Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Giant Leopard Moth

One of my goals this past year has been to learn more about my local moth population. It's been challenging since I'm much more likely to find them in their larval stage than their adult stage as most are nocturnal as adults. The giant leopard moth is one of the few that I have been able to photograph both as a caterpillar and adult.

In the Fall we typically see a lot of the woolly and bristly looking caterpillars. This weekend while clearing up a bit of leaf litter around the HVAC unit I came across this almost 3" long black caterpillar. It has thick, sharply pointed bristles that glimmered when the sun hit them.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar

At first glance it might resemble the familiar woolly bear caterpillar, who is often credited for predicting our winter weather, but upon closer inspection you can see there is a hint of color underneath the bristles which differentiates it from other caterpillars in this family. The stiff bristles are the caterpillar's physical protection and as a rule it is best not to handle hairy caterpillars since the specialized hairs can break off and release a strong toxin which may result in a rash in some people. Some woolly caterpillars can be touched without incident but it is better safe than sorry. The giant leopard moth looks dangerous but it is O.K. to touch.

These caterpillars are reclusive by day and are usually encountered when cleaning up the garden. If you disturb this caterpillar as I accidentally did, it will roll up and in doing so expose its red intersegmental rings. These bold markings are another way this caterpillars warns its predators that it is chemically protected. But even with all this protection these caterpillars are frequently attacked by a tachinid flies.

Giant Leopard moth showing red intersegmental rings
These caterpillars emerge at night to feed on an array of forbs and woody plants including cherry, dandelion, oak, plantain, banana, cabbage, sunflower, violet and willow. They are also known to eat Japanese honeysuckle which is a good thing in controlling this invasive species. But ultimately there are not enough caterpillars foraging on the plant to kill it and we are working our hardest to remove this invasive species from our garden.

One morning this summer I found one of these caterpillars feeding on the squash leaves in our kitchen garden. Looks like it got caught out in the rain.

Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar foraging on squash

The caterpillars you see in the Fall will probably be overwintering under logs and beneath bark and dense leaf litter and studies have shown that the caterpillars can survive freezing temperatures. The moths will then emerge in the Spring.

Now if you think the caterpillar is impressive take a look at the adult. It is even more stunning!

Giant Leopard Moth adult stage

The giant leopard moth is distinctively marked with black circles on pure white wings. The  pattern which resembles a snow leopard covers the moth's wings and head so at rest it is difficult to see where the wings end and the body begins. Look closer and you will see some gorgeous blue-green, metallic accents which are spectacular! The abdomen which is hidden by the wings when at rest also has some bright orange markings.

Giant Leopard Moth showing metallic accents

Like many moths, the female giant leopard moth produces pheromones from a glad at the tip of her abdomen. These potent chemicals carry on the wind and are detected by the male's antennae. The male then follows the scent to his prospective mate. The female lays her eggs on host plants which hatch within a few days. Mating and egg laying occurs at night and the adult moth spends its short life repoducing and does not eat.

As you would expect from moths they are mostly nocturnal using the moon to navigate but are often seen at lights during evening hours because they are not adapted to artificial lights and get confused. In the case of the giant leopard moth it is usually the males who are found at lights. (Maybe that is because the females are busily laying eggs.)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dreamy Monarchs and the Workhorse Ageratum

In a recent post I commented that we haven't seen monarch butterflies in our garden for two years and with the drastic decline in their population I just wasn't very hopeful that we would be seeing them anytime soon.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum

Well, it seems that I've been proven wrong. Last week as my friend Penny and I were pulling into my driveway I spotted a large orange butterfly on the ageratum. I remember shouting out "Look I think there is a monarch on the ageratum!" From that distance I thought perhaps my eyes were playing tricks on me and it was just one of the many gulf fritillaries that have been prancing around our garden all summer and fall. Could it really be a monarch? Much to my surprise as we got closer we confirmed that it was a healthy, male monarch.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum bloom

I was elated! I spent some time watching it flutter from bloom to bloom while Penny, who had her camera handy, busily took photos. I was afraid that if I ran inside to get my camera the monarch would be gone when I returned. (Does that happen to you too?) I tried taking a photo with my phone but it takes really lousy photos and I finally broke down and got my camera.

Monarch butterfly on ageratum bloom

And am I glad I did! The deep orange of the monarch against the true blue of the blooms makes a dreamy combination.

The following day I spotted a second monarch (another male) on the ageratum. They hung around the ageratum the entire day. With all the blooms in the garden this was their plant of choice.

Monarch butterflly and Fiery skipper on ageratum
Fiery skipper & Monarch butterflies on ageratum
Ageratum or blue mist flower is such a workhorse in the garden this time of year and a must have if you want to attract butterflies to your garden. The tiny, wispy blue flowers are a feast for both butterflies and bees. Our blooms are covered in butterflies of all sizes, from the small skippers to the large monarchs. It is especially attractive to the smaller species which in our garden includes butterflies in the skipper family such as the long-tailed skippers, fiery skippers, silver spotted skippers.

Long-tailed skipper on ageratum
Long-tailed skipper on ageratum

Long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus)
Long-tailed skipper butterfly (Urbanus proteus)
Ageratum is a member of the aster family and if you look closely you may see a resemblance to Joe-Pye weed which is in the same family.

Fiery skipper on ageratum
Fiery skipper feasting on blue mist flower

Fiery skipper butterfly (Hylephila phyleus)
Fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus)
In addition to butterflies, late summer and fall blooming plants in the asteraceae family provide food for many insects which in turn provide food to insect-eating birds such as bluebirds, orioles, and warblers.

American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)
American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis)

common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)
Common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)
The storms which have swept across the eastern part of the country over the past few days have helped the monarchs flutter along in the direction of our garden. Today I counted 7 monarchs all camped out on the ageratum.

There was a steady wind with some fairly strong wind gusts and the monarchs really had to cling tightly not to get blown off. The conditions made it challenging not only for the butterflies but also the photographer trying to get some decent shots.

Seven must be our lucky number because oddly, two years ago when we had monarch butterflies migrate through in the fall, there were also seven. I hope that you are so blessed as to have these gorgeous butterflies make a stop in your garden on their journey south.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding Caterpillars of the Moth Variety

I am often asked to talk on butterfly gardening because people love having them flutter around their garden. Moths often take a back seat to butterflies since most of them fly at night and lets be honest they have a  reputation as being a pest. This is unfortunate because they produce some of the most spectacular caterpillars and they are an important factor in a diverse garden habitat not only as pollinators but also as a food source.

The cooler, autumn temperatures mean that we are spending significantly more time in the garden and it is an excellent time to go exploring. In the past two weeks our boys have found several extraordinary species of moths in their larval stage.

white flannel moth caterpillar on redbud
white flannel moth caterpillar on redbud tree

We identified this one as the white flannel moth caterpillar (Norape ovina). It probably doesn't feel much like flannel and we're not about to touch it since it is a stinging caterpillar. It would be quite painful if you brushed against those clumps of short hairs covering its side and back and long hairs extruding from its body.

My son found one caterpillar munching away at the edge of a redbud leaf. Of course we spent several minutes looking for more and found at least seven on the underside of the leaves. These distinctively patterened black, yellow and orange caterpillars are pretty easy to spot once you start looking. Interestingly this colorful caterpillar will become a very ordinary white moth. According to my go to caterpillar book "Caterpillars of Eastern North America" by David L. Wagner, these caterpillars are found on black locust, elm, hackberry, redbud, greenbriar and other woody plants. 

While we were inspecting the redbud we found another fuzzy caterpillar, the American dagger moth (Acronicta americana). This is another one you don't want to touch since it can cause an irritation on your skin. We've found these in our garden before but never on the redbud tree.

American Dagger Moth
American Dagger Moth on Redbud
This is a fairly large sized caterpillar which is covered in fuzzy yellow or white hairs with distinctive black tufts. These caterpillars feed on a variety of host plants which include woodland trees: alders, maples, oaks, redbuds, poplar, elm, chestnut, birch, box elder, and willow. They are usually found on the underside of the leaves in the fall. They overwinter in their cocoons and emerge as brown moths the following summer. An important reason not to clean up all the leaf litter in your garden.!

Pawpaw sphinx caterpillar
Pawpaw Sphinx caterpillar on Holly 'Winter Gold'

A surprising find was this hornworm caterpillar on the holly 'Winter Gold'. I believe this to be the Pawpaw sphinx (Dolba hyloeus). It will host on blueberries, hollies, pawpaw, inkberry and sweetfern. As you can see this caterpillar is covered with cocoons of pupating braconid wasp so it won't be alive for long. It is our garden habitat at work.

Based on posts on Facebook and talking to fellow Master Gardeners the saddleback caterpillars (Acharia stimulea) are having a boom year. We found several on our coral honeysuckle plant. They are generalist so they feed on a variety of garden plants including aster, blueberry, buttonbush, maple, oak apple, cabbage and citrus.

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar on coral honeysuckle
There is no denying this alien looking caterpillar is a cool find but it is most often associated with its effect on humans if we rub up against one. It will cause painfully stinging and a rash. What I find so fascinating is how such colorful caterpillars turn into such plain looking moths.

Saddleback caterpillar

I often wonder when we find new species of insects in our garden if they were always there but our eyes hadn't been trained to find them yet or if they found our garden due to our habitat restoration efforts. Either way, they are a reassuring sign. I encourage everyone to get out in your garden or local park and check the underside of leaves and see what you find. Happy exploring!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year of the Fritillaries

I've notice over the past few years that each year one species of butterfly seems to have a banner year in my garden. I'm not sure why because all the elements are here for each stage of a number of butterfly species to thrive. Basically it isn't for lack of food. Perhaps it is the change in weather, perhaps an increase in predators, or perhaps they just naturally have boom years in their populations.

In 2012 we had tons of black swallowtail butterflies. I recorded 20 black swallowtail caterpillars on one bronze fennel plant in the spring of that year and we continued to host them on the fennel and parsley plants from spring to fall (you can see photos here). This year the fennel, parsley and golden alexander have been barren. Last year we saw record numbers of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterflies. They were everywhere! They host on the tulip popular trees which grow in abundance on our property as well as black cherry.

This year was slow getting started, I suspect due to our cold, wet winter but once it started the fritillaries dominated the garden. We have masses of orange butterflies fluttering all over the garden and it is a beautiful site!

gulf fritillary on passiflora vine

We have two species of fritillaries here in North Georgia, the gulf fritillary and the variegated fritillary. Both host on passiflora vine (aka maypop) and the variegated will also host on violas. We have masses of passionvine growing around the garden. It has happily self seeded in various locations. It makes a great ground cover but is even more stunning as a climbing vine. Check out the fruit, which thanks to the busy carpenter bees, make this happen.

passiflora fruit

There are hundreds of caterpillars munching away at the leaves. Sometimes the caterpillars even find it necessary to crawl over the blooms when they get in the way.

two instars of gulf fritillary caterpillars
two instars of gulf fritillary caterpillars on passion vine

variegated fritillary caterpillar on passiflora bloom
variegated fritillary caterpillar on passion vine bloom

The vines are a bustle of activity all day long. Bees, butterflies and all varieties of pollinators are visiting the blooms, caterpillars crawl from one leaf to the next, sometimes it is a race to see who gets there first;

two gulf fritillary caterpillars
two gulf fritillary caterpillars crawling tandem

three instars of fritillary caterpillars
three instar stages of fritillary caterpillars

Our house seems to be one of their favorite places to go to form their chrysalis. It looks a bit like Christmas with the caterpillars and chrysalises hanging from the brick, the door and window frames and patio.

gulf fritillary caterpillar in "J" begining to form chrysalis
gulf fritillary caterpillar hanging in "J" 
variegated fritilllary chrysalis
variegated fritillary chrysalis
Can you believe with all these chrysalis I have yet to witness on of these butterflies emerging? But based on the number of butterflies fluttering around they are having a banner year.

gulf fritillary butterflies mating
gulf fritillary butterflies mating
Have you experienced a similar fluctuation in your butterfly populations? We all know about the perils of the Monarch butterflies. We haven't seen any in our garden since fall of 2012 despite all the milkweed we've planted. I like to document the butterfly activity in our garden as it helps me analyze the habitat and be a better observer. I ask myself are there certain times of year where we are lacking nectar sources? Are there enough host plants? Are there enough overwintering sites available (leaf litter, bark, wood, etc.)? Are there new or an increase in predators? Fall is the best time of year to address these issues and I know I will be doing some more plant shopping over the next few weeks. I'm sure the butterflies will be even happier next year!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Controlling a Squash Beetle Invasion

This August we were away for more than three weeks leaving the garden to mostly fend for itself. This is only possible because I companion plant, rotate our crops each year, have good soil management and mostly importantly a wonderful husband who diligently kept the garden hydrated during the heat of the summer. But even with the best practices in place it seems that while the gardener is away the insects will play.

Our watermelon vines were invaded by a lady beetle look alike, known as the squash beetle (Epilachna borealis). This beetle is a native to Eastern North America and is larger than your typical beneficial lady beetle.

adult squash beetle on cucurbit with larvae on underside of leaf

Unlike most lady beetles which are a gardener's friend, since they eat loads of aphids and scale insects which feed on our fruits, vegetables and flowers, the squash beetle attacks the leaves of cucurbits which include squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, gourds, watermelons and cantaloupes; sucking on the tasty juices.

Southern Meadows

The squash beetle has an odd behavior of circling the leaf area that it feeds on. A study at the University of Delaware found that this feeding method preserves the leaf tissue's suitability for feeding because it reduces the influx of chemical defenses from the injured plant (source: Purdue University Extension). This typically creates a skeletonized appearance on the upper side of the leaves.

The larvae are yellow, alien looking creatures found mostly on the underside of the leaves. Aren't they creeping looking things?

Southern Meadows

According to the University of Purdue Extension the best time to control these insects is at noon since the beetles are easiest to find. They can be hand picked and placed in a container of soap and water. Be sure to check the underside of the leaves for eggs and larvae. I usually remove the entire leaf if their are eggs present or you can try to scrape them off.

The photo above shows old eggs but it will give you an idea of what to look for. They are very similar to the beneficial lady beetle eggs (yellow, bullet-shaped) but if you find them on cucurbits your probably safe in assuming they are from the squash beetle.

If you are not inclined to remove them by hand you can make a homemade spray of liquefied ingredients: garlic clove, small onion, fresh or powdered hot pepper (habanero, jalapeno or cayenne).  Add this to a quart of water and let steep for an hour. Strain off the solids and then add a drop of dish soap to your liquid solution. Spray this mixture onto the lady beetles (adults and larvae) that are on your cucurbits. If your not one to make your own spray Neem Oil is an option.

At the end of the growing season be sure to dispose of all the plant residue so you won't have any overwintering beetles in your soil. Rotating crops is a good practice to keep diseases and insects in check too but diligently attending a garden to catch the signs early is the best way to go! 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Bodacious Button Bush

Hands down the most popular plant in our garden right now is the button bush. (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Its like grand central station with all the different species of bees, flies, butterflies and other insects arriving and departing from this shrub from morning until night.

painted lady butterfly and bee on button bush
painted lady butterfly with bee on button bush

The flower balls are an excellent source of nectar for a variety of insects come mid-summer.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on button bush bloom
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Butterflies of all sizes and families enjoy nectaring on the pincushion flower heads from the smaller skippers to the mid-sized, painted lady and the larger swallowtails.

skipper butterfly on button bush
silver-spotted skipper on button bush
All variety of bees are also found drinking nectar and gathering pollen here. Honey bees use the pollen to produce honey.

Several syrphid flies also like to drink nectar from these spheres. We often see these flower flies making a circle around the blooms. Look closely at the photo below and you can see the fly drinking.

syrphid fly on button bush
Syrphid fly on button bush

Another really fascinating hover fly is the yellow jacket hover fly also known as the 'good news bee' because these guys will hover in front of you as if to give you the latest news from your garden.

Yellow jacket hover fly (Milesia virginiensis)

They are often mistaken for hornets since they fly aggressively and buzz loudly as if mimicking a hornet. Can you see the resemblance? But no worries, syrphid flies are completely harmless and good for your garden. Their larvae will eat lots of aphids.

yellow jacket hover fly 'Milesia,virginiensis'
Yellow jacket hover fly (Milesia virginiensis)
The button bush is usually found in swamps and marshes but it is tolerant of soil and moisture conditions once established. Ours is located at the bottom of a slopped area and it benefits from all the water run-off. We will be adding another one near our house in an area that tends to flood during heavy rains. It is perfect plant for a rain garden.

Button bush 'Cephalanthus occidentalis'

It is a great native alternative to the butterfly bush which is considered invasive in some parts of the country. And unlike the butterfly bush which is only a nectar source, the button bush is also a host plant to 18 different Lepidoptera species including the promethea moth, hydrangea sphinx, and dagger moth.  You may just be lucky enough to find a saddleback caterpillar on it! The button bush is hardy from zone 4 to 11 and will grow anywhere from 6 to 10 feet tall.

This is by far one of my favorite plants in our garden and one that every wildlife garden should include.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Finding Caterpillars

Can you hear it? I'm letting out a HUGE sigh of relief. Why you wonder. Well, I am very excited to report that at long last we have caterpillars! Yes, Caterpillars!

Southern Meadows

We have been patiently waiting for months to see signs from the butterfly community that they are back and strong. In my last post, Beyond Butterflies, I wrote about the lack of butterflies this year. Now, here we are in July and we are starting to see few more butterflies but I have yet to spot a male/female pair of the same species.  I have not seen any black swallowtail butterflies this season and they are typically numerous and frequent in our garden. There is not a black swallowtail caterpillar to be found on the parsley, fennel or golden alexander.

But its not all doom and gloom for every butterfly species. Sometime when we weren't looking the fritillary butterflies managed to find mates and have been laying eggs. I first found two variegated fritillary caterpillars on a viola in front of the house. We have lots of violas around the garden for this very reason. They migrate all over the garden and I just let them grow where they will hoping a gulf fritillary will find them. And they have!

Southern Meadows

This prompted me to look at the passion vine again. I had been checking them regularly but finding nothing for weeks so I honestly had stopped looking everyday. Much to my surprise I found this hungry caterpillar devouring a leaf. This was enough to get me jumping up and down in my garden boots.

Southern Meadows

But wait there are more, lots more! Aren't they gorgeous!

Southern Meadows

Southern Meadows

And, in all different instar stages too. I just needed to turn over a leaf or two and there they were.  Happy day! 

two variegated fritillary caterpillars on passion vine

Southern Meadows
The passion vine is also the host plant for the gulf fritillary butterfly and I found several of these caterpillars crawling around as well. Like the variegated fritillary, they are orange and black but missing the white markings.

Finding Caterpillars: Southern Meadows

Finding Caterpillars: Southern Meadows

This is really good news! Hopefully we will have a lot more fritillary butterflies fluttering about the garden in the next few weeks.  I am still keeping my fingers crossed that we will see other butterfly and moth families make their appearance very soon! Have you been seeing more butterflies in your garden yet?