the tongue (as Chris can testify firsthand – he is a truly dedicated experimental naturalist!).

Karthik's JournalIn similar fashion to our North American species of underwing moths (Catocola spp.), the related Eudocima materna, one of the fruit-sucking moths of south India, uses its drab-colored forewings to hide its brilliantly colored hindwings, as Karthik at Karthik’s Journal shows us in his post Startling Displays.  This forms a double line of defense against would-be predators – the forewings blend marvelously into the color of the tree trunks upon which it rests during the day, camouflaging the insect and making it nearly invisible.  If this doesn’t work, a sudden flash of the hindwings may startle the predator just enough to allow the moth to take flight to another tree – where it instantly “disappears” as soon as it closes its wings.

Snails Eye ViewAustralia also has some very colorful fruit-piercing moths, and Bronwen Scott at Snails Eye View presents some beautiful photos of the particularly strikingly-colored Othreis iridescens. Like other members of the group, this Far North Queensland endemic feeds on fruit (Pycnarrhena novoguineensis and Hypserpa laurina, both Menispermaceae, in the case of this species), but as it is apparently the rarest of the primary fruitpiercing moth species in Australia it is not considered to be a pest (and Bronwen would cut it some slack even if it was!).

EntophileAdults are but only one of four life stages that all moths go through. If moths are the “forgotten” leps, then caterpillars are the “forgotten” moths. In many cases, the caterpillar stage cannot be recognized until it becomes a moth (and in some cases the caterpillars are completely unknown). Fortunately, Navy entomologist corycampora at Entophile recognized the caterpillar he found on his croton bush, which he features in the post Croton caterpillar, Achaea janata (Linnaeus), (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). These “eating machines” can be just as fascinating to observe as their scaled adult counterparts, and while croton seems to be a preferred host in Hawaii, it apparently also feeds on castor beans (judging by its other common name, Castor Oil Semi-looper).

Family Notodontidae – Prominent Moths

the Marvelous in NatureOften dismissed as noctuids, the prominent moths tend to be fuzzier, more thickly-bodied moths that rest with their wings curled around their abdomen or tented over their back (rather than flat like noctuids and most other moths). TMaM organizer Seabrooke Leckie at the Marvelous in Nature has a love affair with prominents, and in her post Georgian Prominent, she features the nicely thick-bodied and fuzzy Georgian Prominent, Hyperaeschra georgica. The caterpillars of this widespread species feed on oak (Quercus spp.), thus, unless you live in the Pacific Northwest you stand a good chance of encountering this species – if you’re you’re willing to make the effort.

Family Psychidae – Bagworm Moths

xenogereMany of us are probably familiar with the evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis), whose large, cone-shaped bags almost look like fruit hanging from the evergreen bushes on which the caterpillars feed. But did you know there are other species of bagworms as well? Jason Hogle at xenogere does, and he compares and contrasts two of them in this duo of posts, Rainy day on the patio and The Other Bagworm. One huge and prominent, the other (Dahlica triquetrella) very small and oft unseen. One with all manner of plant matter stuck to its bag, the other usually mistaken for small bits of dirt or wood. Jason is so good, he can even determine the sex of the caterpillar inside the bag!

Family Sphingidae – Hawk Moths

Roundtop RumingsCarolyn at Roundtop Rumings is hoping that somebody can Name this moth, which she found on the door of her cabin in the forests of Pennsylvania. Don’t let her inability to name this moth fool you, however, for her post contains loads of information on exactly the kinds of characters one should take note of when trying to identify hawk moths. Large size and membership in a popularly studied group aren’t enough – what do the hindwings look like? Are there any spots on the abdomen? As a coleopterist, I hesitate to offer my relatively uninformed opinion on the exact genus and species for this moth, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest maybe something in the genus Ceratomia, perhaps the waved sphinx (C. undulosa)?


I hope you have enjoyed this issue of The Moth and Me, and my sincere thanks go out to all of those who contributed!  The hosting slot for next month’s issue of TMaM is still open, but you can submit your contributions anyway to Seabrooke Leckie at the home site for inclusion in the June 2010 issue once a host is selected.  The submission deadline is June 13, with the issue appearing a few days later.  Perhaps you might like to host the June issue – hosting is not only fun, but also a great way to introduce readers to your site and generate a little traffic.  Contact Seabrooke at the home site if you’re interested – I’m sure she would love to hear from you.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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