What appears to be a flower here is actually a group of caterpillars working their way down a sapling trunk.
They look like they could do a decent job sharpening a pencil, about the same width as this tree(?) trunk.
Despite the black background, this was taken a few hours before sunset. At the time there was probably a few feet of the trunk left. I marked the location and returned after dark. I found no trace of the trunk or the caterpillars. They apparently ate the whole tree.
I know there are defoliating caterpillars. I know there are wood boring caterpillars. I never imagined there are caterpillars that consume an entire tree though. That’s assuming they eat leaves, which I didn’t observe.
Being National Moth Week, I have every excuse to post about one of my favorite subjects. Admittedly, I get more excited about caterpillars, but I enjoy seeing the moths that most of them become.
Back at the end of April, I was distracted by something while going to check the mailbox. Actually, I’m often distracted any time I venture into my yard, but that’s kind of the point of having one for me. Anyway, some large hollies form a hedge along part of my driveway. I spotted a caterpillar dropping from from the holly to the ivy beneath it. I grabbed it for a closer look and started scanning the holly for others. I quickly found another one and brought them inside for rearing. Less than a month later, I was rewarded with a Black-Dotted Ruddy, Ilecta intractata.
The common name refers to the four black dots, one centrally located on each wing, which help identify it.
The plumose antennae identify this specimen as a male.
The caterpillars were plain green, which camouflages them well in holly foliage.
Because of their plain appearance, I figured they would be difficult to identify. As it turns out, if I’d just cross-referenced the food plant, I’d have identified them pretty easily. The caterpillars are in fact known as Holly Loopers.
They feed exclusively on holly, but don’t seem picky about which variety. I have a different type of holly in my backyard, and I found a dozen or so feeding on it as well. In fact, it was difficult to find a leaf that didn’t show evidence of their feeding behavior. As they feed, they notch out deep cuts.
It didn’t spin a cocoon, so it probably pupates in soil normally. That would explain why it was dropping from the holly when I first encountered it.
Here’s hoping that you’re distracted by a few moths this week. Just leave an outdoor light on for them, and you’re sure to be rewarded with something interesting.
This attractive little beetle was resting when I found it. Looking at it here, it almost appears to be nature’s idea of a gaudy holiday light display. Just imagine each of those elytral punctures as a tiny LED, and then imagine them programmed so that the dorsal patterns shift down the eltytra, one puncture at a time. Jokes aside, it actually blends in pretty well with the browning foliage.
This is a leaf-mining leaf beetle, so called because the larvae feed between the surfaces of leaves, creating mines. Adults feed on foliage, and it may be responsible for some of the leaf damage visible here, though I didn’t actually see it eating.
The larvae are flattened, making it easier to move within their mines. Adults seem to share this trait.
These planthoppers in the family Derbidae are feeding on the yellow stem.
You can clearly see the left one’s beak (rostrum) inserted in the stem. Next time I’ll have to try and get a good profile shot. They really are odd looking.
Also odd are those Velcro like hooks along the leading edge of the wing.
I noticed a plant whose large leaves had been eaten right down to the leaf ribs. Curiously, portions near the tips had been folded over. I couldn’t resist opening one of those up.
The pupa shown above is what I found inside. The caterpillar’s last head capsule is still attached. The pupa is flipped in the photo above because I opened up the leaf. Normally it would be suspended inside by that thread.
For some reason, the head end of the pupa reminds me of a walrus’s head.
There were quite a few other folded-over leaves, but I was too late to find a caterpillar still fattening itself up.
This caterpillar looks enough like some of my local caterpillars that I can confidently say it’s a prominent moth larva. Its markings camouflage it well as it inserts itself into areas it has eaten.
This is almost but not quite the shot I was going for. When I first saw this little beetle it was oriented toward the freshly eaten patch. With the frass strewn around, you can just imagine it chewing away at the surface in a circular pattern. I wasn’t quite stealthy enough in my approach however, and I spooked it into moving away.
Below is a similar beetle, perhaps a different sex of the same species. Note the difference between the freshly eaten patch above and the older ones below.
There were quite a few of these reddish tortoise beetles feeding on this banana plant.
They feed on the large leaves, scarring them in a distinctive way.
Here you can see one munching its way forward, carefully feeding only between the leaf veins.
Did you notice the little hitchhiker above? Looks like some sort of parasitic wasp to me. I suspect this is probably a female beetle, and the wasp is just hanging out until she lays eggs, which the wasp will then parasitize. Here’s a closer look.
They’d often fly away from me once I started taking pictures, but it was no trouble to find another one.
I like their furry little feet.
Update: Marshall’s 500 Insects has a photo of a similar looking tortoise beetle, identified as a Spaethiella species.
Commenters had no trouble finding the cryptic critter circled above on a partially eaten leaf. No one figured out that it was a caterpillar though, and a rather bizarre one at that. Here’s a closer look.
It does a pretty good job, I think, of blending in with the damaged areas of the other leaves. I suspect the brown leaf areas were damaged by an earlier instar that chews away at the surface of the leaf rather than eating the entire thing. It looks formidable and I didn’t risk touching it. Those black structures are unlike anything I’ve seen on a caterpillar.
Here’s a head shot.
I don’t really have any idea what type of caterpillar it is. I suspect this is just a middle instar and that the final instar might be quite different looking.
This plant was being devoured by dozens of these attractive blister beetles. Above I’ve caught one with a leaf fragment in its mouth. Below, you can see how they’ve stripped a branch clean. The frass seems to be exiting just about as fast as the plant goes in (must be a good source of fiber).
As these pictures show, the plant was literally crawling with these beetles.
The dark backgrounds here are an effect of the camera flash. This was actually happening in broad daylight. How are they able to risk doing that? Blister beetles are so named because they defend themselves with a caustic compound, cantharidin, found in their blood. Predators soon learn to avoid them.
I found some online pictures of Epicauta species resembling these (example).
My web searching also turned up a nice post at Myrmecos, showing the reflexive bleeding.
Finally, there’s lots of good info at this University of Florida Featured Creature page. I saw there that Epicauta species are notable for eating leaves, whereas most other blister beetles limit themselves to flowers. That’s more evidence that these might be a species in that genus.