Christmas moth

0867 - Agonopterix pulvipennella - Featherduster Agonopterix

This week has been busy. I handmade my gifts this year, and between those and Christmas baking and other pre-Christmas tasks I’ve been pretty wrapped up. I had a few photos in backlog that I’d been trying to decide between for today’s post, but hadn’t settled on one yet. Then, as I was down in the basement gathering up some wood for the fire, a small moth fluttered in front of my nose and landed on the wall, where it patiently waited for me to get my camera and return. It was as if it was saying to me, write about me!

So I am. It’s just a little guy, a micromoth not more than a centimeter (<1/2″) long. The shape was immediately distinctive: the fairly even rectangle is a characteristic of the genus Agonopterix. This one is A. pulvipennella, Featherduster Agonopterix, as by the large dark patches; there’s usually a small white dot at the bottom of the dark patch, too, but it seems to be obscured on this one. The common name is of my own invention; I couldn’t see any indication of a previously-coined common name, so this is what I chose for the forthcoming field guide. It’s from the scientific name: pulvi means pulverized or dusty, and pennella means feathered or feathers. Neither seem to have any real connection to this species. Technically, pulvipennalla should probably translate to something like dusty-feathered, but I thought featherduster was more fun. Particularly over the alternative of a description-based name like Dark-patched Agonopterix. And that’s how common names are chosen, folks. Yup, surprised me, too, when I looked into it.

It’s a common species of Agonopterix, its larvae feeding on goldenrod, and is one I’ve seen during the winter before. Like many species of insects, including the ubiquitous Asian ladybug, these moths overwinter in their adult stage, and will crawl into cracks in your house where they’re protected. Some might squirm in so far they get confused, and end up coming out the other side during winter thinking it’s spring already. Or sometimes mild spells can do the same thing, and the moth just goes the wrong way when it goes to leave. Most overwintering moths are fairly cold-hardy, so it doesn’t take much warming to coax them out.

It’s funny that he should show up today, because over at Wanderin’ Weeta Susannah also posted about a Christmas moth that turned up at her place yesterday (hers was a Bruce Spanworm, a hardy, late-flying species that can sometimes be found in warmish days through early winter).

Mid-winter moth sighting

Agonopterix pulvipennella

Speaking of hibernating insects, last night when I went to brush my teeth I discovered this little guy on the wall. The last time I saw a moth was probably back in November; generally speaking they’re not the sort of bug you expect to be out and about in mid-winter. So I was a little surprised to see it. I took some photos but otherwise left it alone. It was gone by the next morning.

I’m relatively new into moths as a group, but I’m fairly certain this one is Agonopterix pulvipennella. Moths are the sort of creatures where they’re either so obviously distinct it’s hard to mix them up with something (for example, a Luna Moth), or so similar to six other species that you really wonder just what criteria was being used in calling them unique. This one falls into the latter category. The key here is the dark spot on the wings, with a little white spot at the bottom, and a broad pale arch that crosses the shoulders and joins the two dark spots. But it takes a bit of scrutiny to identify, and it still looks like a bunch of other Agonopterix species.

A. pulvipennella, it turns out, doesn’t die with the cold weather, like many insects do, but rather overwinters as an adult, and then comes out to breed in the spring. Like the ladybugs and wasps, it will often choose cracks in the walls of your house to crawl into to settle down for the winter. When the weather warms up a little, they can end up in your house. What was funny about this one is that yesterday it was rather nippy out (not helped by the gale-force winds), so I guess it’d come out the day before (when it was nice and mild) and had been hanging around, unseen.

It seems to be a relatively common and widespread species, found throughout much of northeastern North America. The larvae feed on the leaves of goldenrod and nettle during the summer. They pupate in late summer, and adults emerge starting in August. Although the moths are about throughout the fall and into the spring, they’re apparently most commonly seen in the spring, which seems sort of funny to me. Perhaps because, to a moth, UV wavelengths mimic the pheromones of a female, they’re more likely to be attracted to lights, where we can see them, in the spring when looking for a mate?