Four Fine Texas Moths for National Moth Week

Happy National Moth Week!   The celebration of the night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, began only three years ago and takes place this week, July 15 – 27.

Wish I had planned better and organized an event.  Anybody?

Maybe next year. Dang work always gets in the way of the fun stuff.  Anyone interested in helping me organize a Moth Night in San Antonio, whereby we would set up a black light with a sheet and await/celebrate the arrival of moths, please leave a comment below.  Perhaps we can make something happen.

Moth light night trap

Anybody want to do this? I’m in.  We just need a mercury vapor light. Photo via www.exploratorium.edu

Meanwhile, you can still keep watch for some of the most common and amazing moths to be found in our area.  I had no idea how fascinating moths can be until I was seduced by butterflies. Turns out moths outnumber butterfly species 15 to one.  Really. That’s what happens….you start paying attention, and next thing you know, you’re raising caterpillars in the kitchen.

Here’s four moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphinginae family.

Sphinx Moth

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

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via www.urbanwildlife.net

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Genista Moth Caterpillars Return to Llano River Mountain Laurels

Last May I posted a much-read report of an extreme outbreak of Genista Moth larvae on two treasured Mountain Laurel trees my family had transplanted to our Llano River ranch 10 years ago.

The post, “Squish remorse” — Genista Larvae on Mountain Laurels Create Caterpillar Quandary,” started like this:

“It was an odd day, digging up wild parsley in search of chubby, Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars for fostering and fun at home, followed by hours of trying to figure out a humane and responsible way to kill hundreds–no, thousands–of unwelcome critters decimating several precious Mountain Laurels.”

 

The Genista Broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversals, occupied almost every leaf of the tree.   Sometimes called the Sophora worm, these moth larvae relish the toxic leaves of our native Texas Mountain Laurels, Sophora secundiflora.

IMG_1072

Genista moth caterpillars returned to a different set of Mountain Laurels this spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A year ago, the voracious caterpillars were decimating the evergreen native, which produces a Kool-Aid perfumed bloom that typically signals the first days of spring.

At the time, I was concerned the ubiquitous caterpillars would kill the tree or prune it to a shadow of its former self.   Several sources assured me not to worry—it was all part of the life cycle.

Twelve months later, I’m happy to report that the Mountain Laurels in question have rebounded magnificently. See the photo below.

Mountain Laurel

Genista moth caterpillars decimated this Mountain Laurel last year, but the tree bounced back nicely in 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Genistas have  moved on to devour another Mountain Laurel further up the hill from their 2013 feast.   As Sandra Schwinn commented at the time:

“I have dealt with these for the last couple of years…. If there were just a few of them, it wouldn’t be so bad. Be prepared for a second onslaught, as that’s been my experience. In fact, last year, I battled them from spring into fall.”

Sounds about right.   While it’s reassuring that the caterpillar onslaught doesn’t appear to kill the plant, it does rob us of the next year’s purple blooms since Mountain Laurel flowers only occur on second year growth.

Genista Moth caterpillars

Genista Moth larvae returned to different Mountain Laurels this year on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Given the apparent heartiness of the Mountain Laurel I will resist the urge to squish the Genistas, letting nature take its course and ceding their role in the food web as fodder for lizards, wasps and others.

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2013’s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in November. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

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

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

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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Yo soy Mariposista! Butterfly Advocates Unite as Lepsters, MOTH-ers and Butterflyers

On a recent trip to Huatulco, Mexico, I was invited by the local guiding association to talk about the hobby of “butterflying.”  My Spanish is pretty decent since my husband and I lived in Costa Rica and El Salvador for years and now reside in San Antonio, a city closely tied to Mexico and populated largely by those who speak Spanish.  We embrace the language and enjoy speaking it.

Costa Rican butterflies

Too bad I wasn’t a mariposista when I lived in Costa Rica in the 80s. Could have seen all these beauties. Photo via nature.berkeley.edu

But I was stumped when attempting to come up with a word in Spanish that describes butterfly watcher.  “What is the word for birder?” I asked our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel.

Pajarero,” he said, suggesting the literal translation of “one who birds.”  When I consulted my iTranslate phone app, it cited “observadores de aves,” that is, observer of birds.

When I asked Cornelio the Spanish word for one who butterflies, he paused.

Mariposero?”  he asked, since mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly.

We agreed that we could use the word “mariposero” for one who “butterflies”–but somehow it didn’t seem to catch what I meant.

As mentioned above, my husband and I lived in Central America during the Sandinista revolution and the Contra war–he, covering the wars of the region for Newsweek magazine and me as a magazine and newspaper freelancer.  I came to know the Spanish suffix “ista” as an add-on to any word that meant one who advocates for a certain belief.

Sandinistas, inspired by the failed revolution of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979.  Panistas, on the other hand, pushed for the conservative, pro-business agenda of the National Action Party of Mexico while their counterparts, PRIistas, held power for nearly a century as Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.  In Argentina, Peronistas keep alive the progressive socialism of former president Juan Peron.  An anarquista, or anarchist, of course, would oppose all government.  And don’t forget, I was a periodista, or one who writes for a newspaper.

Given my fascination with languages and penchant for advocating for butterflies, it came to me:   Yo soy mariposista.

That word suggests a certain activist bent–just like Sandinista, Peronista, PANista, PRIista, all of which are political terms that connote a movement or advocacy of a point of view.

By such a definition, I am, indeed, a mariposista.    Yo soy mariposista, one who advocates for butterflies.

Por qué las Mariposas?

Por qué las Mariposas? Por qué no?                                                         –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Back here in the U.S.,  “butterflying,” that is, the act or hobby of watching butterflies for fun, is in its infancy.  Many argue that butterflying is where birding was in the 60s.  More on that in a future post.

Just a little bit of research suggests that in English “butterflying” as a verb was likely first used in 1776.  According to our friend Nigel Venters in Cordoba province of Argentina, “the earliest reference is a short statement by Moses Harris, in the world’s first ever, well illustrated, and detailed book on butterflies in the late 18th century called “The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on Which They Feed.”   Yeah, really.  That’s the title of the book!

More recently, Robert Michael Pyle used the term “butterflying” frequently in his 1987 book “Handbook for Butterfly Watching.”

Apparently regional variations exist in the words used to describe those who watch butterflies, according to Monica Miller of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  Monica responded to my query posted on the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv of hundreds of mariposistas, butterflyers and others.

“…I can confuse matters with the terminology we use up here in Pennsylvania,”  Monica  wrote via email.  “Since we include moths in our adventures, we refer to the collective targets as ‘leps’ and when we ‘lepsters’ go out looking we go ‘lepping’ as in  ‘Do you want to go lepping on Saturday?’ It’s more descriptive of what many of us do since a lot of us both butterfly and moth (both nouns and verbs there…)”

And speaking of moths, those who favor night flying lepidoptera point out that “MOTH-ers” are folks who prefer the observation of moths while “lepsters” go both ways, enjoying both the colorful beauties that grace our gardens during the day and the more mysterious creatures that pollinate plants at night.

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Large, Bat-like, Harmless: Black Witch Moths Making Appearances in South Texas

Black Witch moths are making themselves known in South Texas again. The large, harmless moths appear seasonally–we had one at the ranch this weekend.

Here’s a great shot from Karen Hermann of the fascinating creatures, which often roost in the eaves of front doors resulting in a creepy “startle factor” when they’re flushed by those returning home.  Special thanks to entomologist extraoridnaire Mike Quinn of Austin-based www.texasento.net for helping gather much of the info for this post.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

The  intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America.  They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

Reports of large,  bat-like moths surprising people, frequently as they return home and are unlocking their front door, are not uncommon.   Because of their dramatic size,  when these big boys flush, they get your attention.

Black Witch Moth Caterpillar

Black Witch Moth Caterpillars like legumes and can reach three inches. Photo via www.texasento.net

Females have a white, sometimes iridescent stripe across their wings with wings open.  Males exhibit the plain, grey, brown mottled pattern commonly associated with moths, but with small dark eyespots on each forewing.   Black Witch Moth caterpillars eat legumes, and favor acacia and mesquite.   They are perfectly harmless, not an agricultural pest, and have no teeth or stingers.

The folklore surrounding Black Witch Moth, like the moth itself, is all over the map.  In Mexico they are known as “mariposa de la muerte,” the butterfly of death.   Some believe if a Black Witch Moth enters the home of someone who is ill, the person will die.

A variation on the folk wisdom suggests that the moth must travel to each corner of the house for death to occur.  The Mayans called the Black Witch x-mahani-nail, which means “the habit of entering buildings.” This moth apparently has a long history of inviting itself inside.

Interestingly, in the Carribean, the Black Witch Moth is known as the “Money Moth” and if it visits your home, you are likely to come into cash.   Here in South Texas, some believe if a Black Witch Moth roosts over your door, you will win the lottery.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black Witch starts migrating north in late spring.   The Black Witches’ seven-inch wingspan allows them to cover a lot of ground quickly.  Entomologists note that  Monarch butterflies start crossing the Rio Grande and take two months to reach Canada.  Black Witches start migrating in June and have been recorded

Hannibal Lechter used actual Black Witch Moth cocoons

Serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted actual Black Witch Moth cocoons into the mouths of his victims in the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

reaching Maine by June 9 and Manitoba, Canada, by June 28.  That’s a rapid pace for a moth.  Scientists wonder why the Black Witch Moth migrates so far north with no southbound return?  Hmm.

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Mothsinto the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation.   The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

If you’d like to have one roost above your door to inspire a winning lottery ticket, you might try setting out a cocktail of fermented fruit or stale beer.   Black Witch Moths also like tree sap.  Good luck!

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“Squish remorse” — Genista Larvae on Mountain Laurels Create Caterpillar Quandary

A mega hatch of Genista larvae on transplanted Texas Mountain Laurels along the Llano River created an uncomfortable “caterpillar quandary” for me this weekend.

Sophora worm, genista moth larvae

Not cool. Hundreds–no, thousands–of these Genista moth larvae, devoured our Mountain Laurels. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It was an odd day, digging up wild parsley in search of chubby, Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars for fostering and fun at home, followed by hours of trying to figure out a humane and responsible way to kill hundreds–no, thousands–of unwelcome critters decimating several precious Mountain Laurels.

The culprit:  the Genista Broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversalis.   Sometimes called the Sophora worm, these moth larvae relish the toxic leaves of our native Texas Mountain Laurels, Sophora secundiflora.

We have painstakingly imported several of the gorgeous native evergreens to our stretch of the Llano, digging difficult holes for transplanting them in the Hill Country caliche and watching the slow growers progress over the last 10 years.  Mature Mountain Laurels are expensive at nurseries.  They serve as a harbinger of spring with their Kool-aid scented purple blooms, which alert us that ground temps have warmed, vegetables can be planted, and summer will be here too soon.

Genista Broom Moth,  photo via http://wildflowers.jdcc.edu

Genista Broom Moth, photo via http://wildflowers.jdcc.edu

First I tried picking them off by hand.   Then I fetched a sheet from the ranch house and shook the bushes, watching as they fell by the dozens to the ground.   Finally I got a hose and blew them away with a high pressure jet of well water.    Those handpicked and retrieved from the sheet went into a jar that was placed in the freezer for a relatively painless death.

Texas Mountain Laurel, always a harbinger of spring in the Hill County   Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Ctr.

Texas Mountain Laurel, always a harbinger of spring in the Hill County.  Blooms form on second year growth.                 Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Ctr.

I felt bad. But my Mountain Laurels were decimated.  Genista larvae favor new growth and eat the buds and terminals of the Mountain Laurel first.  And that’s where the purple flowers form in the spring.  Interestingly, I had never noticed the abundant caterpillars in 20 years in Central and South Texas.

“They’re always around,” said Elizabeth “Wizzy” Brown, an integrated pest management specialist for Texas Agrilife Extension Service in Austin, dismissing my theory that something special was going on.   I read somewhere that Genistas are poisonous to birds, and speculated that perhaps that’s why they were left seemingly untouched by avian species.   Brown dismissed that.

She recommended BT- bacillus thuringeisis, the organic biological pesticide and all- around caterpillar killer.   When I let her know I garden for butterflies and moths–just not THIS moth–she suggested getting out the vacuum cleaner to suck them off the tree.  Wish I had thought of that.

Genista moth caterpillars desinted for the freezer

Sorry, fellas! You’re history.            Photo by Monika Maeckle

Entomologist Mark Muegge, a Texas Agrilife butterfly expert out of Ft. Stockton, felt the pain of my “squish remorse.”

“I understand….I’m kinda the same way,” he said.  “Sometimes you have to use tough love.”

“They’re not a particularly attractive moth or caterpillar,” sniffed Mike Quinn, an Austin entomologist and founder of the useful Texasento.net website.   “There’s no aesthetic reason to not squish them. They’re a pest.”

Brown and Muegge both proposed that the Genista Broom moth’s purpose in the universe is to supply fodder for the food web.

Lizards eat them, the brilliant tachinid fly uses the Genista as a host, laying its eggs on the caterpillars, eating them from the inside out, and wasps also consume the Genista as food.  “They fit into the food web,” said Brown.

“Everything has its purpose,” said Muegge.  “What they’re good for is hard to say.”

According to Muegge, my reaction to the onslaught of caterpillars may have been extreme, an embarrassing admission for a butterfly evangelist.

“I have never seen a tree or shrub die from being defoliated,”  he said.  “They’ll stress, but they’ll come back.”

And, fortunately or not, so will those caterpillars.

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Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless

In European folklore, moths were regarded as witches.  Not a big stretch.  Witches are creatures of the night.  Moths are creatures of the night.  Witches can transform themselves….  Moths can transform themselves (metamorphosis)…. Witches fly.  Moths fly.  Witches have long noses.  Moths have long noses.

–John Himmelman, in the book, Discovering Moths

All hail the Black Witch Moth.  It might be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a lucky lottery ticket.

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

The  intriguing Black Witch Moth, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and with a a seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America.  They are common in these parts.

”People often come across it by causing it to fly up and around them,” said entomologist Mike Quinn, who has been tracking the migration of Ascalapha odorata for his Texasento.net website.  “There’s a real startle factor.”

Reports of large,  bat-like moths surprising people, frequently as they return home and are unlocking their front door, are not uncommon.   We spooked several Black Witch Moths on a recent visit to the Santa Ana Wildlife refuge in the Rio Grande Valley, where they roosted under wooden benches and in the eaves of the breezeway near the entrance to the visitor center.    When these big boys flush, they get your attention.

Black Witch Moth Caterpillar

Black Witch Moth Caterpillars like legumes and can reach three inches. Photo via www.texasento.net

Females have a white, sometimes iridescent stripe across their wings with wings open.  Males exhibit the plain, grey, brown mottled pattern commonly associated with moths, but with small dark eyespots on each forewing.   Black Witch Moth caterpillars eat legumes, and favor acacia and mesquite.   They are perfectly harmless, not an agricultural pest, and have no teeth or stingers.

The folklore surrounding Black Witch Moth, like the moth itself, is all over the map.  In Mexico they are known as “mariposa de la muerte,” the butterfly of death.   Some believe if a Black Witch Moth enters the home of someone who is ill, the person will die.

A variation on the folk wisdom suggests that the moth must travel to each corner of the house for death to occur.  The Mayans called the Black Witch x-mahani-nail, which means “the habit of entering buildings.” This moth apparently has a long history of inviting itself inside.

Interestingly, in the Carribean, the Black Witch Moth is known as the “Money Moth” and if it visits your home, you are likely to come into cash.   Here in South Texas, some believe if a Black Witch Moth roosts over your door, you will win the lottery.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black Witch starts migrating north in late spring.  “The migration has been going on since June,” said Quinn.  Because of our timely rains and climate change, several Black Witch Moth “records” have been set, meaning the moths have appeared further north earlier in the year than ever.

Black Witch Moth Records 2012

More than 500 Black Witch Moth Records Have been set in 2012. For details, click on the map. Map courtesy www.texasento.net

“This year may end up as the best year yet for Black Witch Moth (BWM) records,” wrote Quinn to the University of Houston Texas Butterfly Listserv, which includes more than 250 novice and professional lepidopterists.   Quinn has recorded more than 500 records so far, including a significant record in Maine, in mid June.

The Black Witches’ seven-inch wingspan allows them to cover a lot of ground quickly.  Entomologists note that  Monarch butterflies start crossing the Rio Grande and take two months to reach Canada.  Black Witches start migrating in June and have been recorded

Hannibal Lechter used actual Black Witch Moth cocoons

Serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted actual Black Witch Moth cocoons into the mouths of his victims in the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

reaching Maine by June 9 and Manitoba, Canada, by June 28.  That’s a rapid pace for a moth.  Scientists wonder why the Black Witch Moth migrates so far north with no southbound return?  Hmm.

 

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Mothsinto the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation.   The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

If you’d like to have one roost above your door to inspire a winning lottery ticket, you might try setting out a cocktail of fermented fruit or stale beer.   Black Witch Moths also like tree sap.  Good luck!

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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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Bats, Blooms, Butterflies and Moths–Everyone is Early this year

Our wet and mild winter has migratory creatures and seasonal blooms arriving in Central and South Texas early this year.  According to biologists and naturalists, we’re running seven – 10 days ahead of schedule.

Monarch butterflies, which typically start showing up in Texas en masse in late March, have been spotted regularly since early in the month.  Over at Bracken Bat Cave, maternal bats who overwinter in Mexico also arrived ahead of schedule.

Caterpillar on Bluebonnet

Caterpillars and bluebonnets--both early this year

“This year they were 10 days early,” says Fran Hutchins, Bracken Bat Cave coordinator and a Texas Master Naturalist.  Hutchins adds that the insect eating mammals began showing up in waves around February 21.  “There hasn’t been a lot of research on specific dates of their comings and goings,” says Hutchins, explaining that he inadvertently noticed the increase in bat population while completing an overwintering survey at the Cave. Congress Ave. Bridge bats returned early this year.

Congress Ave. Bridge bats were early this year

Bats returned early this year

The pattern holds for wildflowers and birds. “It’s definitely early,” says Andrea Delong-Amaya, director of Horticulture at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. “But in terms of what’s normal, it’s hard to say.  It just hasn’t been as cold.”  Reports of the Golden Cheeked Warbler, our local endangered songbird, arriving a bit early have made the rounds at the San Antonio Audubon Society, according to Martin Reid, an avid birder and environmental consultant.

“It’s a mixed bag: some of our resident birds are showing signs of breeding activity slightly earlier than usual–probably related to rain,”  he explains.  “But it doesn’t seem to have much effect on the wintering birds.”

Is it the warmth or the wet that drives the timing?   Depends on who you ask.

“On average I think the Weather Service is better than us insect experts at predicting the future,” says Dr. Mike Merchant, writing on Texas Agrilife Extension’s delightful Insects in the City blog. “But I still don’t put too much stock in long-term weather forecasts.”   Dr. Merchant chronicles the early arrival of Armyworms to North Texas in a recent post.   The gregarious grass eaters get their name from reproducing in droves and marching across prairies in soldier-like formations.

Armyworm Moth in Lawn

Armyworm Moths have arrived early to North Texas -- photo Texas Agrilife Extension

Matt Reidy points to the weather.  “Pepper weeds, bluebonnets, prickly poppies–those are all early.  Not because of temperatures, but because of rain,”  says Reidy,  Texas Parks and Wildlife Biologist.  “When you get the moisture, that’s what determines what you’re gonna get when.”

Many peg climate change for the advance of the season.   Interestingly, February 2012’s average high temperature was about the same as–actually .07 degree less than–the historic average of 66 degrees in San Antonio.   Yet, the average LOW temperature for the month was 4.5 degrees higher than average.

Minimum temperatures are especially impactful to seed germination and plant growth.  Seeds and plants require a certain soil temperature in which to germinate and thrive.  Savvy gardeners know to put a heating pad under setting seeds to expedite sprouting. Higher average minimum temperatures translate into faster growth, and an earlier season.

At the Children’s Garden at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, volunteers planted tomatoes the first week in March–“weeks early,” according to David Rodriguez, Horticulture specialist for the Texas Agrilife Extension.  Those tomatoes will likely be ready the first week in May.   “Everything’s off,” says Rodriguez, referring to Nature’s unpredictable timing.

Earlier this year, the USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones, moving parts of San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi. Some San Antonio zip codes moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.

The redrawn maps (plug in your zip code and find out your zone here)  seem to be telling us something that birds, butterflies and bats have known for awhile: it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

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Butterfly Garden: Jimsonweed Takes the Heat, Sports Elegant Flowers and Hosts the Endearing Sphinx Moth

With its elegant white trumpet flowers, spiny seed capsules, and fragrant evening blooms, Jimsonweed ranks as one of my favorite butterfly garden plants.

The native datura inoxia partners well with another favorite, Cowpen Daisy.  Plant them together and you’ll have sprays of yellow and white blooms throughout the scorching summer, well into October.  Both plants gracefully defy our brutal heat, need little water or care, resist disease and pests and attract butterflies and moths.

Jimsonweed climbs to three feet and spreads an equal distance.  It creates a handy shady mass that protects less sturdy plants.  Up until this past week, Jimsonweed’s shade shielded verbena from frying and saved my tropical milkweed, too.  The plant is versatile, attractive and easy-to-grow.

Jimsonweed bloom.  Do you see the caterpillar?

Jimsonweed bloom. Do you see the caterpillar?

What else does this member of the potato family have to offer? Its spiny seed pods provide an unusual garnish–or should I say gardenish?  The thorny balls would make delightful earrings, or at least play a starring role in an exotic ikebana flower display.  As summer wears on, the walnut-sized pods turn from green to brown, spreading seed wantonly in the garden, making this durable perennial almost impossible to defeat once established.  The lush, large leaves of Jimsonweed also exude a chocolatey smell when watered or handled.

Spiny seedpod of Jimsonweed

Spiny Jimsonweed seedpod dusted with caterpillar frass

Another bonus: the captivating Sphinx moth, whose large size and brazen daytime flying cause it to be confused with small hummingbirds, hosts on Jimsonweed.  Sphinx moth caterpillars have a reputation with tomato gardeners as the despised tomato or tobacco hornworm, which is beautiful upon close inspection.  Look for it in the photo of the Jimsonweed bloom, above.

Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, milkweed and lantana
August butterfly garden: Cowpen Daisy, Jimsonweed, tropical milkweed, Texas lantana

Underappreciated Jimsonweed does have a down side.  As a member of the nightshade family, it contains tropane alkaloids, the same toxins as belladonna, used in ancient times on poison-tipped arrows.  All parts of  Jimsonweed are poisonous.  Native Americans used the leaves as a painkiller and as an hallucinogen.   

Recent reports have reckless teens using Jimsonweed as a cheap high, but they should beware.  Hospital stays, even death, can result.

Jimsonweed’s namesake may represent one of the first instances of ethnobotanical warfare in American colonial history. Amy Stewart explains in her delightful book, Wicked Plants, that in Jamestown, Virginia, in the late 1600s, “British soldiers arrived to quell one of the first uprisings at the fledgling colony and the settlers remembered the toxic plant and slipped datura leaves into the soldiers’ food.”

They survived, but hallucinated severely for eleven days, giving Virginia colonists a temporary upper hand.   The assisting plant became known as Jamestown weed, and later, Jimsonweed.