Loathed by Gardeners, Tomato Hornworms Morph into Magnificent Sphinx Moths

Vegetable gardeners might be inclined to squish tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae  family this time of year.  But hey, it’s Pollinator Week, so consider ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the Manduca quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Both caterpillars turn into large moths with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and grey.   They often are mistaken for small hummingbirds when they fly during the day and  hover helicopter style to nectar on flowers, which is why they are also called Hummingbird or Hawk Moths.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Moths, the nocturnal brethren of butterflies, are generally under appreciated and yet many are as striking as their celebrated butterfly siblings.  Like butterflies, moths  perform necessary pollination tasks and serve as primary fodder for bats, birds, even small mammals.

The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their hind ends.  The “Sphinx Moth” monicker results from the distinct pose the caterpillar assumes when disturbed.  Upon the mildest poke, the creature rears its head in a thoughtful stance, hoisting the upper third of its body in a sphinx-like posture.

The intriguing Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Perfectly disguised: the intriguing Sphinx Moth caterpillar blends in on this Datura, a.k.a. Jimsonweed plant.

According to one study, Sphinx Moths are a primary pollinator of Agave plants in the Arizona desert, which in some fashion makes tequila possible.   And yet moths have an unfair reputation as creepy and scary, perhaps because they fly at night, have fuzzy antennae and often exhibit an erratic flight pattern.  Some people even have a fear of moths, called mottephobia.  “Motte” means “moth” in German.

The 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodi Foster as tenacious cop Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, didn’t help moths’  reputation.  In the award-winning movie, “Hannibal the Cannibal” places the cocoon of a certain species of hawk moth, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, in the mouths of  his victims as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. The moths fly around in a creepy, dark basement and evoke a weird terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

Quid pro quo, Clarice:The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths’ creepy reputation.

According to the film trivia website IMDb, the tobacco hornworm moths used in the the film were treated like celebrities by the filmmakers: “They were flown first class to the set (in a special carrier), and had special living quarters (rooms with controlled humidity and heat).”

The movie poster at right featured Jodi Foster with a tobacco hornworm moth photoshopped with a skeleton skull–actually a realistic portrayal of the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, which is generally only found in Africa and southern Europe.

Interestingly, the iconic Death’s Head Hawk Moth tapped for the film is one of few moths that makes a squeaking sound when startled.  Described as a loud, high-pitched squeak, the noise results from air expelling from their proboscis–which might have come in handy during encounters with Hannibal the Cannibal.

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“Common” Painted Lady Butterflies Providing Not-so-Common Insights on the Development of Tiny Flying Robots

The Painted Lady butterfly, Vanessa cardui, claims the title as most common butterfly in North America–and inhabits almost every corner of the globe.  The multi-colored flutterers brag five white spots on each black-and-orange forewing and have been tapped

Painted Lady Butterfly

The Painted Lady Butterfly is being studied to develop micro aerial vehicles, MAVs.

for elementary school science classes for years since they are readily available and can complete their life cycle on an artificial diet.  In the wild, Painted Ladies host on thistle and a variety of common weeds.

But now this common butterfly is helping scientists figure out the intricacies of micro aerial maneuvering in a study at John Hopkins University that will hopefully lead to refinements in a new class of tiny flying machines:  micro aerial vehicles,  or MAVS.

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs

Painted Lady butterflies tapped to develop MAVs: CLICK to view the video.

A team of researchers at the Maryland campus has received funding from the U.S. government to study flight in butterflies with the intent to develop tiny flying robots that can be used for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue missions.

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle"

Butterfly inspired flapping wing MAV "micro aerial vehicle" --photo courtesy Harvard University

“We look to nature for inspiration,” said Tiras Lin, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at John Hopkins who is working on the study.  “What can we learn from the flight…of a butterfly?”

A lot, apparently.

Lin and his team used three high speed 3-D cameras to closely observe tthe Painted Lady’s amazing agility and maneuverability.  Click on the second photo in this post to see the video and some of the fascinating footage.

He compared the creature’s aerial maneuvers to those of an ice skater, suggesting that like a spinning skater, they “alter their moment of inertia” depending on whether they want to speed up or slow down.

Rajat Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at John Hopkins and who is overseeing the study, pointed out that mechanical engineers typically are well-suited and successful at designing large things like aircraft or ships” but when it comes to designing small things we are fairly deficient.”

The Painted Lady is providing insight and inspiration, making her not so common after all.

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Wildflower Bonanza-to-be on the San Antonio Mission Reach, Thanks to Above-average Rains

Bluebonnets, coreoposis, red and blue sage–who knew it was February in San Antonio, Texas?   Recent Texas rains have drenched our drought-parched landscape, but Nature seems bent on making it up to us.

A recent walk on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, the nine-mile linear park that extends from the south part of downtown San Antonio all the easy to Mission Espada, revealed bounties of budding wildflowers, awaiting slightly warmer temperatures and doses of daily sunshine to put out full blooms.  After the 2011 historic drought, it’s heartening.   The butterflies will follow shortly, as will the birds who find their caterpillar life stage a favorite treat.   Not far behind are other returning critters–raccoons, opossums, nutria, even foxes and coyotes eventually.

For a quick preview of what’s coming later this spring, see the slideshow above.   For insights on the complex collaboration of planners, scientists, engineers and specialist contractors tapped to set the stage for these blooms, see my story at The Rivard Report.

Happy Darwin Day! Would Charles Darwin be Pleased or Horrified at Butterflies as Quick Change Artists?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”  Charles Darwin

Tomorrow, on what would have been Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday, the scientist would have been impressed with butterflies’ capacity to adapt–and simultaneously horrified at their need to do so rapidly.

That’s what we’re taking from a recent study.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin: Adapt or Die -- PHOTO BY FLICKR.COM/SERKEL

European researchers found recently that butterflies and birds are increasingly unable to adapt quickly enough to keep pace with rapid climate change.  The research, published Jan. 9, 2012 in the journal Nature Climate Change, used two decades of data, much of it collected by citizen scientists, and indicated that climate zones in Europe have moved on average 71 miles north for butterflies and 22 miles for birds.

“Both butterflies and birds respond to climate change, but not fast enough to keep up with an increasingly warm climate. We don’t know what the long-term ecological effects of this will be,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor Åke Lindström from Lund University, Sweden, in an article on Balkans.com.

Bordered Patch butterfly:  Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Butterflies have adapted more quickly to the changing temperatures, the study showed. The researchers suspect that this difference can be attributed to the butterflies’ shorter lifespans that make it easier for them to adapt quickly to climate change. Because birds like to return to the same breeding ground year after year, they show more resistance to changing behavior patterns.

Since caterpillars–that is, butterflies-to-be–are one of the primary food sources for many birds, scientists express concern about how this disconnect in their interdependence may play out in the long run.  Lindström explained:   “A worrying aspect of this is if birds fall out of step with butterflies, because caterpillars and insects in general represent an important source of food for many birds.”

For the past 50 years, agriculture, forestry and urbanization have been the main factors affecting bird and butterfly numbers and distribution. “Climate change is now emerging as an increasingly important factor in the development of biodiversity,” said Professor Lindström.

As we wrestle with the warmest winter in recent history, it’s difficult to disagree.   How we and other creatures adapt to these rapid climate changes remains to be seen.

Darwin Day, celebrated on or around February 12, is promoted and celebrated by the International Darwin Foundation.

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Occupy Michoacan: Monarch Butterflies Move West Because of Deforestation and Climate Change

Monarch butterflies seem to have taken a cue from our Wall Street protesters and moved to more friendly environs for the winter.  The migrating insects, numbering in the millions, have moved slightly west in their roosting sanctuaries, from Mexico state to Michoacan, says a report in El Diario Michoacan.

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies in Michoacan

“It appears the butterfly now prefers the forests of Michoacan to those in Mexcio,” stated a dispatch on the website of the daily publication based in Uruapan, the municipal seat for Michoacan province.

The article quoted Oscar Contreras Contreras of the Monarch Butterfly Conservation Foundation (Funacomm) who said climate change and human activity such as illegal logging have been causing changes in the butterflies arrival and departures dates and population size for the past five years.

El Diario quoted another source who said that in the La Mesa sanctuary, in the town of  San José del Rincón, the butterflies only stayed for two months “because now the conditions for their hibernation and protection no longer exist.”

The butterflies typically occupy 12 sanctuaries that straddle the mountains of the Southern Sierra Madre and Transvolcanic Belt in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Mexico.  Their whereabouts change from year-to-year, and they move within and between the sanctuaries before taking flight in February and March to begin their migration north.

But this year seems different.

Monarch watchers are predicting a dreadful count, as a result of drought and wildfires in Texas, general habitat loss throughout the country and tough conditions in Mexico–environmentally and economically.  The budding ecotourism industry built around the migration has been stopped in its tracks by narco violence, which has caused many tour operators to cease organizing Monarch butterfly watching tours for fears of safety.  It would be no surprise that local Michoacanos might return to illegal logging as a way to feed their families and warm their homes.

We await official reports on this year’s population status, usually made available in February or March.   Like the Occupy Wall Streeters here in the U.S., there’s no question the butterflies will return this spring–but in what numbers?

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It’s official: Warmer Winters Cause USDA to Revise Plant Hardiness Zones, San Antonio’s Moves Closer to the Coast

The USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones this week, moving San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi while Austin, Dallas and Houston zones remain unchanged.   The backsides of seed packets will never be the same.

The new map reflects 30 years of temperature data, from 1976 – 2006, and includes 26 specific zones, each with a five-degree temperature differential.

For example, San Antonio moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.  Of 34 cities listed on the key of the map, 18 have new zoning designations.

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

Here’s the new zones for the four largest Texas cities:

  • Dallas–Zone 8a, 10-15 degrees
  • Houston–Zone 9a, 20 – 25 degrees
  • San Antonio–9a, 20 – 25 degrees (from 8b)
  • Austin–8b, 15-20 degreees

The new maps employ useful new interactive GPS, whereby you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone.  The data also reflects microclimate effects like nearby water sources and elevation.

The redefined heartiness zones tell us what butterflies and blooms have been communicating for the past few years.  As Monarchs and other butterflies reproduce on the San Antonio River well into the winter, it’s apparent that it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

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Timely Rains, Pent-up Seed Bank, and Little Competition Raise Hopes for a Banner 2012 Wildflower Season

Major rain fell on San Antonio, Austin and in the Hill Country this week, raising levels at streams, aquifers and rivers in Central and South Texas and hopes for a 2012 wildflower bounty this spring.

Austin Bergstrom Airforce base saw a record 5.66 inches.  In San Antono we logged almost three inches–2.94 to be exact.  Out on the Llano River in Kimble County, about an inch-and-a-half doused the landscape.

Will steady rains in Central Texas convert to banner wildflowers in 2012?

Steady rains set stage for a banner wildflower season in 2012

Wildflower and butterfly fans are keeping track.  The historic Texas drought continues, yet steady, periodic rains this winter have the capacity to convert a pent-up seedbank–the soil where seeds drop and await optimal conditions for germination–to a spectacular  wildflower show this spring.

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

The drought’s kill-off of grass, trees and forbs also make for less competition for hearty native bloomers.   Early risers like bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, and Cowpen Daisy already dress the landscape with rosettes and eager seedlings.

Will 2012 offer a bounty of blooms and butterflies?

Bluebonnet

Bluebonnet: will we see a lot of them this year? Photo: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu

“So far, so good,” said Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and Director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  “Wildflowers need a pulse of rain every four-six weeks.   We’re on track.”

Dr. Simmons counsels cautious optimism. The caveat: invasive species also lurk and will aggressively compete for available soil, nutrients, sun and water.

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s Director of Horticulture, also offers encouraging words. “We’re looking to a pretty good spring….alot of germination out there, lots of good well-spaced rains,” she said. “Where cedar elms were growing before, the seed banks underneath have an opportunity.”

Three-plus inches of rain in San Antonio:January showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

A recent 3-inch rain in San Antonio: winter showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

The drought also stunted many wildflowers and inhibited their seed production last year, David Rodriguez, Bexar County Agent of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service points out.   “Wild populations are going to take a while, but seeded populations started in September-October are looking really really nice,” he said.

The National Weather  Climate Prediction Center is predicting “persistent” drought at least through April 30.  Given the inaccuracy of longterm weather forecasting, we’re keeping a hopeful watch.

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“Plant Lady” Lee Marlowe, Guardian of San Antonio River Riparian Restoration, Names Top 10 Troublesome Plants

Working as Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) is “a dream assignment” for Lee Marlowe, the biologist who serves as plant guardian of the landmark San Antonio River restoration project.  The MacArthur High School graduate was living and working in Minneapolis when she noticed the job listing during a visit home for Christmas in 2007.

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

By February of 2008, she had relocated back to San Antonio to immerse herself in the initiative touted by local leadership as the most important public works project of our time.

Known around SARA as “the plant lady,” Marlowe works with a team of nine to restore and maintain the 13 miles of river frontage that stretch from the formal plantings of the Museum Reach north of downtown to the native wildscapes of the Mission Reach that forge south.  Marlowe is passionate and approachable about the complex project, which entails planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and luck–with weather as the biggest wildcard.

“People relate to her,” said Suzanne Scott, General Manager of SARA. “She is able to communicate in such a way that the complex nuances of the project can be understood in layman’s terms.”

Marlowe refereed a recent online kerfuffle on the nature of the milkweed planted at the Monarch butterfly Milkweed Patch just south of the Pearl Brewery on the Museum Reach recently.  Was the Monarch butterfly magnet a native plant or not?

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Yes, that's Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

She confirmed that the species is, indeed, the NONnative Asclepias curassavica, also known as Tropical milkweed.

“I would rather not have it there,” she said matter-of-factly. “That area was to be a formal garden and had to look good year-round,” she said.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 native trees planted recently

That won’t be the case  south of downtown on the Mission Reach.  Marlowe and her team have relocated 3.5 million cubic yards of soil (the equivalent amount of concrete could  build another Hoover Dam) to accommodate 23,000 native trees scheduled for installation by 2014.  So far, 3,000 saplings and more than 10,000 pounds of wildflower seed have been planted.

Marlowe noted that while dozens of wildflower species were planted on the Mission Reach, many more ”volunteers”–gardening talk for plants that grow of their own volition, unplanned and unannounced–have sprouted.  Perhaps three times as many.  She cited the common sunflower Helianthus annuus as the most active volunteer.

Helianthus_annuus

The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, was an active "volunteer" on the Mission Reach

“It did so well we had to thin it out in some locations where it was compromising other plantings,” she said.  Marlowe attributed the wildflower windfall to active land management (read: pulling weeds) even moreso than the restoration of native conditions.

Interestingly, the same problem plants that plague home gardeners also invade the meticulously planned and managed Mission Reach.   Marlowe won’t single out a “most” troublesome plant, as it depends on the season and the day.  But Bermuda grass ranks near the top.

“It’s so well adapted it’s almost impossible to control,” she said.

Here’s Marlowe’s Top Ten Most Troublesome Plants (in no particular order)

  1. Leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala)
  2. Castorbean (Ricinus communis)
  3. Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  4. Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
  5. Giant cane (Arundo donax)
  6. King Ranch “KR” Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum)
  7. Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
  8. Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
  9. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)
  10. Malta starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis/melitensis

While the SARA restoration project has won numerous local awards, Steven Schauer, SARA’s External Communications Manager, said later this spring SARA will nominate the Mission Reach for the Riverprize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. A win would shine international attention on the Mission Reach.  The prize, awarded by Australia-based International River Foundation, gives recognition, reward and support to those who have developed and implemented outstanding, visionary and sustainable programs in river management.

In 2011, the Riverprize and its $330,000 purse went to the Charles River in Boston.  We’re betting in 2012 San Antonio’s Mission Reach has a credible shot and we’re keeping fingers crossed.  The award is announced in October.

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Butterfly FAQ: Pros and Cons of Tropical Milkweed and What to do with a Winter Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar or Chrysalis

Several emails like the one below landed in my mailbox this week seeking counsel on what to do about late season Monarchs.

Hi Monika,

My friends found seven Monarch caterpillars on a well- protected piece of milkweed.  Six are gone, but one spun a chrysalis that they are protecting.  Do you have any advice?  We are wondering how long it will be in the chrysalis state in the winter.  Thanks for any advice you can give.

Dale

I would bring it inside, Dale–but that’s just me.

Usually it takes 10 – 14 days to eclose, or become a butterfly, but cooler temps can extend the process.  Caterpillars I

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011 in my kitchen.

found on potted milkweed in mid December and brought inside hatched just last week and flew off on a warm 70-degree afternoon. But it could easily have gone the other way, with an ice storm hitting just as my butterflies hatched.  Then what?

Deciding whether or not to adopt in-process butterflies during the off-season always presents a quandary. Questions to ask:

  1. Do you have nectar available? Newborn butterflies generally don’t need to eat for the first 24 hours, but then they’ll need sustenance.
  2. What about host plants?  A butterfly’s first priority is to mate (for males) and lay eggs (for females) on their specific host plant.
  3. Will the weather cooperate?  Butterflies don’t fly when it’s less than 65 degrees.  Most will die with a freeze.

With our crazy Texas weather, Monarchs and other butterflies can hatch throughout the year depending on temperatures and host plant availability.  As noted last week, Monarchs are reproducing regularly on the San Antonio River — even into January.   Whether or not the eggs of those late season couplings make it to the butterfly stage is a crap shoot dictated by Mother Nature.

Monarch chrysalis about to hatch in my kitchen

Monarch butterfly about to hatch in my kitchen

Generally, if I have host plants, I take found caterpillars into my kitchen to increase their chances of becoming a butterfly.  Studies suggest that  caterpillars and eggs left entirely to nature have a 10% chance of becoming a butterfly.  When we lend a hand the odds are flipped–with a 90% chance.

What’s sad is when butterflies hatch and enter a world with no potential mates, no nectar and no host plants.   I once bought several chrysalises at Butterfly World, the Disneyland”

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Walk 1/04/2012

of butterflies and a worthy destination for butterfly fans in Coconut Grove, Florida.  I returned to Texas in mid December with Luna and Polyphemus Moth cocoons, and a Giant Swallowtail chrysalis.

I pinned each to the curtain of my kitchen window as directed, providing the bright light that can speed up development.

The Luna Moth hatched beautifully and was released on a relatively warm January evening.  The Polyphemus Moth never hatched.   When the Giant Swallowtail eventually eclosed–about six weeks after purchase–an ice storm raged outside.  A week of cold and freeze followed.  The poor creature flailed around on my kitchen floor, refusing the cut flowers and diluted Gatorade I offered via Q-Tip. After three sad days, the Swallowtail perished.

For Monarchs, this may not be a problem if you have milkweed growing year round. The non-native but easily adapted Asclepias curassavica, sold in many nurseries as Tropical milkweed, provides nectar and host plant material and grows gregariously in pots that can be moved in and outside.

That said, some Monarch scientists, including our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower, worry that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, a protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. OE is present in the landscape but seems to especially flourish on Tropical milkweed in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Scientists speculate that local OE-infested Monarchs will breed with migrating populations, possibly jeopardizing the migration.  Butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in our populations and getting out of hand only under stressed circumstances.  Some believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

The answer, Dale, is that it’s a cold, cruel world for butterflies caught in flighty Texas winters–and an uneasy call for butterfly fans seeking to lend them a hand.

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