Sunday, July 29, 2012

Moth Week Wrap-up: Ending with a bang and a whimper

A couple of meal moths enjoying our recliner
Tonight the sun will set on International Moth Week. We've had far more fun than expected and the Home Bug Gardeners, moved from moth-neutral to moth-enthusiasts, now understand the AltaLepers a bit better. Anyone willing to take the time to stop, look, and learn a bit is likely to develop an interest in creepy crawlies, but moths seem an especially easy group with which to become enthralled.
Pyralis farinalis (Linnaeus, 1758) - Meal Moths
That doesn't mean we are going to let some moth move in and and start eating us out of house and home! Quite a few moths are pests, both in the home and in the garden, so appropriate control measures will sometimes be needed. Once we had identified these rather attractive moths frolicking on our furniture as Pyralis farinalis, we knew to start looking for flour or grains with silken webbing, frass, and grubs. Squish went the moths and out into the frigid April trash went the flour. When buying bulk grains, flour, or nuts, it is not a bad idea to freeze the lot for a week. That seems to take care of the Meal Moth and its even more destructive cousin the Indian Meal Moth Plodia interpunctella (Hübner, 1813) as well. We pick and squish garden pests on a case-by-case basis. We don't really mind loosing a few leaves to a few caterpillars, but just a few. If they are too numerous or too deadly, then we loose the plants to bugs or spade. The spots left by the pest-susceptible plants can always be filled with something new and resistant. We do what we can to encourage natural enemies, but a small urban garden really isn't the best place to attempt chemical control (especially since the chemicals available to a home owner here are mostly ineffective on pests but a threat to the helpful and innocuous insects).
Dysstroma hersiliata (Guenée, 1858) – the Orange-banded Carpet Moth   
The moth pests that gave rise to moth balls, clothes and carpet moths (Tineidae) don't seem to be a problem in the Home Bug Garden, but we do have some rather attractive moths that remind people of carpets. The Orange-banded one above feeds on currant leaves. We do have currants, but sawflies and mildew make a mess of them long before we get any harvest. So this uncommon and attractive moth is welcome to the leftovers.
Zig-Zag Moth  Rheumaptera undulata (Linnaeus, 1758)
The Zig-Zag looks like a carpet on psychedelics - and just looking at it gives my friend Matthias a headache. Its caterpillars feed on a number of deciduous trees and shrubs, including willows and poplars, but seemingly their natural enemies keep them in check. The adults fly during the day, but aren't at all common here. 
Pale Metanema  Metanema inatomaria Guenée, 1857
The same can be said for the night-flying Pale Metanema. Its larvae feed on poplars and willows, but the adults are rare enough to be a pleasant surprise.
Prochoerodes lineola (Goeze, 1781) – Large Maple Spanworm    
I could go on and on and on, as recent converts are won't to do, but Moth Week is coming to a close. This "Large Maple Spanworm" showed up at our blacklight last night, one of the few forest moths to do so. Perhaps it is more of a pest in the East where maples grow, but in Alberta its larvae get by on a variety of other trees. Perhaps it outbreaks now and again, but in general its parasites and predators seem to keep it in check. We'd be happy to have it in the Home Bug Garden. Like most of the insects here, moths are more interesting than not, and rarely a problem. So, let's end with one last carpet moth, Xanthorhoe decoloraria (Esper, 1806), on its last day, helping to make more Goldenrod Crab Spiders.
A carpet moth becoming a host of baby crab spiders

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Moth Week 6: Blacklighting for Moths - Updated

UV light source + a light background = Blacklight Trap
As Moth Week flutters towards a close, the Home Bug Gardeners decided to do something we haven't done for years: blacklight for bugs. Insects that fly by night are often attracted to lights and ultraviolet light is a strong attractant, especially for moths.
Fatal attraction: Moth danced into a stupor at the Blacklight Ball 
Feltia jaculifera (Guenée, 1852), the Dingy Cutworm
All you need is a an ultraviolet light source; some power to run it; a light-coloured background (a sheet or a wall will do); and the ability to stay awake after sundown. We used the corner of the porch on our cabin in a pasture outside town (Gopher Hill) and a portable power source to keep our light glowing for about three hours.
Midge and Moth resting Feltia herilis (Grote, 1873) aka Master's Dart, Herald Dart
We didn't actually last the three hours - gardening is hard work, and sleep comes easy in the country - but we were able to see a diversity of interesting insects, including numerous mysterious moths. The one above is probably the adult of a cutworm, but we were without moth expertise last night and pretty  much in the dark as to who was whom. So, we just oohed and aahed and clicked and wondered what they might be.
Pretty brown moth Caenurgina cf erechtea (Cramer, 1780) - probably the Forage Looper (possibly the very similar Clover Looper)
It is probably more fun if you go blacklighting with someone who knows their moths, but it being Moth Week, the experts are all busily engaged in holding their own events. We had weeding and watering to do at our country garden. There's no electricity there, but we had a portable light and power source. That and some wine was all that was needed for an entertaining Friday night fully in spirit with Moth Week.
Interesting Beige Moth Mythimna oxygala (Grote, 1881) the Lesser Wainscot
We expect to be able to identify many or even most of the moths we took pictures of last night through the wonders of BugGuide, Powell & Opler's Moths of Western North America, and our friends in the Alberta Lepidopterists Guild
Pale Beauty Campaea perlata Guenée, 1858
We did see a few we knew from out backyard, like the Pale Beauty, but most were mysterious. Probably several are agricultural pests, but for the evening, we were quite happy to admire the better side of their natures. A few of the moths were still resting on our porch the next morning. So, in a a sense, the fun continued into the dawn hours.
Probably a Prominent resting between lacewing eggs, but actually a Tufted Thyatirin Pseudothyatira cymatophoroides (Guenée, 1852)
Serious mothers collect specimens and pin them up, but we're more on the moth-appreciation side. Even scientists need hobbies and taking pictures of moths seems a pretty fun one at the moment.

UPDATE: Thanks to Gary, Libby, and all the others at the Alberta Lepidopterists Guild for their providing identifications for the previously unknown moths in bold above.
Gopher Hill - the eponymous high point in our plot of pasture

Friday, July 27, 2012

Moth Week 5: Snout Moths

Chytolita cf petrialis (Grote, 1880) the Lesser Luteous Snout
'Snout moth' refers to members of several moth families that have large labial palps that jut forward like a snout. Don't ask me why, but since the 'snout' evolved in several different lineages, I suppose there must be a good reason. Anyway, it makes this otherwise innocuous Stone-winged Owlet interesting and also gives it a second common name: the Lesser Luteous Snout. That makes me wonder what the Greater Luteous Snout might look like, but the all-knowing Google claims there is no such thing. How strange, but perhaps 'luteous' should be 'ludicrous'?
Palthis angulalis (Hübner, 1796) the Angulated Snout
There is a Morbid Snout Chytolita morbidalis (Guenée, 1854) that looks very similar and hence the 'cf'. This is an abbreviation for the Latin word confer that commands one to 'compare' and is a way of weaselling when unsure of an identification. Still, I'm pretty sure the upper Snout is Chytolita petrialis, since I've found no records for Morbid Snouts in central Alberta and the picture was snapped in a marshy area - which this species is supposed to prefer. The larvae feed on dead leaves. In contrast, the larvae of Palthis angulalis (Hübner, 1796) the Angulated Snout, apparently feed on conifer needles. I rather like the paper airplane look of the wings folded at rest. Both of these snout moths belong to the subfamily Herminiinae, sometimes somewhat imprecisely called Litter Moths.
Rivula propinqualis Guenée, 1854 the Yellow Snout
In contrast, the rather modest snout moth sporting on the orange Achillea, Rivula propinqualis Guenée, 1854, the Spotted Grass Moth or Yellow Snout-moth belongs to the subfamily Rivulinae that does not seem to have attracted a common name. Given the modest snout and the caterpillars apparent preference for grasses, I think I'll call this one the Spotted Grass Moth.
Modest Snout of the Spotted Grass Moth
In addition to the Erebidae, members of the Crambidae such as the Orange Mint Moth we looked at earlier in the week and of the Pyralidae also are called snout moths. That's a lot of snouts, but perhaps its best to leave it here. The sun is shining and the radar not yet filled with storms, so its time to go look for some bugs in the Garden.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Moth Week 4: Glassy Cutworm

Apamea devastator the aptly named native moth whose larvae make a mess of many a crop and pasture
The Glassy Cutworm is not an exciting moth, but it is one with unique historical importance to entomological research in Alberta. The larva of this moth is not our friend, it's a sometimes nasty pest. Apamea devastator (Brace), 1819, as it is known amongst our non-judgemental entomological friends, is just one of those bugs that you have to live with if you want pasture or cereal crops or a garden on land that was once pasture. It seems to be a 'native' of North America and one that has been deliriously happy to welcome the advent of European forms of agriculture.
Forest Tent Caterpillar Logo of the Joint Entomological Societies of Canada and Alberta Annual General Meeting in Edmonton in November 2012
But almost a century ago E. H. Strickland was lured out to Alberta to do what he could to combat it. As a result, Alberta developed an Entomology Department at the University of Alberta (lost to budget cuts almost two decades ago), the Strickland Museum, and much knowledge about insects that have made the lives of every Albertan better. Of course, most of us are entirely ignorant about the benefits we enjoy from such research and tend to dwell on the unsolved problems like mosquitoes and tent caterpillars, other 'native' pests that just won't go away. 
An Albertan tent caterpillar - here to stay

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Moth Week 3: Inch worms

Nematocampa resistaria the Bordered Thorn
The caterpillars of moths in the family Geometridae (earth measurers) are often called inch worms or span worms or measuring worms or loopers from their peculiar way of walking.
Erannis tilaria the Linden Looper measuring a leaf
Legs at either end of the body alternately grip and relax as the body is drawn towards the attached end.
Linden Looper looped up
But the larva of the Bordered Thorn Nematocampa resistaria (Herrich-Schäffer, 1856) is called the Filament Bearer because of the strange, thorn-like processes that can be everted from its back, trump its looping habits.
Pale Beauty form of the Fringed Looper
Although their larvae are sometimes pests, e.g. the Linden Looper can cause significant defoliation, geometrids are always interesting and sometimes quite beautiful, as in the ghostly green Pale Beauty Campaea perlata Guenée, 1858

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Moth Week 2: Orange Mint Moth

Orange Mint Moth:  Pyrausta orphisalis Walker, 1859  
If you saw this colourful little moth fluttering around your spearmint, I suppose you needn't be please. It's larvae do feed on members of the mint family. But, I can't say that I've ever noticed any damage, although the moth is a regular inhabitant of the Home Bug Garden. If they start chewing on the Gardenview Scarlet Monarda I just planted, well, maybe I'll exert some natural selection, but otherwise it just another organism trying to survive in the Big City.

Pyrausta orphisalis Walker, 1859
Orange Mint Moth, Oranged-Spotted Pyrausta
Crambidae – Snout Moths
Wingspan 15-17 mm
Caterpillars feed on members of the mint family including Monarda

Monday, July 23, 2012

International Moth Week: Blinded Sphinx

A ghostly glare from a Blinded Sphinx
Our neighbours to the south are having a National Moth Week, although strangely beginning it today (Monday) and ending next Sunday. Well, as long as they don't make too much noise, I'm all for it and many other Altalepers feel the same. So, I will kick off the Home Bug Garden part of the celebration with a spooky denizen of the night: The Blinded Sphinx Moth Paonias excaecatus (J.E. Smith, 1797).
Blinded Sphinx with eyes blinded
The origin of the common name is obscure, but the 'eyes' that flash on and off, presumably to startle potential predators, may be the source (the species name is from the Latin 'to blind'). Sphinx, though, is applied to most of the family (Sphingidae) and according to the OED refers to the 'attitude' of the larva. Also known as hornworms, the caterpillars do look a bit like the hybrid monsters of myth and masonry.
Cute, colourful, cuddly, and smells good too
Why are moths so popular that they have a National Week? Their seemingly endless variety, often large size, and dazzling patterns and colours would seem to be explanation enough. Add to that their furry coating of soft scales and their relationship to their hard and bristly brethren is easily forgotten. They are practically birds! Also, serious moth-afficionados have a lot of fun collecting - a night-time activity that includes sugaring trees, black lights, tall stories, and abundant liquid refreshments.
Go see some moths during moth week
For those Edmontonians who'd rather not brave the dark and stormy nights (not the best for collecting) or the tornado warnings, you are in luck. The Royal Alberta Museum has a display of stunning images: Moths at Large. If the weather is simply too intimidating, then as long as the electricity lasts, why not drop in to Moths of Calgary and be amazed at the diversity of forms and colours that could be found in your own backyard. Go on, forget the gloomy weather and enjoy some of the brighter parts of Nature.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

From a mouthful for a damselfly to a mouthful of same

Midge mouthful for a neon damsel at rest
John Acorn calls them "flying neon toothpicks in the grass" and small flying insects probably call them names unsuitable for a family blog, but Jonathan Neal at the Living with Insects Blog points out that damselflies often "fall victim to larger predators".
Hairy Woodpecker with a mouthful of young damsels
A bit of observation on a sunny day near any lake or pond demonstrates that this is certainly true. So why call attention to themselves with bold displays of contrasting colours?
Come get me or Can't see me?
Neal makes some interesting points on this that I had never thought about: damselflies are not all that obvious to visual predators. They perch where their long narrow bodies blend in, e.g. on grasses and twigs. The gossamer wings allow light to penetrate and the background to show through. And the dotted patterns tend to break-up the outline of the damselfly.
A twig or a meal?  
Something to think about on yet another rainy Edmonton weekend.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Colour of Nightmares: Goldenrod Triptych

An unhinged triptych of trophic interactions
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) in bloom, a cornucopia for the Home Bug Garden arthropods, always makes me feel a little sad but less sodden: the floods and hail of summer will soon be sliding into the green tomatoes and frosts of September. Still, it is cheering to see a dozen or more different species feeding on and at the goldenrod on a sunny summer afternoon. Pollen and nectar are the major attractions, but the Goldenrod Crab Spider Misumena vatia (Clerck, 1757) is there to feast on visitors like the unfortunate Striped Hairstreak Satyrium liparops (Le Conte, 1833) above.
Striped Hairstreak in happier times looking a bit brown
I suppose, technically, the Striped Hairstreak is a pest - its larvae will feed on cherry leaves, buds, and young fruit. But it is never very common and a few cherries are a small price to pay for such a pretty little butterfly.
Same hairstreak looking more lilac
This hairstreak seems to vary in colour from moment to moment from rather brownish underneath to a more purplish hue, depending on how the light is reflected from the scales on its wings. But its nemesis is the real colour artist, changing its pigment chemistry when it chooses a yellow flower as a lair.
Goldenrod Crab Spider in its natural hue
The yellow colour change of the Goldenrod Crab Spider takes several days to accomplish, so it probably started on a nearby Heliopsis helianthoides that began blooming a week ago.
Male Goldenrod Crab Spider
Males of the crab spider are smaller, darker, and don't seem to indulge in colour change. Possibly this is because a peripatetic lifestyle, wandering from flower to flower in search of females, precludes spending much time on any one flower.
Phalangium opilio Linnaeus, 1758
The third member of our unhinged triptych is a well-travelled harvestman. Although some people seem to find these daddy-long-legs creepy, they are harmless to butterflies and to people. They feed on small insects, pollen, and dead things. I suppose the one at the top may be dreaming of cold butterfly corpse for dinner, a fitting end to our food web.


Defrize J, Théry M, Casas J. 2010. Background colour matching by a crab spider in the field: a community sensory ecology perspective. Journal of Experimental Biology 213: 1425-1435.
Defrize J, Lazzari CR, Warrant E, Casas J. 2011. Spectral sensitivity of a colourchanging spider. Journal of Insect Physiology 57: 508-513.
Insausti TC, Defrize J, Lazzari CR Casas J. 2012. Visual fields and eye morphology support color vision in a color-changing crab-spider. Arthropod Structure & Development 41: 155-163.
Riou M, Christidès J-P. 2010. Cryptic Color Change in a Crab Spider (Misumena vatia): Identification and Quantification of Precursors and Ommochrome Pigments by HPLC. Journal of Chemical Ecology 36:412–423.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Of Sloughs and Sogginess

Weather 1, Home Bug Garden 0
If you've read this blog for any length of time, you may have noticed that I tend to complain about the weather. Well, the weather, House Sparrows, and noisy neighbours, in about that order. Last night we had really noisy weather and neighbours: first the thunder, lightning, and deluge (3rd of the last week) and then car alarms blaring from 3 am until I dragged myself up to go to work at 5. When I realized I would need hip waders to get to the train, and that the cars bobbing around in the street were the source of the unending alarms, I stopped feeling angry at the neighbours and went and looked at my basement.
What does a 6-legged basement spider do in a flood?
What I saw was water and a sad spider, missing half its legs on one side, clinging to the basement wall above the wet. Not being able to claim I was missing a quarter of my limbs, it was time to start bailing and mopping. After Mrs HBG explained to the TV crew that we live in what used to be a slough, she put on her gum boots and slogged off in search of a train. I bailed and mopped and moped and then curled up on the dry spot on the bed (did I mention that the cat peed on the bed last night?) and dreamt I was in Queensland (where much worse floods occurred last year).
A pair of Perplexing Half-Black Bumble Bees ignoring the rain
And when I awoke, if not refreshed, at least dry, rather than continue to mope, I learned two new bugs from before the deluge. The first, Bombus perplexus, is a tentatively welcome addition to the Home Bug Garden. They do have a bit of a reputation for being aggressive, but so far they haven't bothered me. Unfortunately, they are very similar to the Half-black Bumble Bee Bombus vagans, so a bit of an id challenge.
Red Turnip Beetle Entomoscelis americana
The second is very colourful, but a pest, but not the pest I feared: the Lily Beetle. The HBG sports a number of lilies including a native, but mostly aliens raised from seed, donated by friends, or on found sale at a nursery. I never thought I'd become a lily lover, but they do have their charm.
Lily raised from seed awaits the deluge
Instead of a Lily Beetle, the HBG sported a Red Turnip Beetle. These eat crucifers such as cabbage and canola, and given how yellow with canola the countryside is at the moment, it is surprising that we haven't encountered them before. I suppose I will need to keep watch over my kohlrabi, but I know the worms of the Cabbage White will get them first, so why worry.
Bad, bad broccoli worm

Sunday, July 15, 2012

They're back: Black & White with Red on top

We're back! Gnophaela vermiculata poses for the camera
It's still a week until the US National Moth Week (which we Albertans will celebrate, even if we aren't invited), but the Police Car Moths started flying last week, perhaps to avoid the subsequent deluges.
Green Lattice?
With the Edmonton Police now sporting black & white patrol cars, the common name makes more local sense than in previous years. As common names go, this one is a good model. Consider the previous 'common' name, Green Lattice.
Another side of the Police Car Moth
OK, whatever, there's no rule that common names (or scientific names for that matter) have to make any sense. I suppose the long hairs on the caterpillar may intersect like a lattice? Well, not really and 'green' eludes me. Blue, yellow, black, and red, sure, but green?
Gnophaela (originally Omoiala) vermiculata (Grote, 1864) larva 
The genus name is probably from the Greek for 'darkness' (gnoph), the moth is mostly dark, and the species name seems to mean wormy. In English we have 'vermiculate' for 'worm-like' or decorated with wormy lines. The gardener's friend 'vermiculite' also comes in worm-like accordions. Perhaps the name was coined on a dark and wormy night?Nah, the original name was Omoiala vermiculata: wormy shoulder (Greek omo = shoulder) anyone?
Orange-shouldered Panda Moth?
I'm tempted to make up my own name for this attractive day-flying moth. But that's really just bludging (the basement needs mopping up, but the rain is still pouring, ergo blog). Police Car Moth is fine with me.