Category: insect

Beautiful woodnymph (Eudryas grata), Fishers I…

Beautiful woodnymph (Eudryas grata), Fishers Island NY, July 2018. 

With beautiful red, orange, and cream coloration, the name of this small moth is apt. But the patterning also suggest that the moth is a bird-dropping mimic, a possible way to avoid predation by birds, bats, and other predators. 

In contrast, the caterpillar is striped with orange and white; I posted a picture of one here. The coloration may hint that wood-nymphs are toxic if eaten.

Caterpillars feed on different species of vines in the eastern US, mostly grape, Virginia Creeper, and native peppervine. Some have even consumed hops, although not at levels where they would be considered pests. 

At least one generation in the Mid-Atlantic. Caterpillars overwinter as pupae. 

Carolina sphinx (Manduca sexta), Newark DE. Ju…

Carolina sphinx (Manduca sexta), Newark DE. July 2018. Specimen provided by B. Kunkel.

The Carolina sphinx feeds is a common garden pest, feeding on tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and tobacco, which has led to its common name as the tobacco hornworm. All of these plants are members of the nightshade family, which are poisonous to most insects, with nicotine having been used as a pesticide. Tobacco hornworms, however, are nightshade specialists, and have developed a unique physiological strategy to overcome the defenses of both cultivated and wild species of nightshade. 

Enzymes in the gut allow them to metabolize nicotine so it can be transported through the blood (haemolymph) towards the spiracles–openings along the sides of the insect body in which the insect breathes. Nicotine is expelled through the spiracles–they literally puff out poison! In fact, tobacco hornworms use nicotine puffs as a means of defending themselves against predators, with evidence to suggest that the more nicotine in the plant tissues, the better defense. So a tobacco hornworm has a better chance of keeping spiders and wasps at bay on tobacco or wild nightshade than it does on tomato plants (which might explain why so many get hit hard by parasitic wasps). 

Multiple generations a year in the Mid-Atlantic, and year-round in the south. Caterpillars are found throughout the summer and overwinter as pupae. 

Harris’s Three Spot Moth (Harisimemna trisigna…

Harris’s Three Spot Moth (Harisimemna trisignata), Fishers island NY, July 2018.

A member of the dagger moth group, the moth earns its name from the three chocolate spots that can be seen on either forewing. With a distinctive appearance, it is hard to think how adults avoid being preyed upon by birds and other predators. It is possible that the pattern helps it blend into lichens on the bark of trees, although other closely related species mimic the appearance of bird droppings, which the Harris’s three spot could be a candidate. In comparison, the caterpillar bears resemblance to a bird dropping, even glistening as if freshly deposited. 

Caterpillars aren’t picky eaters, feeding on many different kinds of woody plants, including apples, ash, hollies, honeysuckles, and willows. At least two generations in the east, with adults in late spring and again in summer. Caterpillars bore into the wood of their host plants in fall and overwinter as pupae. 

The Bride (Catocola neogama), Fishers Island N…

The Bride (Catocola neogama), Fishers Island NY, September 2018. 

Photo courtesy of naturalist J. Kibbe. 

The name of this moth (very) roughly translates as “the newly-wed with beautiful hindwings”. A member of the underwings, the Bride sports colorful yellow and black banded hindwings. While the mottled bark-colored forewings allow the moth to blend almost perfectly against the branches of trees, it’s believed that the contrasting hindwings below are flashed at potential predators to surprise them, allow the moth to make its escape. In contrast, the caterpillar bears the same coloration and markings as a piece of bark, allowing it to blend it with its surroundings if laying flat against the branch of a tree. Caterpillars themselves feed on the leaves of hickory and walnut trees. 

At least one generation in New England, with caterpillars by early summer. Adults are active until the fall, where they deposit eggs on the bark of their host plants. The eggs overwinter. 

MONARCH MONDAY (Image obtained from Monarchwat…

MONARCH MONDAY (Image obtained from

As the monarch butterfly is making its way south for the winter, I’ll be retiring MONARCH MONDAYS from the lineup. It may return in the spring, if there is continued interest for it. 

Here in the eastern US, monarch butterflies migrate south towards Mexico following two primary pathways, separated roughly by the Appalachian mountain range. The Coastal Flyway is to the east of these mountains, where monarchs move south along the coastline, across Florida, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on how mild the winter is, some monarchs may remain in Florida and along the Gulf to overwinter. The Central Flyway is to the west, where monarchs move through the corn belt into Texas. This is where the bulk of monarch populations migrate.

Monarchs in the western US (west of the Rockies) will migrate into Mexico as well, but most migrate into southern California’s coastline, where monterey pines are abundant. 

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia), F…

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia), Fishers Island NY, July 2018. 

Despite it’s large and charismatic appearance, most people encounter giant leopard moths as caterpillars in the fall, as the increasingly colder days encourage the large, bristly larva to vacate its host plants and wander across sidewalks, roads, or open spaces in search of good leaf litter to overwinter. Caterpillars can feed on a variety of host plants during the summer, including asters, cabbages, cherries, willows, and sunflowers, just to show the range.

(Larva captured at Kennett Square PA, October 2017). 

When startled, the moth may emit yellow drops of liquid from the sides of its body. This is believed to be a defense against predators (who might taste the liquid and find the moth disgusting!).

One generation a year in the Mid-Atlantic, with adults in June, caterpillars through the summer and over the winter, then turn into pupae the following spring. 

Hog Sphinx (Darapsa myron), Fishers Island NY,…

Hog Sphinx (Darapsa myron), Fishers Island NY, July 2018. 

Also known as the Virginia Creeper sphinx, caterpillars of these species can be found on vines in the grape family, which include Virginia creeper and peppervine. As adults, the moths take in nectar from flowers, and are active from dusk onward, where they often come to lights. The coloration of their wings at rest allow the moths to blend in with foliage, often as discolored leaves on a grapevine, for example. 

An interesting note about the moth’s host plant use. Porcelainberry or Amur peppervine (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is an invasive species that has become dominant in forest edges throughout the eastern US, and it has been shown that our native hog sphinx can feed on it, since it is a plant species in the grape family and is recognized as a host plant. However, the sphinx caterpillars do not seem to do well on it, nor have populations of hog sphinx increased in areas where porcelainberry has become dominant. This suggests that the invasive plant does more harm than good for even the insects that can use it as a food source, and it removing the invasive would benefit wildlife far better than leaving it behind. 

At least one generation in New England, with adults as early as June. Caterpillars overwinter as pupa. 

Potter wasp nest (Eumenes sp.), Newark DE, Jul…

Potter wasp nest (Eumenes sp.), Newark DE, July 2018. 

Potter wasps are related to paper wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets, and have a curious means of caring for their young. They develop nests made of mud in the shape of vase or pot. Inside each “pot” is a single larva, kept fed by a steady diet of paralyzed caterpillars the adults bring in. Adults either fill the pot to the brim with caterpillars and seal the entrance shut, or “stock the pot” by supplying caterpillars over time. Parasitism is common at this stage, and opening nests often reveals a different wasp or even parasitic flies pupating inside. The larva will remain in the nest as it pupates and later emerges as an adult to start the cycle again. 

(Potter wasp nest excavated to reveal the greenish wasp larva surrounded by caterpillars. Image above courtesy of G. Budnick from Bugguide, 2011.)

Green June beetle (Cotinis nitida), Newark DE,…

Green June beetle (Cotinis nitida), Newark DE, August July 2018. 

Sometimes called a “June Bug”, these brightly colored beetles are a common sight in the summer, in forests, gardens, and fields where fruiting trees are present. The adults feed on ripening fruit, but can also feed on pollen and leaves of a variety of tree species. The larva (grubs) live underground, feeding on the roots of many different plants, from grasses to vegetables to trees and shrubs.

Green June beetles have a (roughly) three-year life cycle, where eggs hatch in the fall and larva burrow underground to overwinter. They spend the next two years of their lives feeding on roots, within six inches of the soil surface. They pupate in the spring of their second year, and emerge as adults by June. By the end of summer, they will mate and lay eggs in rich, organic soil to start the cycle again.

Hickory tussock caterpillars ( Lophocampa car…

Hickory tussock caterpillars (

Lophocampa caryae), Fishers Island NY, July 2018. 

A caterpillar that feeds on over 100 different species of plants, the hickory tussock moth is a common caterpillar in the garden, the meadow, and the forest. Caterpillars tend to stay together as they feed (aggregate) at early molts, but later spread out as they develop their characteristic black-and-white tufts of coarse, unpalatable hairs. The hairs do not sting and are otherwise harmless to humans, although exposure over time can lead to hypersensitivity. 

One generation per year in the eastern US. Adults are active by late spring, and caterpillars are common July into autumn. They overwinter as pupae.