Moths and ants

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

First, a note to say that The Moth and Me #13 is finally up at Today in NJ Birding History. Better late than never, as it’s got a great collection of moth-themed posts pulled together into one spot. Make sure you swing by to check out all the mothy goodness!

And second, I thought I’d take a break from work on the moth guide long enough to share a couple of recent insect sightings. The first, above, is actually a moth as well: a Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe. Dan was the first to discover these guys out in our garden, noticing them visiting the phlox in the evening. I’d been watching for them, but had yet to see any. I’ve even planted some Liatris, Blazing Star, expressly because I knew the clearwings liked to visit them during the day. I don’t know what I’d do without Dan to find all these neat things for me.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

Dan caught one of the moths using my butterfly net and tucked it in the fridge to cool for photos. The top photo is of the moth after its photo session, still cool enough that it sat quietly on Dan’s finger. They were relatively unwary, as insects go, allowing for fairly close approach as they went about their business in the garden. My Liatris just has a couple of flower spikes, but we have wide swaths of phlox and it was to this latter plant that they seemed to primarily be coming.

Hummingbird Clearwings are not much smaller than their namesake garden birds, and from a distance quite resemble them as they hover at the flowers sipping nectar. They are day-flying moths, and can be encountered anytime during the daylight hours, though I find them to be more active in the evening. In the larger patches of phlox I find I often notice them first by sound, rather than by sight, as their wings beat so fast as to produce a loud buzz, more distinctive even, perhaps, than that of a hummingbird’s wings.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

They are one of the most readily seen of the sphinx moths in our area, if only because the majority of the others fly at night. In a garden with appropriate nectar flowers – phlox, liatris, and bee balm are favourites – they’re not even that uncommonly seen, but if your garden lacks good plants, or if your surrounding area is missing the caterpillars’ host plant (hawthorn, honeysuckle and Prunus species such as cherries or plums), you might never see one. I was in university before I saw one, which surprises me a little, as there were certainly plenty of the host plants where I grew up, and my mom maintained a beautiful garden of perennials. Was I just not looking for them before that?

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

I really wish this photo had been in focus, but at least you can still see the moth. And in particular, you can see its long proboscis, curled as it flies from one flower to another. The proboscis is a hollow tube that the moth uses to suck up nectar, and in this species is nearly as long as its body. Often the length of the proboscis corresponds to the length of the flower tubes that the species prefers to visit, and indeed both phlox and bee balm are long-tubed flowers.

(This reminds me of the Darwin’s Comet Orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, a Madagascar species with an incredibly long nectar spur that is only pollinated by a species of sphinx moth with an incredibly long proboscis – 12 inches long, in fact. I first saw this in a nature documentary on tv, but through the wonders of the intarwebs, you can watch the segment here on YouTube.)

Ants with aphids

On to other observations. A couple of days ago we made our last visit of the summer to our Blue Lakes MAPS site. It was quiet again – we suspect widespread breeding failure in our region, as the last few visits have been universally slow at all of our stations, a period when typically we’d be catching lots of young-of-the-year as they disperse from their natal territories. Even the woods were quiet, with very little bird activity, just the odd small flock here and there and hardly any late-summer birdsong. Given that birds were sparse we had to pass the time in other ways: reading a book, taking a nap, or, you know, looking at other things.

There were a handful of small saplings near the side of the path in one of the clearings that were absolutely covered in ants. After a couple of empty net checks I finally took my camera along to try to peer a bit closer.

Ants with aphids

The ants were only on these four or five trees, all of them Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides). They were congregated thickly along the thin twiggy trunks and side-branches, with very few bothering with the leaves. I had a feeling I knew what was going on, and sure enough, upon close inspection I could detect aphids on the bark where the ants were thickest. I blew a few of the ants off to try to get a photo of the aphids (below), but the ants were quick to move in to take their sisters’ places, so I had to be quick. It’s not the greatest of photos, as I just had my wide-angle lens with me and not my macro, but it’s sufficient for getting the idea, anyway.

Ants with aphids

I’m not sure what species of aphid this is, though Chaitophorus stevensis, a specialist on Trembling Aspen, is a possibility. Some aphids will pierce the soft bark of young twigs or stems, while others will target the thin membrane of leaves or leaf veins. These ones seemed to be of the former group. The ants are there as “farmers”, tending the “herds” of aphids and harvesting the sugary secretions of honeydew much the way humans maintain herds of Holstein cattle to collect their milk. The aphids benefit from having the ants around, too, as the ants stand around with their formic-acid shotguns and chase off any wolves or competing farmers from their herd.

Of course, the aphids aren’t entirely given a choice about their situation: in some ant-aphid relationships, the ants will actually bite the wings off the aphids to prevent them from leaving; in others, chemical secretions from the ant stunt the development of the aphids’ wings. The same chemicals on the ants’ feet that they use in laying communication trails for other ants are also used as a tranquilizer, keeping their aphid herds calm and subdued (though it could be argued that actually the aphids are simply recognizing which side their bread is buttered on and using the chemical trails as a boundary marker so they don’t inadvertently wander off too far).

That’s all for this week. Back to the grindstone!


The Moth and Me #12

The latest edition of The Moth and Me, #12, is up over at The Skeptical Moth. Chris has done a great job compiling the varied posts, in the process reflecting on his own “mothing journey”. You should, at the very least, head over to check out this month’s TMaM – but while you’re there, spend some time browsing some of Chris’s other excellent content, too!

TMaM heads to Today in NJ Birding History for edition #13 – and despite convention, I consider 13 to be a lucky number, so make sure you remember to participate in what will surely be an outstanding edition! Send your submission to Jennifer (ammodramus88 AT or to myself (canadianowlet AT by July 13.

We’re looking for hosts for August and beyond! It’s easy and fun, and only takes an hour or two (or several, if you’re the type to go crazy with it…). If you’re interested in hosting, send me an email indicating what month you’d like to sign up for.

The Moth and Me #11

The Moth and Me #11 is now up over at Beetles in the Bush. Ted only hosted his first carnival a few months ago, but he’s an old pro at it now. His moth carnival is an excellent installment, taxonomically organized with great additional information about each of the groups highlighted. This month’s edition contains 15 entries from 9 contributors, and is definitely worth a read – you’ll learn something new just from reading through Ted’s post, even before following the links to all the others. Check it out!

TMaM is headed to The Skeptical Moth for the June edition. Send Chris or myself (canadianowlet [at] gmail [dot] com) your submissions by June 13.

The Moth and Me #10 – Down to the letter

A is for April, and new moths each day;
B is for busy, that keeps us away;
C is for common, but colourful, too;
D is for dozens, old friends and new;
E is for empty, hatched out last night;
F is for flashy, in black, orange and white;
G is for green-eyed, a harlequin show;
H is for headless, face curled below;
I is for interest, look closer at these;
J is for joyful, it’s now E.S.T.;
K is for knowledge for folks in UK;
L is for locals, don’t wait long, do they?
M is for moth club, each week in the park;
N is for new moths that fly in the dark;
O is for outfit with gear that you need;
P is for publish, great words we can read;
Q is for quakers, and others besides;
R is for rain moths, of startling size;
S is for surveys (go out and have fun!);
T is for toxic, enjoying the sun;
U is for under the stars with hot toddies;
V is for velvety fur-thickened bodies;
W is for welcome, a chance to say hi;
X is for xenos, for strangers dropped by;
Y is for yawning – that’s all for tonight;
Z is for zillion more moths yet to sight.

The next The Moth and Me will be hosted by Ted at Beetles in the Bushsend him your posts by May 13th for inclusion in the next edition!

And don’t forget to join in on May 15th for National Moth Night. If you’re in the UK, submit your results to the official National Moth Night database. And though the rest of us can’t submit our results, we can still go out and see what we get! Perhaps invite a few friends over, or spend time with the kids – marvel over the incredible diversity (May is a great time for moths) but most of all, have fun!

November blog carnivals

Two blog carnivals to announce today. The first is The Moth and Me, a carnival I started up back in the March of this year to celebrate my second-favourite group of living organisms. This month’s edition is the final one of 2009, and was hosted by Susannah of Wanderin’ Weeta. Check out the excellent assortment of moth-related blog posts that she’s assembled to give us another reason to be glad the earth is not flat.

The Moth and Me will return in March 2010, when it will be hosted by Jason of Xenogere. Send your submissions to jason AT xenogere D0T com by March 13th. We’re looking for hosts for April 2010 and beyond. If you’re interested in hosting, send me a note at sanderling AT symbiotic D0T ca.

Also recently up is the 113th edition of I and the Bird. Matt at The Modern Naturalist has put together an enjoyable edition filled with quotations and verse. Matt put a lot of work into this one – head over and check it out.