I was lucky enough to be invited to be a guest speaker for a National Moth Week event held by the Friends of Taconic State Park in Copake Falls, NY. I grew up in upstate NY, but had never been to that region before. I spent most of the afternoon chatting with my wonderful hosts, eating yummy food, and then I gave my talk and spent the night looking for moths – I’ll hopefully get a chance to go back and explore the park during the day.
My talk was about how every week is moth week in my life, as well as how amateurs can help with our scientific endeavors. I couldn’t do my dissertation work without an army of collaborators around the country and around the world. I’m hoping I inspired a few more people to check their porch lights (or gas station lights). When it comes to basic natural history observations, science is accessible to everyone. And we need all the help we can get!
After the talk a few people stuck around to check out the moths. There were several blacklights, a mercury vapor light, and some bait painted on trees (and soaked into ropes).
One of the first visitors to the blacklight, a Hermit sphinx, Linteneria eremitus.One of the sheets, early in the night.Gathering around the sheet. Poke nature!The new president of the society, Brian Boom, was my gracious and enthusiastic host – and he was well liked by the Pandorus sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus). As usual, I had to pose with a moth on my nose. Darapsa myron. And a few of the other goodies we saw: Top row: Tolype velleda, Acrolophus sp., Herpetogramma pertexalis, Darapsa myron
Middle row: Linteneria eremitus, Haploa confusa, Prolimacodes badia, Lymantria dispar
Bottom row: Haploa clymene, Pantographa limata, Crambus sp., Idia aemula
What a great way to celebrate National Moth Week!
Moth Week continued for me in Keene NH, the home of The Caterpillar Lab, run by the caterpillar photographer/whisperer Sam Jaffe. Sam is a wonderful naturalist, who ambitiously has undertaken this caterpillar outreach project. Sam and his minions currently have a physical lab where they keep their livestock (hundreds of caterpillars!), which is periodically open to the public. They do caterpillar shows at farmer’s markets and museums, you can see their schedule on their facebook page.
Here is just one of their charges… a gigantic Citheronia regalis caterpillar. Also known as the hickory horned devil… for obvious reasons.
We help each other out by trading eggs and caterpillars, and that is always a good excuse for a visit. His intern Liz allowed us to blacklight at her place, and so the bug nuts gathered round. This pic of the sheet was pretty early in the night, it was really hopping by midnight!
It is the time of year for Catocala, the underwing moths. This big one is Catocala unijuga, the Once-Married Underwing (I sure wonder how it got that name?)We also got a few female dobsonflies (Corydalus cornutus), they look like they are straight out of a horror movie. And much more vicious than the males, who have larger, but ineffectual, mandibles.
Waiting at the sheet… We also got a few spiders… this fishing spider ate quite a few of our moths!We decided to take a break from circling the sheet for some gas station light hopping. Sam has a few favorite spots. Despite my enthusiasm, I fell asleep on the car ride (though I’m told I was muttering some weird things in my attempt to stay awake and make conversation). Luckily I rallied and arrived well rested and ready to catch some more moths. There was a big Antherea polyphemus waiting for us, as well as a wall covered in wonderful moths. Including this sphingid, the Hydrangea sphinx, Darapsa versicolor. We were very disappointed that it was a male. Still a nice find though! At the next stop we hit another jackpot – plenty of Acronicta moths for me, and a few other pretties.
I love the patterns on this one, I was excited to finally see one! The lettered habrosyne, Habrosyne scripta, in the family Drepanidae.
We ended up back at the sheet, where I snagged a few more moths. All of these vials contained a female Acronicta, pretty amazing for one night! I’m never disappointed collecting in NH. I did learn something interesting, we have noticed a pattern – the female Acronicta moths tend to come out earlier. Once we get to about midnight, it’s almost all males at the sheet.
Eventually we packed up, sorted moths, and got some sleep. Not a bad way to celebrate national moth week.
We rang in National Moth Week locally in Storrs, at our favorite spot near the Fenton river. We had a good gathering of UConn’s field entomology class, a few Wagner lab members, and a member of the Connecticut Entomological Society.
Setting up in the field with a pop-up blacklighting sheet (I need one of those!).
We also painted some moth bait on the trees. Everyone has their own favorite recipe – unfortunately it wasn’t a good night, and we didn’t get any customers (or maybe the bait needed more beer?). Moth bait is usually a combination of alcohol (cheap wine or beer), sugar (or honey or maple syrup), and bananas (or other fruit). Put the concoction in a tightly sealed container, leave it to ferment and get disgusting for a while, and try not to forget that it’s in the trunk of your car.
We had on mercury vapor light, and two sheets with blacklights. The sheets were crawling with mayflies and stoneflies and midges (makes sense, since we were right by the river). However there were only a few moths! It was a calm night, but pretty cool, so perhaps it wasn’t warm enough to get a lot of moths flying. Though the students did manage to snag some specimens for their collections.
So while it wasn’t a super exciting moth night, I got some more eggs for my research, so that’s a win! And it was a fun night catching up with friends and students – moth collecting has a way of bringing people (and beer) together.
Graduate school has a funny way of sucking up all your time. I had so many other hobbies (including a relationship!) the first few years of grad school, and as they continually slip by, I wonder how I ever had time for them at all (though of course, I do still find plenty of ways to waste time…) So we shall see if I can scrounge up a few minutes here and there for this blog again. Here is a quick update on what I’ve been up to, and what I hope to write about soon…
First of all, speaking about hobbies – I’m no longer running my sewing business, but still try to find time to sew things for myself once a month or so. I will put up a post soon with some of the moth and caterpillar dresses I have made.
I’m also, against all better judgement, accumulating more animals. My apartment now contains two rabbits, three snakes, one gecko, one black widow, four tarantulas, four cockroach colonies, two fish, and a shrimp. As well as about 100 caterpillars for my research, since they were getting viruses in the lab. The new additions will make an appearance once I get some good photos of them (the cockroaches and tarantulas mostly hide during the day).
Ok, onto the science!
My second paper has been published! Well, I am third author, but I am proud to have been a part of this project. It was a great collaborative effort incorporating basic life history observations, morphology, and phylogenetics.
Schmidt C, Wagner D, Zacharczenko B, Zahiri R, Anweiler G (2014) Polyphyly of Lichen-cryptic Dagger Moths: synonymy of Agriopodes Hampson and description of a new basal acronictine genus, Chloronycta, gen. n. (Lepidoptera, Noctuidae). ZooKeys 421: 115-137
I helped with rearing the caterpillars, taking photos, describing the caterpillar morphology, arranging plates for publication, and of course editing. I will put up a longer post with a summary of the paper and a bit about its implications for my project.
I have also been doing more of my ant/caterpillar behavior experiments, and I should have some good videos of that to share soon. I have expanded trials to include earlier instars, as well as a forceps “pinch test” to compare to the ant interactions.
Lots of blacklighting trips, lots of moth catching, lots of paper reading. The life of an entomologist.
This is also the start of National Moth Week, with a lot of events planned.
I have lots of fun stories accumulated, fingers crossed I find the energy to share them!
A reminder – it’s still early enough in the year to make buying a 2014 calendar worthwhile. If you like insects (especially insects in Connecticut), please consider supporting the Connecticut Entomological Society by purchasing a calendar. All photos were taken by members, and voted upon in a photo contest. Each month comes with a caption including the species name and locality/date.
Members may choose the “pick up” option to pick up their purchase(s) at a meeting, all others must choose the option that includes shipping (we take PayPal). The shop is here.
If you make a purchase and indicate that you found the calendar via my blog, you might get an extra-special surprise! (I’ll be the one shipping them out).
February 21st was the 509th meeting of the Connecticut Entomological Society. As yours truly is the president of the society this year, I have had the honor of choosing speakers and activities to keep the society humming along. We have monthly meetings throughout the academic year, culminating in a year-end banquet before we disperse for summer activities. It’s not easy to get people to gather for an entomology lecture on a Friday night, but we have had great turn-outs the last few meetings.
Last month’s speaker deviated from our typical focus on living insects, and gave an inspiring talk. Dr. Susan Butts, senior collections manager of Invertebrates and Paleontology at the Peabody Museum (Yale), gave a talk about fossil insects and the Fossil Insect Collaborative-Digitization Project (like them on facebook!). She provided a great overview of insect fossil deposits from a variety of time periods, and had a bunch of Yale specimens for us to see in person.
We all felt inspired to visit the collection (perhaps a field-trip in the near future?), and to help with the project. Since the Fossil Insect Collaborative-Digitization Project is examining so many fossils, they are in need of more entomologists to help with determinations. So if you check out their facebook page, you can check out the photos and provide your best guess. This project is also working with the iDigBio and iDigPaleo initiatives.
If you want to learn more about fossil insects and the evolution of insects, I cannot recommend this book enough. It’s of my favorites: Evolution of the Insects.
When moths emerge from their pupal shell, their wings start out small and shriveled. Over time the wings expand and harden so the moth is able to fly.
Unfortunately, sometimes things go wrong, and the wings aren’t able to expand. We see this periodically here in the lab, and we’re not sure why. Yesterday this little fuzz ball, Proserpinus lucidus, emerged. Perhaps due to the fact that it was not actually due to emerge until spring, its wings never expanded.
For reference, here is a fully formed adult (from Moth Photographer’s Group)
If you have raised moths and/or butterflies before – have you had this experience before, and do you have a sense of why it may have happened? One of my hypotheses is that a moth may spend too much time in the pupal shell once fully formed, and the wings could become hardened before actually emerging. Or in the case of our moth, being kept in a cool room for overwintering, it may have simply been too cold.
When I was younger I had a pink toe tarantula named Tip Toe. She was a wonderful spider, very calm, and she was absolutely gorgeous. I loved watching her grow, and I kept all of her molted skins. Unfortunately she passed away while I was in college, at about 8 years old, during what appeared to be a bad molt.
Somehow I have been able to resist the temptation to bring home another tarantula since then. That is, until I saw the BioQuip table at the ESA (Entomology Society of America) conference in November. They had a multitude of live invertebrates for sale, and a very knowledgeable staff.
I hemmed and hawed and browsed the beautiful tarantulas, scorpions, and other inverts. But I simply couldn’t resist the Avicularia species. Tip Toe was a common pink toe, and I found another little girl who reminded me so much of her. So I decided to take her home, and named her Edith. She is currently about 3 years old.
But some little spiderlings also caught my eye. Spiderlings can be difficult to care for, and they are prone to dying for apparently no reason. You can’t know the sex until they are a couple years old, so you are also taking a chance on whether it will be a male (live about 5 years) or female (live about 20 years). But I decided to go for it, and brought home a little Avicularia versicolor. His name is Austin (I’m calling it a boy until I can determine otherwise). He was about 4 months old when I took him home in November. He started quite small, but he is growing and is probably due for a molt soon. He has a ferocious appetite and has created a wonderful system of webs and tunnels in his vial.
Here is Austin having lunch: a flightless fruit fly. For reference, the vial is 15drams, about 3cm across.
This brings the number of animals in my apartment to… 10. That’s a nice number.
The other day we had a surprise visitor in the lab.
We had a Hyalophora gloveria cocoon sitting around in the lab, with the pupa presumed to be dead (the cocoon had a bird peck-hole, so we thought it was eaten or badly damaged). But the moth pulled through, and emerged as a perfectly formed adult! Here she is posing with a few members of the lab. Having a live fluffy moth in the lab was quite a treat for us this time of year.
She hung around for a few days and laid a few eggs before she was destined to become a specimen. We could not release her because 1) this species is from Arizona so we are outside her native range, and 2) it is below freezing here in CT anyway. I am not sure what the destiny of the eggs will be.
Here are a few of my favorite entomological valentines. Enjoy! And if you come across any others, please link to them in the comments.
Now that I’m single, it’s just me and my pets and my specimens. But when you have a specimen collection, you’re never really alone. I will probably spend much of today working with moth genitalic dissections – romantic, eh?