The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
Our booth, Caterpillarology, was a tiny fraction of the hundreds of educational opportunities available at the museum’s annual BugFest event last weekend. This was the first time in a few years (that pandemic thing) that the museum has hosted a full scale BugFest and we were excited to participate once again. Staff and volunteers spent hours searching for, collecting, and then feeding over 50 species of local larvae to showcase at the event. Based on my cracking voice at the end of the day, I would say it was a huge success as we had a steady stream of visitors observing our caterpillars and asking questions for a solid seven hours. Though it doesn’t include all the species, here are photos of some of the stars of the show. Almost all have now been released back into the wild (we are raising a couple of species until they pupate to protect them from predation/parasitism and then will release that stage back into suitable habitat). Looking forward to next year’s event and what we may find.
Spicebush Swallowtail ( Papilio troilus) caterpillar. The large fake eye spots, its habit of creating folded leaf shelters to hide in, and the woodcock-like creeping motion (it often bobs its head as it crawls) make this common species a crowd favorite. Look for these on Spicebush and Sassafras. (click photos to enlarge)
A close relative to the larva above is this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail ( Papilio glaucus). Favorite host plants include Tulip Poplar and Wild Cherry.
An early instar White Furcula ( Furcula borealis). The long “tails” are actually the anal prolegs. When disturbed, the caterpillar shunts fluid into them, they greatly elongate, and are then whipped about as a defense.
Waved Sphinx ( Ceratomia undulosa) on ash. Most sphinx moth larvae are adorned with a horn (hence the name hornworm) on their posterior. The exact function of the horn is not known, although it may serve as a visual predator deterrent. I have had many people tell me they think they can sting (but they can’t).
A Snowberry Clearwing ( Hemaris diffinis) larva on Japanese Honeysuckle. This caterpillar turns into a day-flying bumblebee-mimic moth.
A Hummingbird Clearwing ( Hemaris thysbe). I once had someone ask about the really tiny hummingbirds at their flowers…it turned out to be the adults of this caterpillar, another day-flying moth.
This Hog Sphinx ( Darapsa myron) was captured by accident as I brought in some wild grape vine to feed another larval species. I snipped some vine from the yard, brought it in and Melissa spotted this little guy. Guess I need to look before I snip. This species varies in color from brown to green to yellow.
Pink-striped Oakworm ( Anisota virginiensis) on Red Oak. These often occur in large clusters as female moths may lay several hundred eggs on one branch.
Lace-capped Moth larva ( Oligocentria lignicolor). Like many of the prominent caterpillars, these larvae eat away a portion of the leaf and then rest their body along the chewed edge to camouflage themselves.
Another leaf edge larva, a Unicorn Caterpillar ( Schizura unicornis) (see, unicorns ARE real).
A Clear Dagger Moth ( Acronicta clarescens) caterpillar withdrawing its head capsule as a defensive posture.
Grapeleaf Skeletonizer ( Harrisina americana). Touching this tiny larva may result in a skin rash on sensitive individuals.
Luna Moth larva ( Actias luna) on hickory. In our area, Sweet Gum is usually the primary host plant, but we also found them on this tree and a Persimmon.
The largest Polyphemus Moth ( Antheraea polyphemus) caterpillar we have ever seen! They are often confused with Luna Moth larvae, but lack the prominent red dots and the lateral line of the latter. Oaks and River Birch are the primary hosts.
Another of the big caterpillars this year was this beautiful green Imperial Moth ( Eacles imperialis) larva. They come in a variety of colors from this leafy green to brown, red, and salmon. All are easily recognized by their long setae (hairs) and prominent white spiracles (breathing ports along the side).
The true star of the show, a Hickory Horned Devil ( Citheronia regalis), was given to us by a friend in Southern Pines. North America’s largest caterpillar is always a delight to find, but, due to the usual timing of BugFest, is a tough one for us to get as they usually pupate by early September. This one stopped feeding and started turning blue-green in color the night before the event, indicating it was preparing to pupate. At the end of the day, we placed it in a tub of soil and it quickly buried itself to form a pupal chamber and shed its caterpillar skin one last time to turn into a pupa. It will spend the winter underground before emerging as a Royal Walnut Moth next summer.
These early instar Cecropia Moth ( Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillars were raised in the museum’s Arthropod Zoo. They will grow to be almost as large as the Hickory Horned Devil before forming their cocoons.
This beautiful larva is a Saddleback Caterpillar ( Acharia stimulea), one of the so-called “stinging” caterpillars. They possess spines that can inject small amounts of venom into anything they touch. The resulting sting feels much like a wasp sting.
This beauty is a Stinging Rose Caterpillar ( Parasa indetermina) from the Sandhills. They also occur in orange or red and can be found on a variety of woody plants.
One of my favorite slug caterpillars, the Crowned Slug ( Isa textula). David L. Wagner, in his wonderful field guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, sums up the bizarre slug caterpillars as being “more fantasy than reality”. As a group, the slug caterpillars often become the favorites of anyone that gets interested in caterpillars, and I admit to thinking they are the coolest of the Lepidopteran larvae.
This Yellow-shouldered Slug caterpillar has a tachinid fly egg on it (the white oval near the bottom of the larva). The fly larva hatches shortly after the egg is laid and burrows into the caterpillar, eating it from the inside and eventually killing the host.
The unusual shape is a diagnostic feature of the odd Skiff Moth ( Prolimacodes badia) larva. Unlike most of the slug caterpillars, these do not have stinging spines, but can emit a foul-smelling liquid when disturbed. The white spots may be an adaptation to deceive tachinid flies from laying their eggs since female flies may not lay an egg on a caterpillar that is already infected with the parasitoid.
Black-waved Flannel Moth ( Megalopyge crispata) larva on Persimmon. The dense hairs hide spiny warts which can inflict a painful sting. This species feeds on a variety of hardwood leaves.
Another Black-waved Flannel Moth showing the color variation in this species.
The Puss Caterpillar (aka Southern Flannel Moth, Megalopyge opercularis) is a species you definitely do not want to touch. The stinging spines beneath the dense hairs pack a powerful punch that can send worried victims to the ER due to the long-lasting pain. Most people never encounter this unusual caterpillar as it usually spends its entire life cycle from egg to pupa up in the branches of various hardwood trees.
A museum staffer collected this species, a Southern Tussock Moth ( Dasychira meridonalis). I have never encountered this unusual caterpillar, which, to me, looks a bit like a spider-mimic.
We found this fuzzy American Dagger ( Acronicta americana) at night using a UV flashlight. Many species glow under UV light, making them easier to locate, although this species can be readily spotted during the day due to its long white or yellow setae.
A harmless, but spiky, Gulf Fritillary ( Agraulis vanillae) caterpillar on Passion-vine.
This strange mystery caterpillar was found on a blackberry plant near Raleigh. A local entomologist tentatively identified it as a type of tiger moth larva, but we have not been able to pin it down as yet.
Another strange-looking larva, the Harris’ Three-spot ( Harrisimemna trisignata). It mimics a bird-dropping and possibly a spider. It also has the unusual habit of retaining its shed head capsules on long setae. It supposedly uses these as a club to ward off small parasitoid flies and wasps.
Perhaps the most bizarrely shaped caterpillar we have is this Curve-lined Owlet ( Phyprosopus callitrichoides). It feeds on greenbrier vines and the long extensions from its body look a lot like the tendrils on the vine.
A later instar of a Curve-lined Owlet showing how it is also a dead leaf mimic. It even vibrates slightly when disturbed, looking like a dried up leaf segment gently fluttering in the breeze.