Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Ammophila nigricans Revisited

I wrote about this species back in December, 2010 when I had only one image of a sleeping female in South Deerfield, Massachusetts on July 5, 2009. Recently, I had the privilege of imaging another female in Leavenworth, Kansas, on August 24.

These are large, beautiful insects, velvety gun-metal blue with a red band across the abdomen, and black wings. It can be confused with no other member of the genus Ammophila. This particular specimen spent the night in a patch of weeds and flowering mint, eventually waking up to visit many mint blossoms for nectar. This wasp is known to visit many kinds of flowers, in Illinois at least. I collected one specimen from Swamp Milkweed in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Females need to fuel themselves so as to be able to carry out the tasks of providing for their offspring. Each wasp is solitary, digging her own vertical or angled burrow in clayey or sandy soil, terminating in a horizontal chamber at the bottom. Once the nest is excavated, it is off to find a large caterpillar. Known hosts include the larvae of underwing moths (Catocala spp.), the locust underwing (Euparthenos nubilis), and zale moths (genus Zale). Those are hefty caterpillars, but then they are destined to feed the larva of a very robust wasp.

This YouTube video may or may not depict A. nigricans, but the searching behavior must be very similar at the least. The female wasp is not likely to locate a caterpillar based on movement or color, as the caterpillars are very cryptic and usually resting stock still, feeding at night to avoid predators like the wasp. So, she must find her prey by touch.

Ammophila nigricans ranges over the entire eastern United States, from Kansas and Texas to New England, and south to Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana. It does not appear to be nearly as common as most other members of its genus, so I consider myself lucky to have had a few hours observing this one specimen.

SourcesDiscover Life
Krombein, Karl V. and Paul D. Hurd, Jr. 1979. Catalog of Hymenoptera in America North of Mexico vol. 2 Apocrita (Aculeata). pp. 1199-2209.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

My Personal National Moth Week, 2017

Given the stormy weather during National Moth Week here in Colorado Springs, I took advantage of the few opportunities to find moths here. The nights of July 24 and 30 I draped a sheet over the door of our backyard shed, hung a blacklight, and hoped for the best. I am rarely disappointed, even if beetles, bugs, and flies are more prevalent than moths.

Identifying what comes in is a real challenge, too. Taxonomy, the classification of organisms, is constantly changing as we learn about new evolutionary relationships. For example, this moth, in the genus Acrolophus, family Acrolophidae, used to be placed in the family Tineidae (clothes moths and their kin). Acrolophus species are known as "grass tube moths" because the caterpillar stage of many species spin silken tubes at the base of grasses, or grass roots, to conceal themselves as they feed.

Acrolophus sp.

The genus Ethmia, very abundant in oak woodlands in the foothills here, but a rarity at my blacklight on the high plains, used to be in the family Coleophoridae. Now it is in the family Depressariidae. It can be depressing to me to try and keep up with all these changes. This specimen is probably Ethmia discostrigella, which feeds as a caterpillar on Mountain Mahogany, a woody shrub. Most Ethmia feed on plants in the Boraginaceae family.

Ethmia sp.

Here is another member of the Depressariidae family that I have not yet identified. They can be confused with tortricid leafrolling moths but for the upturned palps, mouthparts that in this case resemble horns between the antennae.

Moth, family Depressariidae

One might expect that pest species would dominate in urban settings, but that is not necessarily the case. Still, the ornamental crabapple trees in a neighbor's yard probably breed the Codling Moths, Cydia pomonella, that do appear with some frequency at my blacklight. The caterpillar stage is the "worm" in the apple.

Codling Moth

Some other pests include the Diamondback Moth, Plutella xylostella, a tiny insect (6-8 mm) that feeds as a caterpillar on pretty much everything in the mustard family, including cauliflower and cabbage. It may not be native here, its suspected region of origin being Eurasia, but it is now found in all corners of the world thanks to global commerce.

Diamondback Moth

I believe this moth is an adult Spruce Budworm, Choristoneura fumiferana, in the leafroller moth family Tortricidae. The adult moth is highly variable in color, and prone to wear and tear that further compromise identification. We can at least conclude it is likely in the "fumiferana species group," which includes several other conifer feeders, some of which are notorious pests of western forests.

Spruce Budworm moth or close relation

Another related species is the Large Aspen Tortrix, Choristoneura conflictana, of which I think this is an example. As one might guess, the caterpillar stage feeds on aspen, but also poplar, willow, and alder. The caterpillars overwinter, and the older instars roll leaves tightly around them to thwart predators and parasites.

Large Aspen Tortrix

Another conifer-feeder is the Ponderosa Pine Coneworm, Dioryctria auranticella. The caterpillar stage feed in cones, but occasionally on twigs, too.

Ponderosa Pine Coneworm moth

The Pink-fringed Dolichomia, Hypsopygia binodulalis, is named for the genus it was formerly placed in: Dolichomia. Little is known of its biology.

Pink-fringed Dolichomia

The Belted Grass-veneer moth, Euchromeus ocellea, is one of the more ornate "snout moths" in the family Crambidae, most of which are associated with grasses as caterpillars. This one may be lovely to look at, but its larva feeds on the roots of corn. It may have originated in Europe, where the species was first described.

Belted Grass-veneer

Only a couple larger moths surfaced at my place during National Moth Week, and those were both in the owlet moth genus Lacinipolia. One cannot tell the species apart just by looking. One was a mottled gray, with reflective scales on its wings; the other was a lovely green, and probably rests by day on lichen-covered tree trunks.

Owlet moths, Lacinipolia spp.

Some insects can be mistaken form moths, and chief among them are caddisflies like this one. Indeed, caddisflies, order Trichoptera, are essentially aquatic moths. Their larvae typically build cases of plant or mineral matter, or spin nets to filter microbial organisms from stream currents.


Brown lacewings in the family Hemerobiidae, order Neuroptera, also resemble moths at first glance. Their larvae are voracious predators of aphids and other small insect pests, so their appearance is always welcome.

Brown lacewing

When you begin looking at the smaller moths, you may be fooled by leafhoppers like Norvellina pullata that can be as colorful as moths. Leafhoppers are true bugs that have piercing-sucking mouthparts they use to tap plant sap.

Leafhopper, Norvellina pullata

Oh, look, here is an actual moth, about the same size, if not a bit smaller, probably in the genus Phyllonorycter, family Gracillariidae (Leaf blotch miner moths).

Unidentified micro-moth, maybe a leaf blotch miner moth

Many other insects come to lights at night, and the most obvious are probably beetles. Predatory species like the Punctured Tiger Beetle, Cicindela punctulata, normally a swift, day-active hunter of other insects, and various ground beetles are common at lights.

Punctured Tiger Beetle
Ground beetle, tribe Harpalini
Ground beetle, maybe Bembidion sp.

A real surprise on July 24 was the appearance of a Pole Borer, Neandra brunnea. This insect is in the longhorned beetle family Cerambycidae, but it is anything but typical for that group. The antennae are short and bead-like, the jaws suggestive of a ground beetle or small stag beetle. The larval stage bores in decaying wood, including poles and posts in contact with moist soil.

Pole Borer, Neandra brunnea

Click beetles in the family Elateridae are also very commonly drawn to lights at night. They are bullet-shaped, and often covered in short, dense hairs that make them slick. Try grabbing one and it will likely slip right through your fingers. If you are successful, you may be startled by a jarring "click" as the beetle snaps a spine into a groove on its chest. This can free the beetle from many small predators, and catapult it away from danger, too.

Click beetle, family Elateridae

Tinier beetles include shining flower beetles, family Phalacridae; deathwatch beetles, family Ptinidae; and ant-like flower beetles, family Anthicidae.

Shining flower beetle, family Phalacridae
Deathwatch beetle, family Ptinidae
Antlike flower beetle, Notoxus sp.

True bugs, besides leafhoppers, are always a fixture at lights at night, too. Plant bugs in the family Miridae are diverse if not abundant. Phoytocoris spp. are usually gray or brown, and mostly plant-feeders. They will occasionally prey on smaller insects, though. Orthotylus spp, Ceratocapsus spp, and the distinctive Reuteroscopus ornatus, are typical visitors to my blacklight, along with Lygus spp (or a lookalike genus).

Mirid plant bug, Phytocoris sp.
Mirid plant bug, probably Orthotylus sp.
Mirid plant bug, maybe Ceratocapsus sp.
Mirid plant bug, Reuteroscopus ornatus
Mirid plant bug, possibly Lygus sp.

The large dirt-colored seed bug Balboa ampliata visited on July 24. It may be a more common species than I first suspected, as I have found it in other prairie and foothill habitats around Colorado Springs. As the name suggests, these bugs feed on plant seeds.

Seed bug, Balboa ampliata

One cannot escape the presence of true flies at any time of day or night, and many species are attracted to lights. Crane flies in particular are almost guaranteed visitors.

Crane fly, family Limoniidae

Tiny gall midges in the family Cecidomyiidae are also common. Larvae of many species live in galls on plants.

Gall midge, Lasioptera sp.

Biting midges in the family Ceratopogonidae, the "no-see-ums," are also present. Fortunately, most members of this family feed on the blood of other insects, not people or pets.

Biting midge ("no-see-um"), family Ceratopogonidae

Non-biting midges in the family Chironomidae can be overwhelmingly abundant, but they do not bite. They look enough like mosquitoes to cause needless consternation, but neither gender usually feeds on anything. They live their very short adult lives by using the fat reserves they accumulated in the aquatic larva stage.

Non-biting midges, family Chironomidae, various species

I am rarely plagued by mosquitoes here on the Front Range, but one female did bite me on the arm on July 24. A male, the gender that does not bite, showed up on July 30.

Female mosquito, Ochlerotatus dorsalis
Unidentified male mosquito

Maybe some of the predators and scavengers, like spiders, earwigs (omnivores), and harvestmen ("daddy long-legs," related to spiders in the class Arachnida) are keeping the mosquitoes and other nuisance insects at bay around our townhouse. We can only hope.

Longlegged sac spider, Cheiracanthium sp.
European Earwig female
Harvestman, arachnid order Opiliones

Friday, September 1, 2017

National Moth Week Recap for Colorado Springs

Sunset rains near Chico Basin Ranch

Better late than never, here is how National Moth Week in El Paso, County, Colorado, faired this year. Two events sponsored by Mile High Bug Club were scrubbed due to the record rainfall for the month of July. We did sneak in our kickoff at Chico Basin Ranch on Saturday, July 22, but the potential for dangerous lightning forced cancellation of the July 26 event at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, and the July 29 event in Rock Creek Canyon at the May Museum of Natural History. A misunderstanding with park staff created an "extra" event at Cheyenne Mountain on Tuesday, July 25.

Five-spotted Sphinx Moth at Cheyenne Mountain State Park

Chico Basin Ranch is a working cattle ranch that sprawls across the El Paso/Pueblo County line for 87,000 acres. Our lights were set up in El Paso County at "Bell Grove," a grove of cottonwoods with a nearby wetland, a true oasis in an otherwise heavily grazed prairie habitat. The chief obstacles between the three stations were cow patties and the odd fallen branch. Bell Mead, Tim Leppek, and Tim and Zach Vogel furnished the blacklights, white lights, and sheets that go into your average night of moth observation. Our club set-ups vary from "McGuyvered" to highly sophisticated.

Male Ten-lined June Beetle, with two tiny dung beetles behind it, and a variegated mud-loving beetle top right, at Chico Basin Ranch

We were initially inundated with hundreds of rove beetles, scarab beetles, click beetles, and variegated mud-loving beetles, plus water scavenger beetles and a lovely Nicrophorus sp. burying beetle.

Burying beetle at Chico Basin Ranch

Part of the fascination with "mothing" is seeing what other insects come in. Later in the evening we got predators: damsel bugs, assassin bugs, green lacewings, brown lacewings, a beaded lacewing, mantispids, a real mantis (European Mantis), and spiders.

Beaded lacewing, Lomamyia sp., Chico Basin Ranch

Some of the most attractive and diverse moths were small, like this Garden Tortrix, Clepsis peritana. A member of the leafroller moth family Tortricidae, its caterpillar stage rolls leaves to conceal itself from predators and parasites.

Garden Tortrix moth at Chico Basin Ranch

A good number of moths defy identification, but that takes nothing away from their beauty. This is probably another tortricid moth, in the genus Hystrichophora.

Hystrichophora sp. leafroller moth? Chico Basin Ranch

Some moths have shaggy legs, like this Gray Furcula, Furcula cinerea.

Gray Furcula moth, Chico Basin Ranch

Most moths are designed for camouflage, so away from their usual perches on tree trunks or amid grasses, their subtle beauty is better appreciated. This geometer moth in the genus Digrammia is a great example.

Digrammia sp. geometer moth, Chico Basin Ranch

So is this Pero sp., another type of geometer moth. The tiny red speck near its "shoulders" is a mite. We have noticed many moths are carrying a heavier load of mites this year, and wonder what the reason is. The mites feed on the blood (hemolymph) of the moth, much like ticks on a dog.

Pero sp. geometer moth, Chico Basin Ranch

Some moths use a startle defense tactic to complement their camouflage. They have brightly-colored hind wings, normally concealed, which they flash to startle an enemy before they take flight.

Purslane Moth, Chico Basin Ranch

The Purslane Moth, Euscirrhopterus gloveri, a kind of owlet moth, is one example. Another is Drasteria mirifica.

Drasteria mirifica owlet moth, Chico Basin Ranch

Our July 25 event at Cheyenne Mountain State Park, just south of Colorado Springs and across the street from Fort Carson, was plagued by intermittent rain, but that did not dampen the spirits of the human attendees. We drew several members from the Mile High Bug Club, plus one person who drove all the way from north of Denver. Once the precipitation subsided, moths came in good numbers to our two mercury vapor and blacklight stations, one under the picnic shelter and another under the eaves of a restroom building at the Limekiln trailhead.

Epiblema tripartitana, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

One had to do a double take at some moths, like Epiblema triparitana, passing itself off as a bird turd. Meanwhile, the little Filbertworm moth, Cydia latiferreana, appeared to be drizzled in molten metal.

Filbertworm Moth, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

The eutellid moth Paectes abrostolella tends to pose distinctively with its abdomen turned up in the air.

Eutelid moth, Paectes abrostolella, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

Crashing the party and startling several of us were at least two species of underwing moths, genus Catocala. These giants often stay on the periphery of light stations and may go unnoticed, but these three made a real entrance, flying erratically around the area before settling down. Catocala verilliana was the smaller of the two and C. aholibah likely the larger species.

Aholibah Underwing, Catocala aholibah, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

Most moths are maddeningly difficult to identify because of individual variation within the species and overlap in appearance with other species. Cutworm moths in the genus Apamea, family Noctuidae, are a prime example. We think this one is a Yellowheaded Cutowrm, Apamea amputatrix.

Yellowheaded Cutworm? Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

Maybe the most spectacular moth of the night was found resting on a window of the restroom building by Zach Vogel. The Straight-lined Looper moth, Pseudeva purpurigera, is certainly a stunning creature, complete with "mohawk" tufts of scales and hairs on its thorax and abdomen. The "horns" on its face are actually mouthparts called palps.

Straight-lined Looper moth

Among the non-moths were water scavenger beetles (family Hydrophilidae), weevils (family Curculionidae), brown lacewings (family Hemerobiidae), and lurking predators like the Masked Hunter, Reduvius personatus, a type of assassin bug.

Masked Hunter assassin bug, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

The "after party" was once again rewarding as well, turning up some interesting organisms at the lights around the visitor center and the adjoining parking lot. The biggest surprise was a Plains Spadefoot, a type of toad, strategically huddled beneath a lamp post to catch falling insect prey.

Plains Spadefoot Toad, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

On that post was a short-horned walkingstick, Parabacillus sp. Walkingsticks are not uncommon, but are seldom seen because they are so cryptic.

Shorth-horned walkingstick, Cheyenne Mountain St. Pk.

We made our way towards the exits a little after midnight, much like this Banded Sunflower Moth, Cochylis hospes. Here's hoping we can have a full complement of activities during next year's National Moth Week, maybe at some new locations.