Monthly Archives: April 2013

Joe pupates

Joe Acronicta had had enough of us poking and prodding him, and decided to pupate.

I know that most Acronicta species pupate by tunneling into soft, dead wood. But usually this is a shallow groove, covered by bits of wood and silk. Sometimes they burrow in deeper, but you can see the hole behind them.

Joe decided to be a bit like some other Acronictines (species in different genera, but still closely related to Acronicta). Genera like Comachara, Polygrammate, and Harrisimemna all dig deep tunnels into wood. Then they crawl out and back into the tunnel rear-end first, sealing up the entrance with silk and bits of wood.

That’s exactly what Joe did.


Joe, diligently digging his tunnel. blog_3

The pile of chewed wood left behind.blog_4

The cleverly disguised entrance.

I’m not sure how long it will be before he emerges, maybe a few weeks or months? When caterpillars pupate early in the season, it usually (but not always) means they will emerge in time to start another brood before cold weather arrives. If they pupate late in the season, they will usually (but not always) overwinter as a pupa.

While we are pretty sure that we have these caterpillars matched up with the correct adult, we are excited to have an adult emerge so we are 100% sure. I’ll post pictures when Joe makes his appearance as a moth!

Joe Acronicta

We recently received a new friend from Texas – nicknamed “Joe Acronicta” by the collaborator who sent him to us.

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This is one of my favorite species – Acronicta atristrigatus, also known as the “Paddlemaster”. I bet you can guess why.

What we’re all wondering, though, is what those paddles are for. They appear on several Acronicta species, but in different arrangements. Some only have them in place of the dorsal setae, while others are nearly covered in paddles. I have a feeling they are used to thwart parasitoids which may try to land on the caterpillar to lay their eggs. Many species of flies and wasps see caterpillars as big tasty meals for their offspring.

I imagine all those hairs would make it difficult for a parasitoid to land. And if it does, the caterpillar will surely notice.

These guys also have some interesting defensive behaviors.

Don’t worry, I did not hurt the caterpillar! Like most Acronicta species, it starts with a bite (or attempted bite). But instead of simply returning to its perch, the caterpillar begins to sway side to side. We are all curious as to whether this serves to deter birds, or parasitoids, or perhaps the caterpillar is trying to sway gently like a tree branch?

What do you think?


It’s springtime, and that means the moths in the lab are emerging from their cocoons. Since it is warmer here in the lab, they tend to emerge a few weeks earlier than they would in the wild. This means we get a head-start on pinning and labeling the moths before the field season gets underway.  emergences1 copy

One wall of our “rearing room”

It is bittersweet, sometimes, when I meet an adult moth I’ve raised from an egg. Knowing that it will be added to my collection as a specimen. Advancing science, but putting an end to a small, fuzzy life. It doesn’t help that I get quite attached to my caterpillars.

But in many ways I embrace this aspect of my work, as the act of pinning and spreading a moth involves considerable skill, practice, and artistry. I am also a firm believer in the importance of scientific specimen collections. Monday mornings are currently my favorite part of the week because that is when I work in UConn’s biological collections, helping to curate the moths. Each specimen has a history and tells a story.

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A freshly emerged adult moth

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Some moths on the spreading board

With the emergence of the moths comes the emergence of field gear and enthusiasm. The caterpillar lab can be a dull place during the winter. But this spring/summer promises to be full of adventure, misadventure, and insects. We are starting to receive caterpillars in the mail from collaborators in warmer climates. Moths are fluttering around porch lights at night. Collecting trips are being planned all around the country. I will be breaking out my own collecting lights within the next couple weeks.

For the time being, though, my main duty is pinning my adult moths as they emerge. If you would like to learn more about this task – my friend and I are currently creating an instructional screencast on how to pin a moth – I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Connecticut Entomological Society meeting

Is it the third week of the month already? Time for another meeting of the Connecticut Entomological Society! The meetings are free and open to the public, though becoming a member is highly encouraged ($7/year for students, $15/year everyone else). The meetings involve dinner, a talk, show-and-tell and general entomological gossip. This month’s meeting is being held this Friday evening at Yale.

Connecticut Entomological Society
“Pop-up” Flash Extreme Macro Photography
Arthur S. Vaughan
Vice President and Member of the New England Camera Club Council
April 19, 2013
Room 123, Kline Geology Laboratory Auditorium, Yale University
210 Whitney Avenue
New Haven, CT

Art will introduce his “pop-up” flash macro photography” and show some fascinating pictures of insects and spiders.
This is our annual potluck dinner and silent auction. Please bring a dish to share as well as any items you would like to donate to the silent auction. Insect artwork, specimens, books, equipment are especially welcome. Proceeds go to CES treasury.
Potluck dinner will be held between 6:30pm and 7:30pm.
Meeting will begin at 7:30 pm followed by the featured speaker.
As always, exhibits are welcome!

I’ll be bringing one or two dishes made with insects for the potluck – maybe some spinach artichoke mealworm dip, or some cricket granola bars. And one of my plushies will be offered for the silent auction.

If you come, you’ll recognize our lab – we’ll be wearing our shirts.

I Like Caterpillars

IMG_1517 I found this delightful book for sale on (in the vintage category). It was written in 1958 by Gladys Conklin, and was illustrated by Barbara Latham.


I thought it would just be a cute addition to my collection of insect books, but it has really wonderful illustrations featuring a wide variety of behaviors and natural history. The author and illustrator really knew their caterpillars. The caterpillars are all based on real species found in North America. The illustrations feature eggs, first instars, morphological changes, defensive behaviors, molted skins, feeding behaviors – even frass flinging!


That caterpillar in the middle is clinging to the stem face down, and has twisted its rear end over its back in order to shoot its poop. This book was definitely written by an observant nature lover.

I’m calling this my new favorite book, and highly recommend it for anyone who likes caterpillars. I think the target age is about 5 or 6 years old… but… no one will judge you.

Here are a few places you can buy it: Etsy, Amazon.

Gladys Conklin wrote a variety of children’s books on insects and other animals. Some titles include “I Watch Flies”, “When Insects are Babies”, and “I Caught a Lizard”. I want to buy them all!

Live Caterpillar Shows kickstarter – pledge now!

My caterpillar colleage Sam Jaffe has created a kickstarter project – an ambitious plan to create a series of programs and events using live caterpillars for science education outreach. If he’s funded, he’ll do it all this summer!

Sam is an amazing photographer and great caterpillar wrangler. Please consider donating to his cause, or at least check out his work – his photos make caterpillars look nearly as cuddly as the plushies I sew!

The kickstarter project.

Sam’s website.

Lab shirts

We are so excited for the next pool throwdown against our rival entomology lab (well, it’s a friendly rivalry) after this month’s Connecticut Entomological Society meeting. We’ve got our own lab shirts, now.


I designed the shirts after a brainstorming session with the lab. We decided on a caterpillar, playing pool, wearing a cowboy hat. We were thinking of including a mustache but thought that would be a bit too much. The caterpillar species is Acronicta increta (indeed I couldn’t help but include one of my own study species).

Caterpillar toys

This is depressing.

caterpillar toysAs some of you know, I have a sewing business on the side. I haven’t made anything in a few weeks, though, because grad school tends to get in the way of hobbies. But I feel inspired to make some caterpillar plushies this weekend. Stay tuned.

More caterpillar art

Introducing: the owl-caterpillar, by AnimaliaBizarre:

“Owl-Caterpillars (strigi-doptera) have been rumored among numerous world civilizations to be creatures of myth. Rumors suggest they can exist in the beards of ground dwarves and the powdered wigs of elderly ladies. They eat of lint and dander until they finally cocoon. It takes 150 years for an owl-caterpillar to germinate (which is probably why no one has seen it in this lifetime.) It’s final metamorphosis is still a potential, and yet to be imagined, mystery.”

Buy it here.

Museum caterpillars part 3

While at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, (see previous posts here and here) I did manage to tear myself away from the collections long enough to browse some of the public exhibits. I did not go into the butterfly house (didn’t have my wallet with me, you have to pay to enter), but I did see some caterpillars!

There was a whole section of the museum devoted to insects and invertebrates, with many live organisms on display. There were a lot of the usual suspects (mantids, tarantulas, roaches), but they also had some hornworms (Manduca sexta). There was a display with a multitude of pupae, a few caterpillars, and one freshly emerged adult. It was being nibbled by a persistent, and apparently violent, caterpillar. I do not know why.

bug zoo 1 copyThere was also a display where you could see some pupae of various species hanging – waiting for their chance to emerge and become part of the butterfly house. There were not just butterflies, though. I could see many moth cocoons, the fuzzier looking ones at the bottom.

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And I really liked the displays! The blatant emphasis on evolution in almost every single display and description is refreshing (the hall of human origins is wonderful). Whenever I start to despair and worry that there is not hope for humanity to accept science, I should go visit a natural history museum. They don’t hold back. bug zoo 4 copy

Now I just need to start planning my next trip back. Hopefully within the next few months! (and maybe I’ll schedule some time to be a tourist)

Ryerson Lab

Functional Morphology, Sensory Biology, Behavior, Biomechanics

I spell it nature

Trying to make sense of the world through science and language.