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?


A visit from the queen


The temperature today was an incredibly balmy 8 degrees Celsius. This was a one-off, however, because a cold front is supposed to roll in tonight and tomorrow is forecasted to be -10 oC (I shouldn’t complain; today in the Canadian prairies it was -50. Before windchill). Still, the warm weather was nice. I wasn’t the only one to think so. This afternoon I found a wasp crawling, somewhat sluggishly, along the windowsill in the den.

In my very first post I talked about the appearance of ladybugs mid-winter. Wasps are very similar visitors. They crawl in to cracks in the walls of the house in the fall when looking for hibernation spots to spend the winter. Normally they would only come out when the warmer spring weather finally arrives, but warm spells can cause a few to come out prematurely. Those that chose to hibernate in your house will quite often go the “wrong” way, toward the warmer temperatures inside, and end up crawling along your floor or windowsill.

Wasps are like honeybees, in that most species spend the majority of their year living in colonies. There’s a queen who “rules” the colony, although her primary job is simply laying eggs. There are sterile worker wasps, who spend their time collecting food for the young grubs and the queen (and themselves), repairing and defending the nest. And there are fertile male wasps, whose only job is to mate with new queens.


In the spring, a new queen, who mated with a male before going into hibernation in the fall and stored the sperm inside her, will pick a site for the nest and start a new colony. Depending on the species, she may start it alone, or with a few of her sisters who overwintered with her. She lays fertilized eggs, which develop into sterile female workers. She’ll care for the first couple of broods herself, but once there are enough workers to tend to the eggs and larvae properly, she concentrates on just laying more eggs. Once the sperm runs out, in mid- to late summer, the unfertilized eggs grow into fertile males and new fertile queens, who go out and mate, and start the cycle again. The wasps that turn up in your house in the middle of winter are all young mated females who have gone into hibernation till the spring. All the other groups – the original queen, the sterile workers and the males – died once the weather turned cold (if not before).

These mated females are stingless. The initial reaction upon seeing a wasp, particularly if you have kids or pets, is to worry about someone getting stung. However, the stinger in wasps and bees is a modified ovipositor (the body part used to lay eggs). Males don’t have an ovipositor to begin with, and mated females need theirs to lay their eggs come spring. Only the sterile worker females have the ability to sting. I suppose she could give you a good chomp with those powerful jaws (look at the size of them in that first photo!), but it’s unlikely to feel like more than a pinch. Paper wasps use their jaws to strip bits of wood from logs or dead trees, which they then mix with saliva to create the “paper” used in building their grey papery nests. If you spend a lot of time on your deck in the summer, you might catch one collecting wood from the deck or siding.


Wasps are generally predatory, preying on other insects, although they can sometimes be seen feeding on the nectar of flowers. The particular composition of their diet depends on the species. They’re useful to have around your yard because they’ll take care of many other undesirable bugs in your garden or around your home. As long as you don’t actively disturb their nest, or pester an individual (intentionally or not), they’re generally fairly docile, willing to let you do your thing while they do theirs. If it’s a mild day when you come across a wasp in your house, let her crawl onto a piece of paper and then transport her outside, where she can find herself a new hibernation spot, and she’ll take care of your garden for you come spring.

Out for a bite to eat


Someone else the recent warm spell brought out is the Red Squirrel that lives at my parents’. They’re rarely seen in the winter, and they tend to be grouped into the “hibernators” category. In fact, there are very few true hibernators, with ground squirrels and bats being the primary groups to do so in North America. Even bears aren’t true hibernators, with only slightly depressed body temperatures and awareness (compare some ground squirrels whose body temperatures may drop to below 0 degrees Celsius!)

Despite what I thought while growing up, Red Squirrels don’t hibernate in the winter either. Instead, they build caches of food near their nest during the fall, which they use, in combination with stored body fat, to get through the winter. They spend most of the winter within their nest, minimizing their amount of activity, and therefore required energy. Because their caches are usually quite close to their nest, they don’t have to stray far, or be out for long, and are not seen often as a result.


So I was delighted to notice that the warm spell had encouraged the resident Red Squirrel to venture out to the feeders to stock up the cache. He (or she) was incredibly quick, dashing from the roof down the tree to the driveway, grabbing a few seeds and perhaps a chunk of bread (my mom throws out the end slices as a treat for the crows), and then turning tail and dashing back up the tree with barely a hesitation. Most of the photos I got of him were of his rear end as he paused to gather some food.

I think he may have been nesting in my parents’ attic, or alternatively in the spruce trees that line the back of the house (the branches of which are a squirrel’s jump away from the edge of the roof). I could tell when he was coming back to the tree to scurry down to the driveway because of the pitter-patter of little feet across the roof above. Red Squirrels usually maintain several nests within their territory (which may be up to 50m in diameter), but tend to favour White Spruce as the nest tree. Spruce seeds make up more than half of the average Red Squirrel’s diet.


I find Red Squirrels to be especially wary. When walking in the woods, they don’t hesitate to dash up a tree and sit on a branch scolding you, even before chipmunks or Gray Squirrels that might also be in the area. In the case of this guy, I had to either be very still at the window (which meant standing with my camera posed for the shot), or stand back from the window. At the slightest movement he would dash halfway back up the tree, where he would pause and investigate the threat (me) for a moment or two. Either that, or take back off straight up the tree if he’d already gathered up some food.

More often than not, this was the shot I got!