Friday, June 26, 2009


Most moths are not terribly large. In fact, there are many which are so small that they are collectively referred to as “micros.” Then there is the other end of the spectrum which includes some species that have the largest wing surface of any insect. At the “Moth Ball” in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts on June 13, we had our share of behe-moths visit the lights.

Our giant moths were all in the family Sphingidae, known as sphinx moths or hawkmoths. They get the former name from someone who thought the pose of a disturbed larval sphingid resembled the pose of the Great Sphinx in Egypt. It was probably the same person who named the constellations. I sure don’t see any resemblance. “Hawkmoth” is more legitimate, as many of the sphingids fly rapidly, even hover in front of night-blooming plants to sip nectar from tubular flowers like Datura.

The first sphinx moth to show up was this waved sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa, a bit waterlogged in this shot after a night exposed to the elements. There are five North American species in the genus Ceratomia, and all of them look very similar to this one.

This pawpaw sphinx, Dolba hyloeus, is named after the larval food plant, though the caterpillars will also eat blueberry, holly, and sweetfern.

This northern pine sphinx, Lapara bombycoides, was downright diminutive compared to the other sphingids we saw, with a wingspan of only 4.5 to 6 cm compared to the 8-11 cm span of a waved sphinx. It looks all the more bedraggled because one of our party members rescued it from a puddle.

The only other sphinx moth I was able to get an image of was one of my favorites, a blinded sphinx, Paonias excaecatus. This large insect, no doubt a wilted leaf mimic at rest, is named for the striking blue eyespot on the hindwing, exposed if the moth feels threatened. Since it lacks a “pupil” in the center of the eyespot, it was christened with the handicapped moniker. It has a very wide distribution, too. I remember collecting this species in Oregon and Ohio, as well as seeing it here in western Massachusetts.

While serious entomologists might put out blacklights and mercury vapor lamps to draw in moths, simply turning on your own porchlight will lure many an exotic-looking lepidopteran to your doorstep. Consider making a project of recording the moths that visit your property. There are many wonderful online resources to help you identify them, including Bug Guide and the Moth Photographers Group to name just two. Above all, have fun just looking.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Party-crashers at the "Moth Ball"

I suppose no social event is complete without the uninvited or unwelcome guests that take it upon themselves to crash the party. The “Moth Ball” was no exception. Held at the home of David and Shelley Small in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts on June 13, the primary attendees other than Homo sapiens were members of the insect order Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). The lack of explicit invitations didn’t stop some other insects from making the scene anyway.

I have learned quickly that among the most abundant and annoying insects here are mosquitoes. These biting flies of the family Culicidae are not attracted to lights in large numbers, but the people looking at other insects, exhaling carbon dioxide, perspiring lactic acid, and otherwise filling the air with mosquito attractants, are sure to draw them in. This one did not come alone, either. The red spots on its “chest” are not drops of human blood, they are mites, tiny arachnids that may be parasitic, or simply hitching a ride to some unknown destination.

Mites do not restrict themselves to mosquitoes. Well, certain species of mites certainly do, but other mites ride on their version of jumbo jets, like this large burying beetle, genus Nicrophorus, in the family Silphidae. Burying beetles, also called “sexton beetles,” bury the carcasses of small animals like rodents, shrews, songbirds, and the like. They often work in male/female pairs to dig under the animal, sinking its body into the ground. There, the beetles excavate a chamber, and the female sets to work molding the corpse into a literal meatball, laying her eggs in a small crater atop the mass. She feeds the larvae that hatch until they can eat on their own, all the while grooming the food ball to keep it fungus-free, and fending off competing beetles that may sniff out her prize and try to kill her family to get it. Such parental care is rare in solitary insects. That these beetles are so boldly colored is a bonus to beetle aficionados.

Yet another intriguing beetle showed its face at the porch light as well. Maybe this male fire-colored beetle, Dendroides concolor used its “TV antennae” to home in on the action. This nocturnal insect of the family Pyrochroidae also has huge eyes, the better to see in the dark. All kidding aside, the antennae are probably used to detect the pheromones of females of his species, as she boasts much less elaborate fixtures on her own face.

At least one other group of insects was easily mistaken for moths: the caddisflies of the order Trichoptera. As larvae, they are aquatic, most living in flowing water such as streams and rivers, many of them building cases that are essentially “mobile homes” which help camouflage them and give them a place to retreat into should danger threaten. The adults are very moth-like and difficult for the casual observer to distinguish from Lepidoptera. This was one of many to join the soiree with the other insects.

Last but not least, were a few mayflies, order Ephemeroptera. They may have been fashionably late (the Moth Ball was in June, after all), but they literally showed up in coats and tails, their filamentous cerci streaming behind them from the tip of their abdomens.

Mayflies are unique among all insects in that they molt after reaching adulthood. A “subimago,” prounounced sub-im-ah-go, emerges from the last larval skin of these aquatic insects, and then molts into a full-blown “imago” shortly thereafter. Their appearance at the Moth Ball may have been their only fling. Mayfly adults can live as short as one day, and probably not much longer than 2-3 days, just long enough to reproduce. Their youth, however, can take years in the case of some species, living as aquatic larvae (aka “naiads”).

Hopefully all these diverse insects found the party as entertaining as we did just watching them milling about in the rain. There is certainly no boredom to be found in the world of entomology.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Moth Fashions

What does one wear to a “Moth Ball?” Their finest attire, of course. I was privileged to be one of the human attendees at an event hosted by David Small and his wife, Shelley at their home in Athol, Worcester County, Massachusetts, on the evening of Saturday, June 13, 2009. Details can be found at my companion blog, Bug Eric, but here is an introduction to some of the more striking Lepidoptera seen that evening.

Formal Attire

Amazingly, some moths showed up in their best black and white suits and gowns. Take this little “white-striped black,” Trichodezia albovittata, a member of the inchworm moth family Geometridae. Not to be outdone was a “common spring moth, Heliomata cycladata, another geometrid.

Dressed in an an all-white satin gown was this lovely species of Spilosoma, one of the tiger moths in the family Arctiidae. She(?) was one of at least two of her kind that came to party.

The Belle of the Ball

Perhaps the most elegant of all the moths to grace the gala was this gorgeous “rosy maple moth,” Dryocampa rubicunda, also an arctiid tiger moth. Others of her kind were there, too, but their dresses had faded with age and her splendor outshone them all.

There is more to come. Tune in again soon for more moths and other nocturnal marvels from the “Moth Ball,” here and at Bug Eric Blog.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


This just in: A raccoon’s butt was sighted this morning in a tree outside Holdsworth Hall on the campus of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Authorities declined to arrest the animal for indecent exposure. Passing humans were alerted to the dozing raccoon by a pair of crows that were squawking madly.

Said spectator Eric Eaton “I was hoping it was a hawk or an owl or something exciting like that. Bummer.” Get it? Bum-mer?

Napping away is apparently no day at the beech (or maple, or oak, or whatever kind of tree it was in) for raccoons, and after being so rudely greeted by big black corvids, is it any wonder it was mooning human onlookers?

By the end of the human workday, the raccoon was waking up, grooming itself, and finally showing its face. No word yet on what the animal had for dinner. Stay tuned for further developments.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Red fox neighbors

One of the great benefits to a rural existence, however, is the opportunity to view wildlife close at hand. I am thrilled to have discovered at least one pair of red foxes, Vulpes vulpes, living at the edge of the open field behind the house I’m residing in, and even have the images to prove it!

I’ve seen red foxes before, when I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and they frequent exactly the same habitat: forest edges that meet open, frequently “disturbed” areas. The field here is the former site of a pickle factory, long-since demolished and leaving the land vacant of most traces of its former industrial life.

This pair I’m seeing may be juvenile siblings, as they seem rather tolerant, if not careless. This one even returned to the open after sensing my presence previously, and laid down for a brief rest before trotting off again along a fenceline. Either that, or there are more than two foxes. I’ve learned that red foxes breed in winter, and maintain their family unit until the following autumn, when the offspring go their separate ways.

They seem to be crepuscular, being active around dusk when I get home from work. This makes observing them a bit easier since I am not a “morning person.” Still, the dim light makes using my camera’s “Auto” mode problematic, resulting in blurry pictures even when the animal is not moving. Were it not for the twenty power zoom, I would have nothing to show here at all. The animals were a good forty yards away or so by my estimate.

The weather has turned rainy today, and looks to remain that way for most of the week, so I won’t have an immediate chance to see them again for awhile. Even then, I’ll be lucky if my best images are any better than this typical glimpse: Exit, stage left….

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Campus Pond

The literal center of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) campus is the Campus Pond. This landmark is much more than I had expected when I saw it on the map, and it has quickly become my favorite place to spend my lunch hour.

What could have easily been landscaped with concrete on all sides and a spectacular fountain in the middle is instead a lush shoreline with periodic breaks where people can gaze across the water, feed the ever-present waterfowl, or just enjoy sunbathing. Yes, the trees and shrubs have been largely planted (and some large trees were removed at some point as evidenced by the stumps), but it provides great habitat for humans and wildlife alike.

A flock of cedar waxwings stole berries from a tree overhanging a bench where oblivious students lunched the other day, and I’ve seen an eastern kingbird and red-winged blackbirds as well. There are squirrels of course, and even chipmunks, like this discriminating fellow hanging out on the steps of the FAC (Fine Arts Center) that lies at one end of the pond.

Here is the view the chipmunk was enjoying.

Yesterday I spied this lovely tiger swallowtail butterfly sipping minerals from the mud at the shore of the pond.

Today I met this little cottontail rabbit as I made my way back to my lab.

I look forward to seeing the seasons change on the Campus Pond, and document the diversity of life that huddles around its shores and plays in the water. I will share my discoveries via this blog, of course!