Black-and-white wonders

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Barrens buckmoth (Hemileuca maia) in pine-oak barrens habitat (Plymouth, MA)

Sometimes life comes at you in unexpected ways; such was the case this fall, on a trip to Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, MA. I had just finished examining a nice female Chinese mantis (Tenodera parasinensis) sitting on a telephone pole near the visitor’s center, when I looked up to see a black and white blur approaching me. It looked to be a little smaller than my hand and flying rapidly and erratically. Having just read about this animal online a few days before, I immediately knew what I was looking at, despite not actually being able to see it. “Barrens buckmoth!”, I yelled, to no one in particular. The fluttering form zipped overhead and whizzed off down the trail. No way was I going to pursue; when a bug like that is on a mission, one dares not intervene.

Buck moths (genus Hemileuca) are medium-to-large saturniid moths widespread in the U.S. Many are fall-emerging insects, with the caterpillars growing up during the spring and summer, pupating, and emerging as adults in autumn. Caterpillars are capable of inflicting a powerful sting. There are 23 species, all variously patterned in black and white, or sometimes with splashes of other colors. Only 2 of those species make it into the northeastern U.S. One, Hemileuca lucina, is actually a New England specialty, having only been found in parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. It is usually found in wet, boggy meadows, where its principal host, Spirea alba (white meadowsweet) occurs. As caterpillars mature, they tend to disperse and feed on numerous other plants before pupating. The other species, Hemileuca maia, is distributed more widely across the eastern states, but is rare in the northern part of its range. In New England it is restricted to pine-oak barrens, where its sole host is scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia). Farther south it gains an additional host, live oak (Quercus virginiana), which is a common southern tree. Here the Buckmoth is sometimes considered a pest, a far cry from its status in my neck of the woods.

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Hemileuca lucina caterpillar (Scarborough, ME)

Prior to this year, I had only ever seen one individual of the genus: a good-sized H. lucina caterpillar that I had found feeding on Spirea at the edge of a salt marsh in Maine. Ordinarily I would have reared it to adulthood after photographing it, but this was only a few days before I left for Gorongosa, Mozambique, and I knew the caterpillar would die if I left it alone for several weeks. I ended up returning the animal to his home. After I returned from Mozambique, I had no time to check that area for adults before I headed off to begin college in Ithaca, a place where no buckmoths are known to live. In the past two years I haven’t been anywhere near a good buckmoth locality and the idea of seeing them faded from my mind. This October, however, I was in New England again, and one day while gathering food for a pet praying mantis, I came across a big adult buckmoth stumbling along a boardwalk in a powerline right-of-way! There was lots of Spirea present, and a little research later led me to conclude that this was also H. lucina.

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New England Buckmoth (Hemileuca lucina) found in Rochester, NH

The story picks up again about a week later at Myles Standish, site of my first encounter with a healthy adult buckmoth. This state forest is a huge pine-oak barren, so I figured these had to be H. maia (some later research confirmed that H. lucina is absent here, while H. maia is relatively abundant). I didn’t expect to be able to catch or photograph any, given my first sighting. Throughout the day I continued to see them from time to time, always flying overhead, weaving swiftly through the pine branches. Towards the end of my visit I made a quick foray into a grassy area to listen for any interesting katydids. Suddenly a black and white form in front of me caught my eye. I stopped short. There was a buckmoth, a beautiful H. maia, just sitting on a grass stem! I ever-so-carefully set down my backpack, grabbed my camera, and inched forward for some photos. Luckily the moth seemed pretty oblivious to my presence, so I was able to get a few nice shots. Quite nice to be able to see both northeastern species of buckmoths within 2 weeks!

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Hemileuca maia is generally darker colored than H. lucina, with more well-defined black and white bands.

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A tidal wave of mole crickets

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A tawny mole cricket (Neoscapteriscus vicinus) at Archbold Biological Station, FL.

The large dark shape on the ground in front of me seemed to sense my approach. It made a strange little hop and started rapidly running in the opposite direction. I knew immediately what it was and immediately caught hold of the fleeing creature. Wow, a mole cricket! And oh look, there was another, and another…

 

Mole crickets are some of those insects that you hear about in intro entomology classes, but rarely see for yourself. They represent their own family (Gryllotalpidae) of strange orthopterans, found pretty much worldwide. True to form, their front legs are highly modified for digging and bear a strong resemblance to the forelegs of actual moles. They tend to have a very similar body plan wherever in the world you encounter them. 7 species of mole crickets inhabit the continental U.S, but the only ones commonly seen are the 3 introduced species of the genus Neoscapteriscus found in the southeastern states. All were introduced from South America in the early 1900s and have since become serious pests of open grassy areas. One speciesthe southern mole cricket (N. borellii) is primarily carnivorous, but still causes damage by digging through roots. The lesser shortwinged mole cricket, N. abbreviatus, is a herbivore that loves grass roots and can cause major damage, but it has extremely reduced wings (hence the common name) and thus is only a problem in a few restricted sites. The worst offender of them all is the tawny mole cricket, N. vicinus, which is both herbivorous and fully winged, capable of doing a lot of damage and spreading rapidly to colonize new turf.

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Tawny mole cricket, Neoscapteriscus vicinus. Note that the tibial dactyls (bottom pair of large ‘claws’) almost touch at their bases.

Back to the encounter. I quickly snatched all three mole crickets and dashed to my room. I was staying at the Archbold Biological Station near Venus, FL, a ridiculously diverse place containing some of the last remaining Florida Scrub habitat on the planet. There is a recently built guest lodge on the premises that hosts very nice accommodations as well as (most importantly) bright lights that attract plenty of insects. Into a plastic container went the mole crickets, and out the door I flew to see what else had arrived at the lights. Every few steps I took, I stopped to pick up another mole cricket, and another, and another. When I finally rounded the corner to the stairwell where most insects accumulated, I was greeted by mole crickets galore. They came barreling in from the darkness, hitting the ground with a thud. They jumped and flew about a few times before scuttling right and left across the pavement. If they reached a patch of soil they dug down and then came right back up to fly once more. I had seen mole crickets a few times in the past, but never like this. It was unbelievable to me that these large, heavy-bodied animals could even lift themselves off the ground, let alone fly about in droves. In the end I caught a grand total of about 30 mole crickets, all N. vicinus except for a lone N. borellii that seemed to be completely clueless among its larger, more active congeners.

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Southern mole cricket, Neoscapteriscus borellii. The tibial dactyls are widely separated at their bases in this species.

I kept the mole crickets in a large tank with soil from around the station for several weeks. They were easy to keep and weren’t picky eaters. I would drop pieces of carrot, grape, apple, and other fruits and veggies on the soil surface, and the mole crickets would quickly drag the food into their burrows. They probably wouldn’t have been too difficult to breed, but breeding more of an invasive species felt like the wrong thing to do, so I didn’t try.

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Just a few of the many Neoscapteriscus mole crickets that swarmed the lights at Archbold that spring evening. 

A gamble pays off

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Female Spotted Lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula (Berks co, PA)

It’s 8 months after my last post here and it might seem as though I’d forgotten about this blog. That is not the case – I’ve simply been way too busy to even think about sitting down to write. It certainly hasn’t been for lack of interesting stuff to write about, believe me! Now that I have some free time to devote to the blog, my brain is bursting with ideas. One post at a time, though. This one’s about a team effort, and a gamble that actually worked.

It was time for fall break at Cornell and I had 3 days free (although this being Cornell, that means at least one of those days has to be devoted to doing work). Early september is prime orthoptera season in the northeast, and I was dying to get off campus and spot some different bugs. Having been collecting in Ithaca for over two years, I know the orthopteran fauna pretty well, and I wanted to see new stuff. One problem – no car. I thought all my friends with cars (read: the ones with cars that would have gone on a bug hunt with me) were otherwise engaged. I brought up the matter jokingly during insect biology lab that week. Casey, a new transfer entomology major who I had recently met, told me she had a car and no plans for the weekend. I thought she was kidding, but the next day she asked me if I was still up for it. Of course I was, and together with Annika, another new transfer entom major, we planned to head down to southern Pennsylvania in search of cool new bugs.

As I scoured online databases making a list of potential sites to hit up, it dawned on me that we’d be in range of an animal I have wanted to see since it was first introduced to the US. Lycorma delicatula, the Spotted Lanternfly, is a large and beautiful fulgorid planthopper native to China, India, Japan and Vietnam. It has been introduced in Korea, where it is a serious invasive. Feeding on a very wide variety of trees and shrubs, including many economically important fruit trees, the honeydew waste it produces also grows a fungal disease that can further weaken the trees. In 2014 it was detected in Berks county, PA, and has since spread to 3 other counties. There is a quarantine in place to attempt to limit its spread, but unfortunately it seems like this invasive pest is here to stay. I knew that adults should be present in fall, so I immediately started checking for places to find it. Unfortunately all the databases and websites I could find only listed “Berks county” or various cities within Berks county, with no specific localities. In a moment of inspiration I checked the Cornell insect collection, and discovered several specimens with coordinates. Entering these coordinates into Google Maps, I found that they led me to a roadside in Berks county. Could this be the spot™ I was looking for? It was a bit out of the way with respect to the other places I had picked out (which were all parks and preserves), and it was, admittedly, a gamble. But, my companions were game.

 

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Male Lycorma delicatula with wings spread. 

So it was that that 3.5 hours later I found myself on a random roadside in the middle of nowhere, PA, with two people I’d known for less than a month. It had been raining, so everything outside was soaked. At the end of the road was a building stone company, so we parked there and started poking around in the bushes. I honestly didn’t have much hope. The creature seemed so mythical to me that I couldn’t imagine actually seeing one in the flesh. Yet no more than 15 minutes in, I spotted an inch-long, pink and black speckled bug standing on a leaf. It was unmistakable. The beast was here! The three of us gathered around and marveled at its size, color, and silly-looking face. When I picked it up, the wings spread to reveal bright red, white, and black patterning. What a cool animal!

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The Spot™. Doesn’t look like anything special, right?

Within a few minutes, we’d located another, and another. A few more were perched on wet leaves and branches, and we were ecstatic to have actually found the thing we were looking for. But we had no idea what was coming. As we returned to the car, I went up to one of the company buildings. I spotted a few more in some bushes next to the wall, and suddenly beheld a small birch tree absolutely laden with lanternflies! I never expected to see so many, but then again they are invasive… We went nuts tossing them into kill jars. I saved one pair alive for photos later (don’t worry, they were dispatched quickly afterward). After 20 minutes of this, we figured it’d be best to move on, so we checked ourselves and the car to make sure we didn’t have any hitchhikers, and left Rolling Rock Road behind.

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Lycorma delicatula face portrait. 

A katydid’s tale

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The dark male Orchelimum nigripes, sitting on his usual perch.

A couple of months ago I wrote about finding and keeping Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. I finished that post with the note that three of my five nigripes (which I had collected on September 4th, 2016) were about to make it into February 2017, an unprecedented record. I intended to update that post when they finally died, but so many interesting things happened between the post and their deaths that I felt it deserved a full post rather than an add-on.

One of the three nigripes unfortunately did not make it into February, dropping off the map on January 21. The other two were alive well into February. Before this point I had not been able to tell them apart, but some rather interesting changes occurred at this late date that made it possible for me to characterize the two. One of them retained the usual summer coloration, as depicted in my photos from the earlier post. His wings were worn at the edges and he had a harder time climbing up smooth plastic surfaces, but otherwise he looked the same as he did when I first found him. The second katydid’s color changed dramatically. His entire body darkened, almost to the point of being completely black. If I had seen him in the wild then I would not have recognized him as a black-legged meadow katydid, so profound was the color transformation. I am not quite sure of the reason for his change. Many late-season grasshopper species (especially Melanoplus spp) turn darker as the season progresses, presumably to stay warm in increasingly cooler weather. The dark coloration may help them absorb more sunlight and thus prolong their lives as far into the fall as possible. I have noticed similar changes in katydids and tree crickets as well, but never so drastic. Why would this color change happen only in February, well past the time when these katydids would have reasonably needed it in the wild? And why didn’t it happen to the other male?

In any case, color was not the only thing that changed. Their behavior as the winter wore on underwent a surprising shift as well. Before, they had been very skittish around me. They would sing loudly and unabashedly in their private quarters, but as soon as I jarred the container or opened the lid to replace food, they would clam up, and sometimes spring about a few times in an escape attempt (which I always thwarted). This changed in February, however. When I opened the lids to their containers, they would momentarily stop singing, but after a few seconds start right back up again! Incredibly, it got to the point where I could carefully take them out, and they would continue singing while on my hand or on a table! Never in my history of keeping singing insects have I encountered an insect that would so brazenly sing in the face of imminent ‘danger’ from a large mammal such as myself. I was also able to do something I had only done before with mantids: offer them bits of food with forceps and have them accept it while sitting on my fingertips.

I also got to know their individual personalities a bit better. The one who retained his bright coloration was clearly the ‘alpha male’, as it were (for lack of a better term). His song was loud and persistent, and he clearly scared off the other male whenever they were allowed near each other. Once I let him get a bit too close to the other male and the ‘alpha’ rushed at him with mouthparts agape. Obviously I didn’t let this interaction go any further. The dark-colored male was equally persistent with his singing, but his song was not nearly as loud. Over time, it became very scratchy. The typical “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz” song slowly morphed into a “tick-tick-tick” followed by a low-pitched rattle. This male preferred to sit in his food dish and eat food when it was replaced, whereas the ‘alpha’ was constantly walking around. In this way they truly became little pet katydids, for a while.

Unfortunately I knew this had to end soon. On February 7th I found the ‘alpha’ lying dead on the bottom of his enclosure. With his death my room became a lot quieter. When the heater was off, the soft rattling of the dark male could be heard (it’s a loud heater!). I fully expected him to die soon after his companion, but once again I underestimated the little katydids. Throughout February he continued to sing, and soon I started hoping for what seemed like the impossible: for him to make it into March. For fear of stressing him out, I didn’t attempt to handle him any more and tried to make cleaning his cage as stress-less a procedure as possible. He became very, very docile towards the end. It was almost as if he knew what to do when I picked up the food dish, as he would step off it and wait on the substrate, climbing back on to eat once food had been replaced. On the last week of February I checked him constantly. Everything seemed normal and he continued to sing.

February 28th. I noticed that he had not sung all day. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but he had been singing constantly for the past several days. I went to bed hoping to god that he would be alive in the morning.

March 1. I sprung out of bed and quickly peered into his container. Aha! He was indeed alive! It was an unbelievable feat that this katydid had pulled off, surviving into March when by all accounts he should have died off in October or early November. But something was amiss. He wasn’t sitting in the food dish where he usually hung out, he was standing on top of the substrate. I opened the container and gently nudged him. He walked forward a few steps and then stopped. I could immediately tell that he was dying. I replaced his food and guided him back to the food dish. He was not interested but sat there anyway. I went to class, and when I came back he was standing on the substrate again. When I went to sleep that night, he was slumped in the corner, but still alive.

March 2, 2017. During the night he had quietly departed the land of the living. When I picked his lifeless body out of the enclosure, one hind leg kicked, a reflex muscle response. It was his last movement.

Truly, it was a privilege to care for these katydids. When I come across their species again I know that where one might see a delicate insect, there is a strong-willed, unbelievably tough little soul (I know I’m personifying but can you blame me?). And as this story will attest, the black-legged meadow katydid makes for a splendid singing companion that will outlive all your other favorite singers.

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The dark male nigripes, wings raised in song and tarsus raised in cleaning, on my hand.

What’s that in my spinach?

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A speck on the spinach leaf…

One morning as I was preparing my lunch before school, I noticed something attached to a spinach leaf. It looked like a small tan rounded egg of some sort. Closer inspection revealed something very funny–an aphid mummy! These are the hollowed out exoskeletons of aphids, created by the larva of a parasite that had devoured the aphid’s internal organs. I was familiar with aphid mummies, having seen them many a time on aphid-infested plants outdoors, but to find one on a piece of spinach from the market was worth a good laugh. I tossed it in a vial and headed off to school.

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Aphid mummy on spinach. The only locality information I have is from the packaging, which simply stated “Product of USA”. So this aphid and its associated parasite could be from almost anywhere in the country.

Later that day I decided to get a few shots of the aphid mummy. As I was photographing it I noticed that there was no hole in it, and there was a suspicious-looking dark area inside. What if, despite all odds, there was still life inside? I decided to keep it on the off chance that the parasite might still be inside. Turns out I didn’t have long to wait. The very next day I was excited to spot a 2-mm long wasp walking around in the container. As expected, the aphid mummy now had a large circular hole cut in it where the wasp had emerged. I photographed the wasp and posted it to BugGuide, where Ross Hill quickly determined it as a member of the subfamily Aphidiinae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae), which specialize in parasitizing aphids.

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The resulting aphidiine wasp.

Never doubt that insects are all around us, even in your food!

A tough new resident of NY

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Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. A striking animal with a distinctive red and white face and dark legs. (Clymer, NY)

One afternoon in early September of this year, I found myself situated in a thick stand of red-osier dogwood slightly taller than myself. For the past 30 minutes I had been wading through first goldenrod, then brambles, then dogwood, guided by my ears. I had heard a very enticing call and I was determined to find the singer, but this was getting to be too much. With sweat pouring down my neck, bramble thorns pricking my arms, and ants scurrying across my shirt, I strained my eyes to see through the maze of branches. The mystery caller was right above me, repeating himself quickly every few seconds – a fast “tick-tick-tick-bzzzzzzzz…tick-tick-tick-buzzzzzzz” –yet I could not see him. If this was who I thought it was, he should be quite colorful and obvious, and I could not figure out why I was having so much trouble. Suddenly I saw a hair-thin antenna flick out from behind a twig, then flick back. My heart skipped a beat, and I carefully grasped the dogwood, pulling downward. Once I was within range, I waved my hand behind the twig. A gorgeous multicolored katydid darted into view. “Gotcha”, I thought. I had fallen victim to the “meadow dance” that meadow katydids often perform to hide from predators, but now that he had revealed himself, he made an easy catch

Once I wrangled the katydid into a vial, I confirmed what I had suspected he was: Orchelimum nigripes, the black-legged meadow katydid. One of the more colorful meadow katydids in the north, nigripes has a wide range in the central U.S. and is mainly found in wetland areas. They are also found in the Chesapeake Bay drainage, where they are likely introduced by humans (first collected there in the early 1900’s). Here they sometimes hybridize with a closely related species, Orchelimum pulchellum, whose range is mainly along the east coast. The locality where I had just found my katydid was Chautauqua county in far western New York. I had never seen records of nigripes from New York, so I was quite excited and determined to collect more. It took some time, and although the rest were a bit easier than the first individual, it was still a lot of work. I eventually managed to capture 5 males (didn’t see a single female). Judging by the amount of calling I was hearing, there were likely hundreds more in the area, but it was starting to get dark and I had to take my leave.

I later contacted Dr. Leo Shapiro at the University of Maryland, who has worked extensively with Orchelimum nigripes. He confirmed my ID and informed me that the species has recently been detected in northern Ohio and southern Ontario, and although they had not been recorded from New York before, my discovery is not a surprise and may represent a natural range extension along Lake Erie.

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Nigripes calling in situ at the collection site.

I set up my new critters in containers. Meadow katydids I have kept in the past have fed well on carrot slices, and these katydids were no different. One died almost immediately for some reason, but the others accommodated quickly. Within a day or two of setup, they began to sing. And man did they sing. Day and night they belted out their ticking and whirring calls, sending me to sleep every evening and greeting me each morning. When I traveled to Mississippi in early October, I gave most of my pets to a friend to care for, but I left my 4 nigripes alone with some extra food since I didn’t want to burden my poor friend with that many hungry mouths to feed. I was not too attached to them at the time so it didn’t matter to me then if the nigripes lived or died. To my surprise when I returned, they were still alive; one even sang a few times while I cleaned up and organized material from the trip! Within a few hours of my replacing their food, all four started up singing again. I realized that I was dealing with a tougher species than I had reckoned.

Although I had a taste of their tenacity, come November I figured that the end was nigh. Even the toughest of singing Orthoptera usually don’t make it past late November in the northeast. One by one, the other singers in my arsenal died off, but the nigripes remained. I was shocked after final exams when the time came to head home from Cornell for winter break and they were still singing. As if to prove their point, I heard a few scattered songs break out from the back of the car during the trip home. Once home, I revised my estimate: surely they’d die off in December! But again I was wrong–one did die, but the other three kept on singing. I am watching them clamber about in their containers as I write this. No doubt their home in Chautauqua county is quite devoid of the songs of summer. I am awed at the ability of this little katydid species to survive far past their normal lifespan. Only once before have I had an orthopteran species that normally dies off in the fall survive so long into the winter–last year I cared for a male Microcentrum rhombifolium (greater anglewinged katydid) until his death on January 16th. This was astonishing in its own right, but if my nigripes survive for just one more week, they will make into February! Fingers crossed.

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One of my three remaining nigripes having a bite to eat.

Rearing North America’s largest moth

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Caterpillar of the cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia (Kennebunk, ME)

Almost immediately after finding the northeast’s rarest waterscorpion, my dad alerted me to a “really cool caterpillar” just a few steps away. When he pointed it out to me I was stunned–a cecropia moth caterpillar! An iconic species, Hyalophora cecropia is considered to be the largest moth in North America, with an equally large caterpillar. But they are not just large–they are absolutely beautiful in all stages. Caterpillars are plump green monsters bristling with red, yellow, and blue scoli (knobs with spikes), and the adults are an unbelievable mixture of reds, browns, pinks, and creams, one of the most charismatic moths out there and a perfect example to point to when people say that moths aren’t as beautiful as butterflies. I had only seen three adults in my life and never a caterpillar, so I was pretty dang excited about this one.

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The resulting moth.

After I had taken the caterpillar home and photographed it, I set up an enclosure with lots of food. The ‘pillar was originally on speckled alder, but I found that it would accept maple as well. The next day the leaves were gone, converted into a pile of frass at the bottom of the container, as any self-respecting caterpillar tends to do. This continued for several weeks, with daily replacing of the food and emptying of the waste a necessity for the caterpillar’s survival. Strange as this may sound, I found the frass pellets to be little works of art, intricately marked with lines and spots. Unfortunately I never thought to take a photo. Eventually the caterpillar pupated in a huge baggy cocoon, and into the garage it went to overwinter.

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What a wondrous sight to wake up to!

One lovely day next June, I found that the adult moth had emerged. The first thing I did upon seeing her hanging upside down in the rearing cage might seem a bit odd: I bent down and sniffed her. Something I have experienced with every cecropia moth I have encountered is that they smell very strongly of peanut butter! I initially thought this was just the female’s pheromones, but I have smelled it on males as well. It was a miracle that the caterpillar had not been parasitized by flies or wasps, as many such large caterpillars often are. My moth was a female, as evidenced by her plump abdomen full of eggs and her slender antennae (males have large feathery antennae to detect the pheromones of the female). Cecropia moth adults have no functional mouthparts and only live long enough to reproduce, so the next day my dad and I took her back to where we found the caterpillar and released her deep in the bushes, where she hopefully attracted a male and laid eggs to bring about the next generation of these spectacular insects.

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Detail of the abdomen.