Thursday, July 18, 2024

Moth Night Part II

 

A Black-waved Flannel Moth (Megalopyge crispata) stares rather inscrutably into the camera. Yes, they're cute. And quite common.

The flannel and the following moths were imaged on July 13, during the foray described in the previous post.

One of the many, many silkmoths to come into our sheets on this night was this spectacular male Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus). It looks like it's got two ferns bolted to its head. These antennae are packed with pheromone receptors, and they can pick up airborne trace pheromones emitted by females from incredible distances. This means they may have to fly long distances to reach her, which pits the moth against dangerous aerial foes: bats. This may be why Polyphemus Moths have evolved a crazily erratic, almost violently yo-yo'ing flight - it makes it much harder for the bats to successfully strike them.

I must confess to liking face shots of moths This is a Rosy Maple Moth peering into the camera, and side view in the following photo so you can better see what one looks like. RMM's are one of the most common silkmoths and easily identified.

Rosy Maple Moth in profile.

There are not too many bright pink and yellow critters out there. In the moth world, camouflage rules and many species are nearly impossible to see when at rest on tree bark, lichens, leaf litter, etc. This image shows how such a gaudy beast might blend in when clad in garish pink and yellow. This RMM is nestled into the fresh samaras (seeds) of one of its major host plants, Red Maple (Acer rubrum).

Slug moths are always interesting and photogenic, and about eight species visited on this night. This is the Shagreened Slug Moth (Apoda biguttata). The erect nubbin is its abdomen. Some slug moths, when at rest, hold their abdomen upright, presumably because it makes for better disruptive camouflage. Host plants for this species include Ironwood, Hickory, and Oak.

I was pleased to see this Oval-based Prominent (Peridea basitriens), a species that I have seldom seen. Apparently, I'm not the only one. The number of records submitted to iNaturalist are relatively few in Ohio. Mysteries still surround even fairly widespread species such as this. Apparently, the host plant(s) remain unknown.

Rather a plain Jane, the Serene Underwing (Catocala serena). However, it was of great personal interest, as I don't recall ever seeing this species. While hidden at rest, this underwing like most of its brethren, has flashy orangish bars on the underwings, which are exposed when the forewings are flicked aside. I should have made an effort to get that shot. This one apparently is far rarer than even the preceding species, with perhaps 15 Ohio records. Furthermore, there are not many records anywhere and it appears to be one of the scarcer underwings. This seeming rarity is somewhat inexplicable as the host plants are said to be Black Walnut and various hickories, and these are very common trees. Perhaps the Serene Underwing just doesn't come to lights very often and goes mostly undetected.

Finally, all manner of other interesting insects is attracted to lights, not the least of which are a variety of wasps. Some of these are parasitoids of caterpillars and are probably nocturnal. Most caterpillars become active under cover of darkness so it would make sense that their predators would also be active then. This wasp is Trogus pennator (I don't know a common name). It preys on several species of swallowtail butterflies. The adult female wasp lays eggs on the caterpillar, which then grow to maturity within the larva.

This coming weekend is the now famous Mothapalooza, and I'll be at that and will no doubt get many more interesting moth images, as well as caterpillars.

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Major Moth Night

 

As always, click the image to enlarge

A group of us enjoyed a superb night of mothing last night at Beth Crane's property in Hocking County. Thanks to Beth and Richard McKee for hosting everyone, and for their excellent hospitality. We were fortunate to have Laura Hughes, John Howard, and Kelly Capuzzi join us - all are superb naturalists and accomplished moth-ers. We had three light setups going and that worked like a charm.

John Howard created this artful display of some heavy hitters that visited our sheets. They are Ash Sphinx, Elm Sphinx, Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Pandorus Sphinx, Imperial Moth, Regal Moth (2), Tuliptree Silkmoth, and Rosy Maple Moth. This was just a fraction of the moths that we saw. There were over 20 Imperial Moths, 6-8 Regal Moths, many sphinxes of various species, and scores of other interesting moths. We finally left at 2 am, and things were still going strong.

These sorts of moth numbers and diversity speaks to a very healthy local ecosystem full of native plant diversity, and largely free of light pollution and other deleterious factors that cause moth declines.

An interesting distant view of one of the mothing stations, John Howard's professional setup. Thanks to Shauna Weyrauch for this image and the next one.

A closer view of one of the setups. Black lights and mercury vapor or other powerful lights lure the moths, and most end up on the white sheets where it is easy to observe and catalog them. Sometime before dawn, the lights are extinguished and the moths shooed away back into the wilds.


Head on with a Regal Moth. This is one of Ohio's largest moths, and they are so large that one has a noticeable heft to it when handled. This moth is densely fuzzy and looks like a stuffed animal. As befits such a large lepidopteran, its caterpillar is also gargantuan and is called a Hickory Horned Devil. See the photo below for an image of one of those hotdog-sized beasts.

Hickory Horned Devils are often likened to a hotdog, as a size comparison. It isn't an exaggeration.

I'm still sorting through my imagery but have lots of good stuff. Including a few rather enigmatic species, and a few that only be described as cute. I'll post up some of those later.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Parasitoid wasps dispatch prey in a hideous manner

 

A blue-winged wasp (Scolia dubia) nectars on wingstem/Jim McCormac

Parasitoid wasps dispatch prey in a hideous manner

Columbus Dispatch
July 7, 2024

NATURE
Jim McCormac

We humans have our fair share of parasites, some annoying, some dangerous. Common parasitic predators include bed bugs, lice, roundworms, tapeworms and ticks.

Some of these and others can cause serious issues, such as malaria-transmitting mosquitoes or ticks carrying Lyme disease. Fortunately, most parasitically transmitted diseases can be cured, especially if caught early.

Things could be far worse for people, were we besieged by parasitoids. While parasites generally don’t kill their hosts, parasitoids always do.

Imagine this: One fine day, you’re working in the garden when a giant female wasp suddenly buzzes upon you and delivers a punishing sting before you know what hit you. A powerful neurotoxin quickly immobilizes your motor functions, rendering you as helpless as one of the vegetables you were tending.

The duck-sized wasp, equipped with superman strength, then seizes your inert body and drags you to a premade crypt in nearby soft soil. Unfortunately, your mind still functions perfectly, so you have a ringside seat to your hideous fate. She shoves you into the hole, lays an egg as a going away present and seals the entrance.

After lying in your musty tomb for a few days, the egg hatches and out crawls a hideous white larva. The killer grub feasts on your moribund flesh, eventually consuming you whole.

While this Poe-like tale may seem the stuff of horror genres, it happens all around us on a scope and scale incomprehensible to even the most ambitious psychopath. And an especially speciose group of parasitoid animals are the wasps. And fortunately for you and me, they are tiny, not waterfowl-sized.

Such is the grisliness of death by parasitoid wasp that it prompted Charles Darwin to write his intellectual confidant, the American botanist Asa Gray, questioning parasitoids. A passage in his letter of May 22, 1860 stated “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid√¶ (a family of parasitoid wasps) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars…”

Legions of wasps, mostly tiny and unnoticed, ply their trade at the expense of inestimable numbers of caterpillars of moths and butterflies.

Many tomato-growers have seen the fruits of an elfin wasp, known as Cotesia congregata. Females inject eggs into the tobacco hornworm, a caterpillar noted for feasting on tomato plants.

Along with the egg comes a powerful virus and venom. In a complex process, those chemicals radically alter the development of the caterpillar and create a better growing environment for the grubs feeding within its body. In a grand finale, the wasp grubs bore out of the host’s body and spins silken cocoons.

An afflicted caterpillar looks like it is bristling with miniature white mummies. Adult wasps soon pop from their cocoons and start the cycle anew.

Most parasitoid wasps dispatch prey in some such hideous manner, including entombing their paralyzed bodies.

The blue-winged wasp pictured with this column preys on beetle grubs, including the invasive Japanese beetle. Other wasps victimize cicadas, crickets, katydids, spiders, stinkbugs, walkingsticks, water striders and probably every other arthropod group. In all, perhaps 700,000 or so parasitoid wasp species are estimated to exist, but it’s probable that the number is far higher.

Even the parasitoids are not immune to victimization. A second level, known as hyperparasitoids, preys on the eggs or larvae of primary parasitoids. Some hyperparasitoid wasps are the size of a grain of salt.

Darwin was judging the seeming horrors of parasitoids from the very fallible human perspective. In reality, they represent a pinnacle of insect evolution and are vital parts of food chains. Parasitoids hold other insect populations in balance, and in turn provide food for scores of other predators. Many parasitoid wasps are important pollinators, too.

Fortunately for us, parasitoid wasps confine their activities to nonvertebrate animals, so humans are safe. At least for the present.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at jim mccormac.blogspot.com.

This tiny Ichneumon wasp (Enicospilus purgatus) is nocturnal, as are most of its quarry, caterpillars/Jim McCormac