black etched prominent Cerura scitiscripta

Caterpillar of the black-etched prominent has highly modified anal prolegs that it can flail to defend itself against predators

 

I love insects. They are amazing.

-Andrea Arnold

 

Many insects never make it to adulthood to complete their life cycles because in the grand scheme of things, they are low on the food chain. Between birds and amphibians, mammals and fellow insects, there is no lack of creatures that rely upon insects as a food source. Insects are not necessarily limpid little defenseless victims of a more sophisticated life form, though. They have strategies for survival. Some use camouflage,  are cryptic in form and color, veil themselves with material, have weapons they use when threatened or they may simply hide. 

rose-hooktip-moth Oreta rosea-cryptic

Rose hooktip moth hidden by day by blending in on a leaf

P1270059

Pine sphinx caterpillars blend in with the green and white striped needles of white pine

One of the ways insects can hide in plain sight is by coloration, body form and feeding techniques. Spring caterpillars are often light green and feed on new leaves of similar color. Caterpillars that feed on mature foliage often have colorations or body forms that imitate the dead leaf spots and edges that occur later in the year.

cocoon structure of caddisfly- possibly Climacia areolaris

Spongillafly pupates inside this structure it made

Warning coloration protects many insects from being eaten, especially bright reds and oranges. Also, insects may have warts that sport hairs that repel some birds and other predators. One such insect having both is the red-humped caterpillar.

red hump caterpillar Pamm Cooper photo

Red- humped caterpillars Schizura concinna have warning colors and warts with hairs that detect air movement

Some caterpillars feed along leaf edges and appear to be part of the leaf itself. Careful scrutiny will reveal the ruse. Two of the prominent caterpillars, the Wavy- lined Heterocampa and the Lace-capped caterpillar are just two examples of this behavior.

wavy-lined-heteocampa-2-on-leaf-edge

Wavy-lined Heterocampa caterpillar hides in plain site feeding along the edge of a sweet birch leaf. It blends in also with cryptic coloration.

Walking sticks are a good example of cryptic coloration and mimicry. Both the insect’s shape and color allow it to blend in with leaf veins and twigs  so that unless they move or cast a shadow, they are very difficult to see.

walking stick 6-29-14

Early instar walking stick blends in with leaf vein color

Camouflage loopers are small caterpillars that are found on the flowers of composites. They take petals from the plant’s flowers and “glue“ them on their body. They blend in so well that the only evidence of their presence will be that the flowers seems to be deformed.

camouflaged looper plus tiny looper Belding

Camouflage looper sitting atop a flower head from which it has cut and pasted the flower petals upon its body

Caterpillars like woolly bears, Ios, slug moths and some tussocks have defense mechanisms that utilize urticating hairs or venomous barbs to ward off potential predators. Handling these caterpillars may prove a painful experience for some people. Especially to be avoided are the saddleback slug moth and the spiny oak slug caterpillars, which are very small but able to inflict severe pain or a burning sensation that may  last for several hours or even a few days. Use caution around any caterpillar having barbs, hairs or spines.

small saddleback

Tiny saddleback caterpillar has both urticating spines and coloration similar to the host plant leaf for defense

Another means by which insects can protect themselves is by mimicry. Many flies have coloration and markings that are very similar to wasps and bees, especially syrphid flies. These flies can also feed on the pollen of many of the plants that bees and wasps also visit. Birds will tend to avoid any insect that may have the potential to sting, so these bee mimics need not worry as they go about their everyday work acquiring pollen.

syrphid fly

This syrphid fly resembles a wasp and birds will leave it alone

Many insects use leaf shelters as a means of hiding from predators by day and then feed at night. They may tie leaves together with silk or fold a leaf. The caterpillar of the  spicebush swallowtail and the poplar tent caterpillars do this. Stink bugs routinely use leaf shelters abandoned by other insects.

spicebush ready to eat

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars hide by day in a leaf folded lengthwise

red admiral

Chrysalis of the red admiral butterfly is made inside a leaf shelter where it was protected as a caterpillar

Some insects feed as immatures inside plants such as gall makers, borers, leafminers and others. Safely inside plant tissue, success rates of surviving to a mature adult are very high.

Pine Cone Willow Gall, caused by a gall midge, Rhobdophaga strobiloides. 9-16-19

Pine cone willow gall houses a midge larva, Rhobdophaga strobiloides

thief weevil

Thief weevil female laid an egg inside two a tightly rolled structures they made by cutting the leaf edge lengthwise while still remaining attached to the pedicel. Larva will feed safely inside on the leaf tissue.

potter wasp pot

A potter female wasp made this small clay pot and inserted food and its egg inside. Larva will be safe inside.

The larvae of tortoise beetles, 3-lined potato beetles and the infamous lily leaf beetle pile their frass on their bodies to escape predators.  Lacewing larva use their molted skins and other detritus to cover their body in a similar way. They can be found especially on white oak leaves in late summer appearing like a small, light tan, fuzzy pile moving across a leaf.

tortoise beetle larva waving frass hood

Tortoise beetle larva raises a “hood” made of frass when disturbed

This is only a brief look at some ways insects survive or attempt to survive in the world. There are many other ways and means by which insects employ subterfuge and other strategies that could fill a book, but this is simply a leaf through…

 

Pamm Cooper

P1000305II

The fabulous Luna moth

Thus hath the candle singed the moth.

-William Shakespeare

Anyone who has lived in New England and been around outdoor lights in May or June may have encountered some of our giant silkworm moths which  .are members of the Saturniidae moths. The diminutive slug moths, Limacodiae, are perhaps not as well known, but they are commonly attracted to lights as well. Both are natives here in Connecticut and are spectacular in their own way.

luna moth puparium

Luna moth puparium inside the leaf shelter made by the caterpillar

The Cecropia moth and its caterpillar are likely the champs, the Goliaths of their peers. The  moth may be as large as a man’s hand, and the caterpillar comes close to the same size, at least in length. Late instar caterpillars can be heavy enough to cause small branches to droop. Caterpillars feed on locally preferred plants, especially cherry, ash and apple, but also other woody plants. Cocoons are made of leaves tied tightly together lengthwise along twigs or small branches, where they may remain all winter. Pupation takes place inside this structure.

cecropia on elderberry 7-11-16

Cecropia caterpillar is over three inches long in the final instar

cecropia female 9p.m. same day as emrged from cocoon 5-31-13 - Copy

Female Cecropia moth

 

Luna moths are probably the most recognized giant silkworm moth with their light green color and a pair of long tails streaming from the hind wings. Polyphemus are another species that have beautiful blue and yellow eye spots on the hind wings. Late instar Polyphemus caterpillars have striking white dots along their body that shimmer with silver at certain angles in bright sunlight.

 

polyphemus just out

Polyphemus moth just after emerging from its cocoon

Promethea moths have a strong preference for spicebush, sassafras and cherry for caterpillar host plants. Along with Io moths, their caterpillars follow each other in the very early instars, forming a train-like procession as they travel over a leaf. Both species also feed together for much of their life as a caterpillar.

promethea cats

Promethea caterpillars still hanging out together

Promethea moth female 2010 raised from egg found on sassafrass Belding

promethea moth cocoon

Cocoon of the Promethea moth is inside this leaf tied to the host plant

All silkworm moths lack fully developed mouths and cannot feed. They mate soon after emerging from their cocoons, as their life span as a moth is short. All overwinter as pupa and most emerge mid- May and onward the following year. Eggs are large and smooth. Somewhat flattened, and may be laid singly or in small to large rafts, depending upon species.

On the opposite side of the spectrum as far as size goes are the slug moths and their caterpillars which may be only one centimeter in size. Often found in late summer or early fall, the caterpillars often resemble galls or something else of uncaterpillar-like. They have medial suckers instead of legs and they glide along like slugs.

Red-eyed Button slug september 13, 2009 on small black cherry 12 tee GHills

Red-eyed button slug caterpillar

Always be careful not to touch caterpillars of the slug moth as many have spines that can inflict a painful sting that feels like being stabbed with dozens of hot hypodermic needles. One of the worst stings is from the aptly named saddleback, which has both its rear and tail ends covered with stinging spines. This year, green briar was a preferred host in the north central part of Connecticut, but they can be found on a variety of other plants including oaks, cherry, blueberry and sometimes herbaceous perennials.

saddleback on green briar a favorite host plant in 2019

Saddleback is aptly named

Slug moths are attracted to lights, and if identified, a search of larval host plants nearby may yield some caterpillars. Feeding takes place along leaf edges, and sometimes a shiny trail is left where they have glided along the leaf. Adult sightings peak in midsummer, with caterpillars found from June- October. Like the giant silkworms, adult slug moths do not eat.

smaller parasa caterpillar

Smaller Parasa slug moth caterpillar

 

The smaller parasa reminds me of a Shar-Pei. They have retractable spines, but they are mostly hidden inside warts along the back. When threatened, spines protrude in small clusters from the warts. I have found these most often on oaks, but they will feed on other woody plants also.

Smaller Parasa attracted to light

Smaller parasa moth

 

Skiff moth caterpillars have steep sides and have a short, sharp tail on the rear. Various brown markings help them blend in with dead plant tissue, so they may be hard to find. This slug cat is often found on the upper sides on leaves, though, rather than the undersides where other slug caterpillars are found. Moths can be found early in the night around outdoor lights near woods.

skiff moth back deck July 25, 2009

Skiff moth

skiffy
Skiff moth caterpillar

spiny oak slug caterpillar

Spiny oak slug caterpillar

crown slug on oak ruby fenton 10-2-11

crown slug

Next year, be on the alert for our native slug moths and giant silkworm moths. Check around outdoor lights in May- June for the moths, and look on specific host plants for  the different species of these interesting caterpillars. The excitement never ends…

 

Pamm Cooper

Sunflower in its glory

“This morning, the sun endures past dawn. I realize that it is August: the summer’s last stand.”
― Sara Baume,

August is a favorite month for me as many things I have been looking forward to in the scene have now arrived. Whether in the garden or in the natural environment, there are plants, birds, insects and other things that seem to be more interesting to encounter later in the summer than earlier.

Late bloomers like Caryopteris (bluebeard), turtle head, goldenrods, boneset and spotted Joe-pye weed add interest to the garden and provide food for bees and butterflies before the cold weather sets in. Closed gentians put in a more subtle appearance hidden under shrubs and small trees along pond, stream and lake edges. As many bees are active right until cold weather sets in, these late bloomers are of special value.

wool carder bee at Hill Stead museum sunken garden 8-20-2019 Pamm Cooper photo

Wool carder bee at Hill Stead Museum sunken garden 8-20-2019

Canna lilies and Caladiums, great annuals for foliage color and texture, should be at their peak foliage development now. While still in bloom, check out hedges and borders of hibiscus, hydrangeas and rose-of-Sharon that can make attractive screens with their colorful flowers in August. The hardy hydrangeas will also continue to delight throughout the next month or so as their flowers change colors as they age.

S

Sun backlighting ‘Calypso’ Canna lily leaves

hibiscus border

hibiscus border

‘Little lambs’ hydrangea

Numerous butterflies are out and about, although this year many species seemed few and far between. Monarchs, though were numerous. One butterfly that was an unexpected surprise-seen just about everywhere, it seems- is the common buckeye. Usually considered vagrants from the south, they were here as early as June and were breeding throughout the summer

 

Spicebush swallowtail on salvia

Two common buckeyes amid wild blue vervain and boneset August 2019

Check out Rudbeckia  flowers for the diminutive camouflage looper caterpillar which cuts flower petals and sticks them on its body to hide from potential predators. There are also many other small loopers that can be found on black-eyed Susan flowers.

Camouflaged looper with flower parts slapped on it to hide from predators

 

Sunflowers are a winsome addition to any garden and are easy to start from seed in June. There are many varieties to choose from, and some are pollen-less for cutting and floral arrangements. ‘Firecatcher’ has flowers that smell like Juicy Fruit™ gum.

Sunflowers can be started from seed and should be in full bloom by the end of August

Yellow sunflower

Orchards are having a terrific harvest this year. Rains were not as abundant as last year, but the sun was, so fruits like peaches and nectarines are especially sweet this August. Native trees and shrubs that ripen their fruit early include the sassafras and some viburnums, and birds will usually eat the fruits before they drop off to the ground.

sassafras fruit

Sassafras fruit

Along hiking trails, in open fields and in the woods, the caterpillars that are found from August until fall are usually more robust, colorful and generally larger than their spring and early summer counterparts. Sphinx, giant silkworm, dagger, tiger and prominent moth caterpillars are some of the more interesting ones. Generally not pests, several can occur in large enough numbers in the garden landscape to cause alarm, such as the Datanas, but in the wild, they are not a major concern. Slug caterpillars are small but many can inflict a painful sting if the urticating spines are touched. One of the more notorious is the spiffy looking saddleback caterpillar.

 

Early instar saddleback caterpillar August 2019

Northern pine sphinx

 

At any time of year check out the skies for colorful sunsets, sunriss and cloud formations. Indicative of weather to come, clouds and sky colors are good to learn about. A sweet little book on clouds and other phenomena of the skies is “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.  Like anything else, it takes practice and careful study to correctly identify anything, clouds being no exception.

August dawn with a crescent moon

August 28 2019 dawn with a crescent moon

I will be enjoying the rest of August and the upcoming September, which I hope will be warm. Keep your eyes open for migrating night hawks and tree swallows. which are starting their southern journey now. Large flocks of tree swallows were seen this last week of August week at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

tree swallows Hammonasset August 28 2019

tree swallows Hammonasset State Park August 28 2019

 

One last note- if you are hiking along a woodland trail and come across a single strand of spider silk running between two trees, follow it to the main web. It is likely a spiny orb weaver, Micrathena gracilis , which eats her web every day and builds a new one in an hour the next day.

Micrathena gracilis spider

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

groundnut August 13 2017

Groundnut flowers

“The brilliant poppy flaunts her head

Amidst the ripening grain,

And adds her voice to sell the song

That August’s here again.”

–  Helen Winslow

 

August means summer is heading for a subtle change. Evenings begin to get cooler, skies are less hazy, most birds are getting a break from chasing fledglings all over creation, and the sounds of crickets and katydids during the night have replaced the trilling of the tree frogs. Bats are seen more frequently now as many moths and other late summer night- flying insects are abundant. Trees and shrubs have ripening fruit, deer are eating acorns already and, to top it all off, we just had a solar eclipse. Now is a great time to get outside and see what is happening in the garden and in the wild.

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks are on their own now

The tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinis is a very large fly that can be seen flying about now. About the size of a quarter, this fly may fly low over lawns and can be mistaken for a wasp. It has large white markings at the end of its abdomen and they really stand out against the black color of the rest of the abdomen, resembling a bald faced hornet somewhat as it flies around, , apart from its size. Female tiger flies lay eggs near carpenter bee tunnels, and its larvae will eat the bee larvae that are developing within.

tiger bee fly 8-21-2017

Tiger bee fly

One of our larger spiders is the black and yellow orb weaver, Argiope aurantia. Commonly known as garden spiders, orb weavers are frequently found in gardens, meadows and fields. Their web has a zig-zag pattern at the end of a  thickened strip of silk that and may signal birds so that they see it and avoid flying through the web, thus saving the spider from major repair work. Who knows? Other creatures seem to miss that cue and end up as little morsels in the food “web”.

orb weaver spider

yellow and black orb weaver

Another orb weaver, the arrow spider (Micrantha sagittata), is much smaller the black and yellow one, and is one of only three Micrantha species found in North America. It has an interesting web composed on a rather permanent frame structure and then the orb section is built inside the frame at dawn every day. In the evening, the spider will consume the orb part of its web and have to start anew the next morning. The whys and wherefores of this behavior is one to be marveled at, if not at all understood by mere mortals.

Arrow spider Micrathena sagittata PAmm Cooper photo

Arrow spider

Butterflies are having a banner year- even giant swallowtails are being seen in northern Connecticut as of late. I just peeked inside the old stinging nettles leaf shelter of a red admiral butterfly caterpillar and found its chrysalis inside. One way to avoid predators is certainly to make oneself scarce. Monarchs, spicebush and tiger swallowtails and American ladies are abundant in numbers this year. Good plants for late season butterflies, especially migrators, are boneset, Joe-pyes, goldenrods, mountain mint, lantana, petunias, impatiens and bluebeard (Caryopteris). Mints and bluebeard are excellent for late summer pollinators as well. My gardens are humming with bee and butterfly activity right now as I have most of these plants in flower.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

Red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a nettle leaf shelter

Venturing out where forbs and small shrubs abound, you may run across the groundnut, Apios americana a native perennial vine that right now is in flower. The sweet- scented flowers are wisteria- like in form, appearing in small clusters along the vine. Found climbing among small shrubs and perennials like dogwoods, goldenrods and ferns, this plant is sometimes only noticed because its flowers are so striking in both color and clustered among a green background form the plant derives its name from the edible tubers that were consumed by native Americans and early settlers.

Cardinal flowers are also in bloom along watercourses now, and their brilliant dark red blooms and rich nectar attract hummingbirds. Along with jewelweed, cardinal flower is a great source of food for these energetic little birds. If you wait long enough when these plants are flowering, a hummingbird or two should make an appearance.

cardinal flower in stream

cardinal flower

Giant silkworm moths are putting in a second appearance this year, meaning a second or partial second generation of caterpillars will soon hatch. Over the last three weeks, Polyphemus and Luna moths have been seen, and there are fourth instar Promethea caterpillars out. Since the giant silkworm caterpillars take so long to reach the pupal stage, they may run out of foliage as many of the trees they feed on may shed their leaves before they can form cocoons.

exhausted Polyphemus moth on leaf litter Pamm Cooper photo

Polyphemus moth

And be careful out there! This past weekend I found two saddleback slug moth caterpillars in two different areas of the state, both on foliage not far off the ground. Though small, these caterpillars have many urticating spines that can cause a sensation like being stabbed with hundreds of tiny red-hot hypodermic needles.

saddleback found on small black cherry 8-19-2017

Saddleback caterpillar

As we move into the end of summer, sunrises and sunsets should be more colorful as the skies get cooler and particles high in the atmosphere scatter the blue light to our west and east as the sun sets or rises. To the early bird, then, may you see a spectacular sunrise.  And to the observer at eventide, may you be rewarded with an equally breathtaking sunset.

August dawn GHills from 8 8-18-13

August dawn

 

Pamm Cooper          August 2017