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Moths! August Blog from Master Naturalist Caleb Hinojos


Hey everyone. Welcome back to the garden blog! I hope that your summer is going well even though this heat has been rough. Due to that I have not been out to the garden for photos, but I have plenty from the year. So, in honor of the national moth week which just occurred at the end of July I am going to focus on some of the moths that I have seen in the garden. Let’s begin by looking at the photo I left y'all with last time. Circled in red is actually a caterpillar in the moth family geometridae (geo-metri-dee), and what you are looking at is actually a defense mechanism. By applying the parts of the host plants flower onto its back it helps to blend in.

To the left is a photo I got from my home garden which gives you a much better view. Also, notice how the caterpillar is arched. This is due to the fact that as they move, they will pull their back end up towards the front and then move their front farther along. It’s this pattern of movement where they get their family name and a nickname of inchworms. While this form of defense is cool for a caterpillar, let’s look at another way that moths blend in.

Now if I am a predator I am probably not going to be attracted to fecal matter. Especially my own. Therefore, it would make sense that if I was the prey this tactic might be useful. This is what we see in the next photo. There is a whole group of moths where the adults have evolved to look like bird droppings. Although this may stick out to us if we are looking around the garden, if I am a bird then I could pass by this in flight and never think twice about it. Since I have mentioned two forms of defenses moths use, let’s look at one other defense that certain moths have.

This furry caterpillar is known as the

American Dagger. It can grow up to 2 inches which makes a mighty fine meal for a bird. Therefore, an interesting evolutionary tactic that has arisen is that of setae, or the fuzzies which cover the body. Most birds swallow their prey whole and by having the setae irritate the esophagus is a good way to make sure they either spit you up, or give your fellow caterpillars a better shot at life.

Up to now I have focused on ways that moths defend themselves from predators and it’s kind of a bummer if all we think about is ways to not die. So, let’s shift gears and look at the life which arose from our garden efforts. I want to first begin with a moth the Betina pointed out to me otherwise I would never have seen it.

This is a Pink-striped Oakworm Moth and in this photo you can see that she is laying eggs. Now, I took this photo in April or May, but it is nice to see that our garden has provided a good enough habitat for the next generation. The fact that she was doing this under the oak tree is pretty cool too. Unfortunately, one of her wings appeared to be damaged and I believe that’s why she was laying these not in the

tree, but a plant lower to the ground. Some

interesting facts about their mating is that

the female will release a pheromone

which brings all the males. This turns into

a breeding swarm. Once she has chosen a

male from the group, they will remain

conjoined for hours. Although I did not

get a chance to make it out and find the

caterpillars from her eggs, I was able to

get 3 forms of another moth that frequents

our garden.

Hyles lineata, also known as the White-lined Sphinx Moth, is a relatively large moth in the family Sphingidae. So, the first large caterpillar of these that I saw in the garden was funny to me because Debra called it a giggle worm. I’ve never heard the term but it obviously made me laugh. Even though I won’t be showing you that specific photo it made me excited to see them in the garden looking so healthy. The fact that I was able to see them in the first and fifth instar as well as an adult all in one morning told me that our plants were really bringing in the species. Just in case you’ve never heard the word instar it is a phase that many arthropods go through during their life. Before they become adults, they have to shed their exoskeleton multiple times and go through multiple instars. I’ll spare you much more than that. Google will have a ton of information if you want find it. This first photo shows the first instar. Notice how dark the color is, but also look at the “horn” that extends from the back of the abdomen. This is one way to identify sphinx moths in the caterpillar phase. The second photo shows the fifth instar and the dramatic color change that occurs. As to why, I don’t know, but it is pretty cool to see. The final photo is of the adult. Now they never stop fluttering when in flight and my camera doesn’t have the shutter speed to capture it well, but it’s nice to have evidence that life is teeming in the garden.

Overall, if you have made it this far in the reading, I say thanks. I find moths to be amazing creatures that have taken interesting niches up in the world. Not only for them to be prey or pollinators, but even some of the interesting niches they have had in media. From Mothman to Mothra and even a little bit of spookiness on the movie poster for Silence of the Lambs. Obviously, I am very biased, but I think that learning a bit about these highly diverse hexapods is fun and full of wonder. I hope you do too.

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