BugFest Beauties

Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it now. So we might as well make peace with the landlord.

~Thomas Eisner

If it is September, it must be time for BugFest, the premier annual special event of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. In years past, it has ranked as the largest festival of its kind in the nation, a huge event about all things invertebrate, covering a couple of blocks of downtown Raleigh plus the entire museum facility. Last years’ event was totally online due to Covid, and this year had both an online and an in-person component. We participated in the Pollination Celebration last Saturday held at the museum’s field station in Raleigh, the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. The plan was to have it all outdoors with proper safety protocols, and to expect a much reduced turnout of visitors. Once again, I helped with the Caterpillarology booth, which I started oh-so-many years ago and is now run by Melissa and her staff. We figured we probably wouldn’t need as many caterpillars this year with fewer visitors and less table space, so we didn’t start collecting in earnest until a few days before. It turns out it has been a slow year for larvae and we were having trouble finding much in our early searches. Luckily, we all put in some extra hours the two days (and one productive night hunt with a UV flashlight) before the event and wrangled an adequate supply to engage a few hundred visitors that perused our luxurious larvae. Below are some of the highlights (we collected several more that pupated before their photo was taken)…

Our neighbor loaned us some of the many Monarch caterpillars that have found his milkweed garden in the woods (click photos to enlarge)
Always a favorite at the booth, an early instar Spicebush Swallowtail, showing off its bird poop and snake mimic characteristics
A last instar Spicebush Swallowtail is all decked out to fool would-be predators that it is actually a snake (gotta love those big fake eyes)
A Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar with orange and black warning colors advertising its bad taste
A Hummingbird Clearwing Moth larva on Viburnum
Another sphinx moth caterpillar (so-called hornworms due to the tail spike), this Walnut Sphinx larva is the only species of caterpillar I know of that produces a sound. When disturbed, it thrashes violently and hisses by expelling air out its spiracles. I love the texture of this species.
An elegant Hog Sphinx feeding on wild grape
The subtle blue colors on this Waved Sphinx are beautiful.
Although sparse for other types of larvae, it was a good year for sphinx moth caterpillars. They can be tricky to identify, but we think this is a Rustic Sphinx. Unfortunately, this one was parasitized and succumbed right after the event.
A Great Ash Sphinx on ash.
The camouflage of the leaf edge group of feeders, like this Wavy-lined Heterocampa, is quite impressive.
We always hope to find some of the Giant Silk Moth larvae as they tend to be show-stoppers. Our Polyphemus Moth caterpillar was nice and plump for the event.
We found several green color phase Imperial Moth larvae this year, but a couple were too high in the trees to collect. This was the largest caterpillar in this years’ program.
One of the staff at Prairie Ridge showed me a Redbud tree with three of these American Dagger caterpillars.
One of the more bizarre-looking larvae, this Lappet Moth (I think it is a Large Tolype Moth caterpillar) has fleshly appendages along its sides (lappets) that allow it to blend in very nicely with a twig. During most of the day, it hung head down on the twig of this plant and was barely visible to most viewers.
This Smartweed Caterpillar (also called the Smeared Dagger) is one of the so-called stinging caterpillars. The tufts of spines have venom sacs that can produce a bee sting-like pain if touched.
The Definite Tussock can supposedly cause skin irritation in sensitive people, but I have never had any issues with any of the tussocks crawling on my hand. This species is distinguished from the more common White-marked Tussock by its yellow tufts and head capsule.
White-marked Tussock Moth larvae have a red head capsule. I think its common name should be the toothbrush caterpillar.
This is the caterpillar you should definitely NOT touch. The Puss Moth caterpillar packs a powerful “sting” from tufts of spines hidden below the hair-like covering. These are generalist feeders on many hardwood tree species and pupate on tree branches, so most people never see this species, which is probably a good thing.
The beautiful Nason’s Slug larva is another of the stinging caterpillars. I suspect it is a very mild sting due to its small size.
The strange-looking Monkey Slug has numerous appendages that can break off as it matures. This early instar resembles a very hairy spider.
Our most common stinging caterpillar, the Saddleback, is one of my favorites. I have been stung many times over the years as I accidentally brush up against one while weeding in the garden. They are generalist feeders on a variety of herbs and woody plants. The sting is like a bee sting but the pain tends to fade quickly (on me, at least)
The rear end of a Saddleback sports a pair of fake eyes.
One of the most beautiful caterpillars we find every September is the ornate Crowned Slug. These are tough to find (they feed on tree leaves) unless you use a UV flashlight at night.

It was another great year of sharing the wonders of caterpillars with enthusiastic visitors. One benefit of the half-day program this year was that all the caterpillars (and pupae) were released back to their collection sites by day’s end. The only remnant of the day is a cage full of Monarch chrysalids on our porch. When the butterflies emerge, we will send them off on their long journey to Mexico.

11 thoughts on “BugFest Beauties

  1. Fascinating once again, Mike. I’m not a caterpillar freak like you, but have seen and admired many of these even in my ignorance. And now I know not to touch that Puss Moth that I have seen several times over the years. (Not often tempted to touch anyway.

    Hope you’ve been enjoying the rain.

  2. Excellent photos and variety! Thanks to you and Melissa for sharing all of your knowledge with us! I’ll have to add Nason’s and Smartweed to my wish list. Do you happen to know what plants they were found on, lower or upper, and with UV or not? Does the Monkey slug have less hairs than when first found?

    • Thanks, Peri. We enjoyed hanging out with you guys, and thanks for finding some of the larvae we shared at BugFest. The Nason’s was on Sweetgum (but I have found them on many hardwood trees). This one as underneath the leaf, which is generally where we have seen them, and we found it with a UV light. The Smartweed caterpillar was on Sycamore and found in daylight. We usually find them on Cattail, but that may be because that is where we look. They seem to feed on almost anything. They are highly variable in color, and there is some debate apparently as to whether they can actually “sting”. Tis is not the same Monkey Slug as the one we found. I could not find that one again but we found an earlier instar one, and they are, indeed, less hairy. Keep up with your list!

  3. oh!  We were there tattooing people! – and then back for the Moth Party.  I have a BUNCH of leftover chocolANT cookies that I brought home to share… Njeri “Wherever you are, it is your friends who make your world…” –William James

  4. I’m surprised so many charismatic caterpillars were still out in late September! I think I found a few red-phase waved sphinx caterpillars on an ash sapling at Falls Lake State Recreation Area in early September one year. The smallest was red with yellow markings while the larger ones had more typical coloration, but with red markings. I haven’t had a problem with smeared dagger moth or Io moth caterpillars stinging so far; I’m not sure if I gave a saddleback the chance. Now I would think it is getting to the end of active caterpillar season for many species. Caterpillars of Eastern North America says hickory horned devils can be found as late as November, but I’ve only encountered one once, and not in the fall.

    • Prime time for many caterpillars seems to be late Summer. As September passes, it gets harder and harder to find many species. By mid-October, it gets even tougher, although I still usually find some slug caterpillars until hard frost. I have only found Hickory-horned devils in late Summer and early Fall.

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