Jul 272012

So now that National Moth Week is in full swing and you’ve been checking your porch lights at night and flower beds throughout the day, you’re probably looking for some way to identify all the great new additions to your natural history lists.

There are a variety of guides, keys and other identification resources out there for Lepidoptera, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t taken much time to look through them, these are the ones I turn to first when I absolutely need to identify a “lep”.

Butterflies & Skippers

National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American ButterfliesButterflies are what my friends and I like to call “honourary birds” because there are so many people out looking for them, and there are a large number of field guides produced to help with their identification. My personal choice is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, which has fairly good live photos and detailed life history information. If I were to nitpick, I’d wish for actual range maps rather than range descriptions, and more photos of the butterflies would be nice (especially for those species which are only illustrated with one photo — a couple of times I’ve not been able to ID my photos because the representative photo had its wings closed while my photo had its wings open or vice versa).

I recently downloaded the digital app version of this field guide for my iPhone, and absolutely loved it! The Audubon Society has added plenty of new photos and still included all of the natural history information from the print edition (although still no maps…). Being in a digital format means that searching for species is a breeze, and they’ve added some social media connectivity, allowing you to share your finds from the field to Facebook. They also offer personal accounts so you can keep lists of your sightings which work across all of their field guide apps (I also have their North American Insects, Birds, Mammals, Flowers and Trees apps on my phone). I love having all this natural history information literally in my pocket and available whenever and wherever I may be!

Normally $10 (which is cheap compared to the print version at $15-25) the app is available for both Apple and Android devices. Even better, the team at Audubon has dropped the price for the app to just $0.99 until Sunday July 29th in honour of National Moth Week! Definitely a great deal and well worth a Loonie (or dollar bill).


Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North AmericaUntil recently I never really had a good guide to moths that I could reliably get IDs from. Normally I’d have to figure out what family they belonged to, and then start searching through BugGuide to find a photo of something that looked about right. Needless to say, that took a long damn time and resulted in me not paying much attention to moths beyond a casual ID of big species.

All that’s changed now that I’ve got a copy of David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie‘s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. This field guide is fantastic, and a great addition to both the Peterson field guide family and my collection. The book seems nearly comprehensive for the area (there are a few noticeable things not included, like the wingless female Fall Cankerworm I showcased the other day – the winged male is included though), apparently including nearly 1,500 species, ranging from tiny micro-moths to big eye-catching species, and the photos are excellent for helping with identifications. Its taken me a little bit of time to learn the different groups and body forms of moths that are used to group similar things together, but the authors included a really useful silhouette guide at the back of the book to help n00bs like myself (one nit pick: I wish they had included page numbers under the silhouettes directing you to the start of the appropriate section). Every page also includes a life-sized shadow for a moth on the page, with the remaining images on the page displayed to scale appropriately. Because the guide includes so many species it can be tough finding the correct group to start with, but there’s only been a couple of species that I’ve been stumped by so far. At 610 pages it’s not a small guide, and there is very limited natural history information included, with the authors choosing to include bigger photos over other information (which is fine with me). Plus they have graphical range maps and flight periods, and indicate how common or rare each species is which I really like.

I can definitely see myself picking up a 2nd copy to leave up at the cottage, and I can see myself paying a little more attention to moths from now on now that I’m confident I can identify them!

Technical Keys

Of course if you can’t seem to identify a moth or butterfly, you can always turn to a technical key like Jason Dombroskie’s CJAI matrix key to the Lepidoptera of Canada (I wrote up my thoughts on it previously). It’s certainly not for beginners, and usually requires a dead, preserved specimen and observation under a microscope or magnifying loupe, but if all else fails, it is as good a resource as any.
Do you have a favourite guide to identify moths and butterflies? Feel free to leave your suggestions below in the comments, I’m always looking to expand my collection!

Jul 272012
Banded Tussock Moth - Halysidota tessellaris

Banded Tussock Moth – Halysidota tessellaris – Toronto, Ontario

While some common names are great descriptors of a moth’s biology, some can be rather deceiving. Take the Banded Tussock moth for example, which although banded, isn’t a true tussock moth! While the “true” tussock moths are in the subfamily Lymantriinae, this moth is actually a tiger moth in the Arctiinae. The larvae of this moth have large tufts of hairs that are reminiscent of those found on “true” tussock moth caterpillars, which is where the common name comes from. These tufted larvae can be found feeding on a wide diversity of deciduous trees.

Tiger moths are known for their ability to hear incoming sonar pings of bat predators, and some have even evolved sonic countermeasures. The Banded Tussock moth was one of the first moths shown to protect themselves from bats by emitting high-frequency sounds (Dunning & Roeder, 1965). Remembering back to my undergraduate Physiology classes, I recall there being 2 ways in which these sonic displays could deter bats: 1) as a warning that the moth was distasteful and the bat should move on to something more tasty (the acoustic equivalent to the bright colours found on many other tiger moths and insects), and 2) some moths emitted a frequency so close to the bat’s sonar that they could disrupt the bat’s orientation and become hidden in a curtain of sonic feedback. Which method this species enlists I’m not sure, but I find it amazing that some moths have adopted such extreme defenses.

Of course, being loud isn’t going to save you from all potential threats, like the tachinid parasitoid Blondelia hyphantriae.

Dunning, D.C. & Roeder, K.D. (1965). Moth Sounds and the Insect-Catching Behavior of Bats, Science, 147 (3654) 174. DOI: 10.1126/science.147.3654.173

Jul 262012
Basswood Leafroller - Pantographa limata

Basswood Leafroller – Pantographa limata – Toronto, Ontario

This may be one of my new favourite Ontario moths; I find the colour and pattern of the wings to be quite striking. It also has one of the more literal common names, as the larvae role up leaves of a diversity of trees, including basswoods (Tilia). Although called a leafroller, this moth belongs in the family Crambidae, not the Tortricidae where most other leafrollers are found.

The Basswood Leafroller is host to tachinid parasites in the genus Carcelia, as well as Nilea erecta. Basswood Leafroller caterpillars have also been considered “Tasty” to Paraponeura clavata ants in Costa Rica.

Jul 252012
Tussock Moth - Ecuador

Tussock Moth (?) – Bella Vista Cloud Forest Reserve, Ecuador

Another day in the jungle, another moth I can’t identify. I’m less confident that this is a true tussock moth (Erebidae, Lymantriinae), but it does have the posture and the somewhat fluffy legs. No matter what it is, it was a jewel to find while in the cloud forests of Ecuador.

As a bonus, I even managed to snag a little nematoceran fly in the photo!

Jul 242012
Sphinx Moth - Ecuador

Sphinx Moth – Ecuador

The cryptic colouration of this sphinx moth likely protects it from bird predation during the day while it’s resting among the jungle foliage. Much as camo clothing won’t keep a person hidden in the middle of a parking lot, this cryptic colouration did diddly squat when an undergraduate student decided to release the moth off a second storey balcony in mid-afternoon while surrounded by Amazonian jungle! The ill-fated moth didn’t make it 20 feet before it was picked out of the air by a lucky fly catcher and dismantled in a poof of scales.

At least the students learned a little lesson on how not to release insects…

Jul 242012
Virginia Ctenucha - Ctenucha virginica moth

Virginia Ctenucha – Ctenucha virginica

I may be nearly useless with moth identification, but this is one I know by heart. Of course, this isn’t really brag worthy since there aren’t many moths with an iridescent blue thorax and yellow head, but I’m working on baby steps here.

Just because I can identify it doesn’t mean I can place it in the correct family however! When I was an undergrad (back in the day when I had to walk 10 miles uphill both ways, etc) I was taught the tiger moths were a family unto themselves. Since then however, they’ve been sunk into the family Erebidae, causing me much confusion.

The Virginia Ctenucha feeds on a variety of grasses and sedges as a caterpillar, and adults are active from late spring to mid summer.

What feeds on Virginia Ctenucha though? Compsilura concinnata, a tachinid fly that was introduced to North America to combat Gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) in the late 19th and early 20th century. As is wont to happen with poorly understood ecology and introductions, Compsilura concinnata turned out to be a broad generalist, and is right at home within a wide diversity of caterpillar hosts. There’s concern that this “new” parasitoid is a contributing factor to declining saturniid moth populations in eastern North America, but the fly appears to be under heavy pressure from a hyper-parasitoid species of trigonalid wasp, which appears to be keeping fly populations low enough to prevent eradication of native moths.
Kellogg, S.K., Fink, L.S. & Brower, L.P. (2003). Parasitism of Native Luna Moths, (L.) (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) by the Introduced (Meigen) (Diptera: Tachinidae) in Central Virginia, and Their Hyperparasitism by Trigonalid Wasps (Hymenoptera: Trigonalidae), Environmental Entomology, 32 (5) 1027. DOI: 10.1603/0046-225X-32.5.1019

Jul 242012

Ryan FleacrestIt’s been quite awhile since the last Tuesday Tunes, but I think it’s time I resurrect it for a bit, and I have the perfect song for (Inter)National Moth Week — Moth by Audioslave.

And as a special bonus, here’s a little taxonomic refresher that A Moth Is Not A Butterfly from Hawksley Workman.

In fact, if we’re following a strictly cladistic view, then butterflies and skippers are actually moths. I suspect this song wouldn’t be quite as poetic, so I’ll just stick to taxonomy and leave the songsmithing to the professionals.


These songs are available on iTunes:

Moth – Revelations – Audio Slave
A Moth Is Not a Butterfly – Treeful of Starling (Limited Edition) – Hawksley Workman

Jul 232012
Green Tussock Moth - Bolivia

Green Tussock Moth – Bolivia (Photo from 2007)

This is the first of my tropical mystery moths. I’m assuming it’s a tussock moth (Erebidae, Lymantriinae) based on the posture and fluffy front legs. I have no idea how this moth manages to fly with the crazy hairs along the leading edges of the wings, or what those hairs may do, but it certainly makes for a dramatic look!

Jul 232012
Waved Sphinx Moth - Ceratomia undulosa

Waved Sphinx Moth – Ceratomia undulosa (Hodges #7787)

I can’t help but get a little excited about sphinx moths; they’re so big and cool looking that I just can’t resist taking a photo (foreshadowing: expect to see more sphinx moth photos by the end of the week). This individual came in while I was blacklighting at the Rouge Valley BioBlitz, right in the heart of Toronto.

The Waved Sphinx Moth feeds on a variety of plants as a caterpillar, including ash (Fraxinus), privet (Ligustrum), oak (Quercus), hawthorn (Crataegus), and fringe (Chionanthus). and can be found across much of eastern North America throughout the summer.

As for parasites, being big and widespread has it’s drawbacks, as this species has at least 10 species of Tachinidae known to develop in it (Belvosia borealis, Compsilura concinnata, Drino incompta, Chetogena claripennis, Chetogena floridensis, Hyphantrophaga hyphantriae, Hyphantrophaga virilis, Lespesia aletiae, Lespesia frenchii and Winthemia datanae).


Moth identification and biology from the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America (Beadle & Leckie, 2012).

Parasite information from A Host-Parasite Catalog of North American Tachinidae Diptera (Arnaud, 1978).

Jul 232012

Happy (Inter)National Moth Week!

National Moth Week

The organizers of National Moth Week have done a great job getting people to volunteer to do public moth-related events, so check to see if there’s something going on in your neck of the woods. If there aren’t, that doesn’t have to stop you from mothing; go hang out at bright lights just after dark and see what you can find!

This week should be pretty fun, and I’m going to try and get out at least one night to see if I can’t add to my abysmally poor list of moth photographs, and will try and tweet any encounters I have with moths throughout the week. I’ll also be contributing any new sightings to Project Noah and iNaturalist, so feel free to follow along with me there.

I’ve successfully ignored the Lepidoptera thus far in my entomological career, so I’m taking this opportunity to do a little learning and see if I can’t improve on my moth ID skills. I’m going to be posting photos of moths throughout the week, some from North America which I’ve been able to identify, and some from my tropical travels which I have no idea about. If you notice that I messed up an identification, please feel free to gloat and mock my error; perhaps it’ll teach me not to ignore an entire order of insects from now on…

Oh, and because I can’t completely turn my blog over to moths, I’m going to be featuring their dipteran parasites whenever possible, so expect plenty of tachinid talk this week too!

Happy Mothing! :)