Monday, May 2, 2011

brown leatherwing beetle
Pacificanthia consors

I found this handsome beetle on the balcony in between taking pictures of caterpillars and moths that I've been raising. From other photos I have, this soldier beetle was about 18 mm long, but I've already posted enough pics of rulers for May 2, 2011. The elytra were pubescent (fuzzy), which is difficult to tell from pictures alone. The second photo is showing it taking flight; it was alive and well when I released it after its photo session. Due to a previous post from this day, I'd like to note that I usually don't purposely kill insects. Evans and Hogue point out in their Field Guide to Beetles of California the black knees and tarsi, which I consider to be significant physical characteristics when distinguishing this brown leatherwing beetle found only in CA from other soldier beetles.

unidentified caterpillar ~ 05/02/11 ~ at home

unidentified woollybear caterpillar
possible Hypercombe, Grammia, or Spilosoma sp.

You're going to get sick of seeing caterpillars and moths; but I've been homebound, and that's what I have available for Nature ID. Click here to see my initial pictures on 04/01/11 of this unidentified woollybear that I'm raising. Now, you can actually see little brown nubs (for lack of a better term) where the hairs originate on each abdominal segment. Instead of being soft and fuzzy like it was when I found it in the Carmel Highlands last month, those hairs are rather pokey and irritating now.

It's grown quite a bit in the past month, yet I haven't noticed it molt. I'm hoping it's in the final instar, because, quite frankly, I'm tired of feeding it daily. After an initial non-eating period for about a week, I discovered it chows down at night and rests either on a stick or tucked under whatever is available during the day, which is opposite of the diurnal Lophocampa sp. that I'm also raising. This all black caterpillar likes to eat young dandelion shoots, radish tops, spinach, iceberg lettuce, and green leaf lettuce (pretty much whatever is leafy in my fridge or growing in my compost = easy, daily access for me). It does not like oak leaves, pine needles, carrot stems, cilantro stems, nor older dandelion leaves. I don't know what it would prefer to eat if it were out in the wild.

See those two olive green pellets in the first photo? That's poop, aka frass, and is a good indication the caterpillar is doing well by being the feeding machine it is. Many years ago, I had a grad student contact me while I was raising gypsy moths (yes, I had a permit for research purposes) and asked if I could send her gypsy moth frass, both dried and fresh. Yep, my claim to fame is mailing caterpillar poop - this was a couple years before Amerithrax and before postal workers started wearing rubber gloves to handle the mail. She was studying whether one could identify certain Lepidoptera based on examining the microscopic shape of the frass. I never heard back about her findings.

orange tortrix ~ 05/02/11 ~ at home

orange tortrix moth
Argyrotaenia franciscana (aka Tortrix citrana)

Late last fall, maybe October or November, I noticed my geranium had a few rolled leaf edges. I pulled one open and found silk acting like glue to keep part of the leaf curled around a tiny brown pupa. Out of curiosity to know which moth it was, I collected 3 of these leaves, stuck them in a jar with a pantyhose top, and then promptly forgot about them during the holidays.

By mid-February, we had a particularly windy storm that knocked my potted geranium plant over, which broke off a stem. I put the stem in water to root and placed it near the window behind my computer. The next morning, I found little black specks sprinkled over my desk and keyboard. I cleaned it up figuring I must have caught some of Andy's coffee grounds in my sleeve as I dumped the breakfast compost collection. Later, as I was working on the computer, a black speck landed on the desk and then another. I looked up to see if something was on the ceiling and then stood up to look behind the computer. I discovered a couple black specks stuck near a tiny hole in the geranium stem. Apparently, I had a poop-shooting, geranium-eating caterpillar. I swear the poop shot at least 18" from the windowsill to my desk and keyboard. I wonder if the caterpillar had weakened the stem enough that that was the reason why it was the only stem to break.

In any case, I promptly placed the geranium container with caterpillar outside, despite the wind. Over the next week or so, I watched the little, green caterpillar peek out every now and again from its hole, still shooting poop. That part of the stem died and fell off, exposing the brown pupa within the hollowed out stem. I placed the stem piece into the jar with the other rolled leaves, whereupon I discovered the 3 other pupae had already eclosed and died. Oops. Well, I should confess, I'm not too fussed about the death of these moths. I let this last pupa emerge and die as well. Since then, every time I find a spider wandering around, I move it to my geranium with hopes it'll find a meal or two or more. Now, if only I can figure out a non-chemical way to get rid of the mealy bugs and the ants that tend them. Geraniums must be tasty.

Shown in the 2nd pic above are the orange tortrix moth carcasses and pupal casings. They're commonly named because they like to eat orange trees, not because the adults are an orangish color. There's significant wing pattern variation within A. franciscana; however, given the different methods of pupation (leaf rolling and within a stem) that I observed, I wonder if the individual shown on the left may be A. isolatissima, the one that shot poop.

Indeed numerous Tortricidae moths (many of them leafrollers), both caterpillars and adults look similar, including the now infamous to our area of California Epiphyas postvittana (light brown apple moth, aka LBAM). Back in 2007-2008 (and probably still), there was quite the hubbub with quarantines, court injunctions, protests, and numerous claims of ill health due to "emergency" aerial spraying to "eradicate" LBAM using pheromones and undisclosed other chemical carriers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, as well as other counties. All this came about as a result of Jerry Powell, co-author of Moths of Western North America, chancing upon this never-before-found-here-in-the-U.S. moth in one of his usual Berkeley backyard trappings in the summer of 2006. Some university experts suggested LBAM may have been in our area for years and simply never properly identified before. Yet, it suddenly became an emergency to spray over urban areas adjacent to a national marine sanctuary with a newly untested and extremely expensive product without an EIR approval as required by law. For more information on this controversy, click to read Wikipedia,, and Monterey County Weekly. (It's unfortunate that older news articles are not easily accessible on the web, because I can't find the best informed sites I had bookmarked back in 2008.) I do remember 2 rounds of spraying in the fall of 2008. The planes flew back and forth over Pacific Grove and Monterey for hours in the evenings. We could smell it and our noses were a bit runny through to the next day.

Speaking of pheromones and getting back to the main topic of this post... the first picture above is the underside of one of my dead orange tortrix moths (looks just like one of those drab dead moths found in your windowsills, eh?). After close examination of the picture, I found the fluffy butt that looked like something got shot out of it to be intriguing. My first thought was hair-pencils (long, hair-like projections, aka setae, on male Lepidoptera that function in releasing pheromones), but these look like scales, just like the scales on the wings of Lepidoptera. So, I've decided the exploded butt fluff must be a scent scale patch. People who are familiar with monarch butterflies know males have scent scale patches that look like black dots on the hind wings. I hadn't considered before now that scent scales could occur in other places than wings. Learn something new every day. If anyone has more information, I'd love to hear from you.

ps - I owe much gratitude to Chris Grinter of The Skeptical Moth, an entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences, for identifying several moths for me from e-mailed photos. While I've been sick and on meds, I could easily take pictures with my point-and-shoot, but it's been a challenge staying awake at the computer long enough to look up IDs, let alone write a comprehensible blog post. So, thank you very much, Chris!

silver-spotted tiger moth ~ 05/02/11 ~ at home

silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillar (or nameless arctiid moth) feeding on Monterey pine
Lophocampa argentata (or L. sobrina) feeding on Pinus radiata

I laughed at how this caterpillar chomps the pine needle like it's eating a giant, long green bean. To see how beautiful this caterpillar is see my 03/15/11 post. As a recap, the pictures of the silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillars (Lophocampa argentata) on BugGuide were browner than what I found in the Carmel Highlands. Hmm? I consulted Chris Grinter of The Skeptical Moth who suggested, based on my location, this caterpillar is L. sobrina; he has since made a comment on BugGuide. Unfortunately, I have not found any other L. sobrina caterpillar images correctly identified on the internet to compare with mine. Actually, there is some question among the experts whether L. sobrina (sorry, there's no common name) is indeed a distinct species from the silver-spotted tiger moth. I also queried Jerry Powell and Paul Opler, co-authors of Moths of Western North America, a hefty book which was released last year. All three moth experts had differing opinions, but Paul had the best advice: raise the caterpillar to an adult to obtain a positive ID. Adult Lepidoptera are better documented and easier to identify. So, that's what I'm doing.

I collected my first caterpillar in the Carmel Highlands on 03/31/11. I found a second caterpillar on 04/20/11 at home and within feet of our local subspecies of the Douglas-fir, L. argentata's favored food. Then on Easter 04/24/11 in the Highlands, I gathered a much larger caterpillar on top of California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata). Finally, I found a fourth caterpillar climbing up the wall nearest the coast Douglas-fir at home. I'm guessing I collected it 04/30/11 while sitting outside to get fresh air, because I returned home from the hospital the previous night. As soon as I found it, I asked Andy to go cut more caterpillar food for me. Gotta love the man! After days of sitting by my hospital bed watching the Food Network (we don't get it at home) in between doctors and nurses visits, while tubes and wires connected to fancy machines beeped and hummed, he then obliged me by tromping through the park to get clippings from various trees. Well, you can guess where my priorities are... must feed my caterpillars first!
silver-spotted tiger moth caterpillar (or nameless arctiid moth) on coast Douglas-fir
Lophocampa argentata (or L. sobrina) on Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii

I want to show off the cute lemon yellow prolegs of this caterpillar. I have to say, that while these caterpillars did eat some coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia var. agrifolia), they seem to prefer the Monterey pine and coast Douglas-fir. I even tried to feed them various other plants, but they were totally not interested. They also like to feed during the day and get very still at night. Do caterpillars sleep like us humans?

Lophocampa argentata (or L. sobrina) cocoon

This was the largest caterpillar collected from the Highlands on Easter and it started making a cocoon the day before this picture on 05/01/11. Notice the loose hairs mixed in with its silk to make the cocoon? Unfortunately, I disturbed it to move the remaining caterpillars into their roomier home with fresher food.

Lophocampa argentata (or L. sobrina) cocoon lit from behind

I had to see how far along this caterpillar was to pupating, so I held the cocoon up to the light. It wasn't very far along. I've since looked at it again against the light and it looks like it's shed its larval exoskeleton and has the distinctive pupal shape that looks like a turd. I'll try to get a picture of that later.

Lophocampa argentata (or L. sobrina) cast exoskeleton
This may look like a dead caterpillar, but it's not. This is what is left behind when a caterpillar molts in order to grow into a larger caterpillar. I try not to repeat better information that can be found on the web, so if you really want to know, go look it up yourself.

Apologies for this atypically lengthy Nature ID entry. All these pictures were taken on the same day as this post's date of 05/02/11. I've missed doing my blog while I've been sick. I'm now 13 days behind with my posts and I want to catch up. Watch out for multiple posts in any given day...

ps 05/27/11 - Another caterpillar molted this morning and it's very white compared to my other remaining caterpillar of this sp. I was nervous, because it didn't move much for a couple days - I had one die last weekend. I took a close look at the dead one and it looks like some parasite had attacked it. There were numerous tiny cream-colored spots on the underside of its body. I never did get around to pulling out my dissecting scope to take a magnified look.

pss 10/16/11 - Greg Monson, Founder and Head of Production at Lost Nomad Media, requested permission to use the first photo above. With his permission, here's what he said, "I found your post on caterpillars while I surfing the internet. I'm currently editing a research documentary for a professor at the University of Arizona, and your first picture of the caterpillar eating the needle is perfect for a segment in the film where I mention how pine needles are a form of sustenance for insects." He goes on to say, "I'm wondering if I could have your permission to use the photo in my video. The film is a 12-minute short documentary on a research experiment being conducted in Colorado, where they are looking into the role that terpene molecules from pine forests play in generating clouds. It will be published on youtube, and the University of Arizona website, and I will be happy to give you credit for your photo. This is the first of a series of videos my company is producing to promote outreach from the scientific community to the public." I'll add a link to the video when it becomes available.

pss 01/11/12 - Here's the link to the video: