July 2015

What do insects learn at school?

Marla Mertz, Marion County Naturalist

National Pollinator Week was held in June. That was timely in the awareness of our pollinators and the prairies exploding with vivid yellows, and purples. With all of the education and awareness about our native pollinators, it appears that it was, and still is, being celebrated. If you missed it, check out last month’s homepage!

July 2015 brings the Fourth Annual National Moth Week – a worldwide celebration of moths and biodiversity. You can observe and discover on your own or you can become a citizen scientist and contribute scientific data about moths in your own backyard. In 2015, awareness is focused on sphinx moths, commonly called hawk moths. Sphinx moths are probably the most colorful and delightful of our moths. Iowa has a few species of hawk moths, but the white-lined sphinx is probably the most common.

At first glance, these hovering beauties can be mistaken for hummingbirds. The long proboscis uncurls as it comes in close to fragrant flowers like monarda (bergamot and bee-balm are other common names). The summer of 2014 was a booming year in the prairies, gardens, and roadsides in south-central Iowa to observe numerous sphinx moths. The moth is well received and a joy to watch, but most don’t realize the larval form of this moth is the ‘tomato hornworm.’ The long, green caterpillar with a horned protrusion is commonly found in the summer months on tomato vines, apple trees, primrose plants, and grapevines. The hornworms are considered pests and one of nature’s yucky animals. Many people destroy the hornworm as soon as it is seen. Most often the caterpillar goes unnoticed in our gardens on various tomato plants. Once you realize what this caterpillar becomes, it seems to get a little harder to destroy it. The moth form is not damaging at all. Some people are now providing sacrificial plants to relocate the hornworm if found on tended and desired plants.

Bugs are fun for all ages and the celebration of moths can be an evening gathering for the enthusiast or the curious. All you really need to attract moths is a light. Porch lights and security lights are a great place to check out the diversity of moths in your area. If you want to take it one step further, you can add some fermented ingredients to lure in some of the nectar feeding moths. All shapes, sizes, and colors can be attracted to the lights and can raise a sense of appreciation and desire to learn more about creatures of the darkness.

Learn more about Moth Week from the Nature Conservancy!

The number of moth species definitely outnumber the butterfly species. Some of us are out more during the day to see our daytime butterflies feeding and, of course the daytime moths flutter just like butterflies. Moths and butterflies come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Can you tell the difference between some of our butterflies and moths? One of the best details to use would be to look at the type of antennae that you see on the insect.

If the antennae are feathery (left photo above) or comb-like (middle photo above), this would be a tell-tale sign that it is probably a moth. The butterfly dons an antennae that is long, may appear segmented, and has a club-like shape at the end (right photo above). Moths are usually a little duller in color and the wings are linked together. When resting, most moths have their wings lying flat, while the butterfly perches with wings together or opening and closing. If you locate the pupal form (the inactive form between larva and adult) of either, butterflies undergo complete metamorphosis in chrysalis form. A chrysalis is the hardened body of a butterfly pupa. Moths also undergo complete metamorphosis in a silk casing that a moth caterpillar spins around it before it turns into a pupa.

You can see the "Moth" album In Google Photos.

This pictures include some of our local moths that were located on outbuildings near security lights. If you are truly lucky, you may come across some of our largest and most beautiful moths - the luna, cecropia, polyphemus, and imperial moths. These moths do not have a proboscis, so they don’t eat in their adult form. The life span of the adults are about two weeks which gives the moths just enough time to find a mate and lay eggs to continue the cycle. The caterpillar forms of these species are large and amazingly beautiful. These moths use a chemical called ‘pheromones’ to locate each other in the dark. The female moth releases a pheromone from a special gland located on the abdomen, and the male moth of the same species can detect it through their specialized antenna and may fly miles toward the potential mate.

Now is the time for you to consider the first question asked! What do insects learn in school… MOTH-matics, of course! Enjoy your moth and butterfly searches.

Links for more learning!

See what butterflies you might find in Iowa!

butterflies 2