Spring is Coming!

…he said hopefully, from beneath several feet of snow, as the mercury struggled to rise above 0°F.

Which is to say, the sedge leafminer I collected two months ago decided it was springy enough in my house to complete its metamorphosis and emerge as an adult moth yesterday.


That was how the mine looked on January 1; here is the completed mine after the larva abandoned it on January 16:


By the time I discovered it, the larva had spun loose webbing over the leaf surface and was already looking like a chubby prepupa:

IMG_0034 IMG_0037

Four days later, it shed its skin to reveal a pupa that looked just like a tiny (4 mm) version of the chrysalis of a pierid butterfly (such as a cabbage white)–complete with the little silk “girdle” slung over it.  (Looking at the above photo, you can see that the “girdle” was originally pointed toward the head, but flopped the other way as the skin was shed.)


Exactly a month later–four days ago–I noticed that the pupa was suddenly looking a lot darker.


And yesterday it had become an empty shell…


…and an adult Elachista had emerged.


So my suspicion was correct, and I feel reasonably good about calling this one Elachista cucullata.  In her 1948 revision of the Elachistidae of North America, Annette Braun (who first described this species in 1921) stated that among the Elachista species with known larvae, the larva and pupa of this one are distinct in being red with paler, pinkish mid-dorsal and lateral lines.  (I would have called it pale with two red stripes, but same idea.) Her description of the mine also matches well; in autumn, the larva makes a linear mine from the tip of a sedge leaf downward, then broadens it in the spring.  Whereas this mine was confined to one side of the midrib, she says the mine broadens to occupy the whole leaf–but she also says that the host plants are “several narrow-leaved species of Carex, especially C. jamesii.”  This was a relatively broad-leaved species; I’ll try to remember this summer to go and see exactly which species it was.

Now, of course, Lauri Kaila went and described 85 more North American Elachista species (some of them named after Tolkien characters) after Braun’s revision, and only a tiny number of the 138 named species have known host plants, let alone described immature stages.  But we’ll go with “probably Elachista cucullata” until new information comes to light.

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Cicada Killers and the Bigger Picture

Not far from where I live is a place that seems as if a chunk of Nantucket or the New Jersey Pine Barrens was dropped in the middle of western Massachusetts. In contrast to the surrounding landscape’s rocky soil, supporting forest with a mixture of oak, hickory, maple, ash, hemlock, and other trees, the Montague Sand Plains are an expanse of dry, sandy habitat with an abundance of pitch pine and scrub oak.  The habitat is extensive enough that it supports populations of a variety of plants and animals that are considered rare and of conservation concern in Massachusetts.

The reason for this big sand pile is that about 15,000 years ago, when the last glacier was receding, glacial sediments plugged up the Connecticut River in what is now central Connecticut, forming a dam that turned the river into a massive lake extending to northern Vermont.  The Sand Plains are one of the deltas that formed where melt water streams carrying glacial sediment emptied into the lake.

To someone ignorant of the natural world (e.g., most of the people in charge of making major decisions that affect it), the Montague Plains might appear to be a scrappy wasteland not worth protecting.  In the early 1970s, the State thought it would be a perfect spot for a landfill to dump all of Boston’s trash.  Shortly after the people of Montague managed to fight off this assault, Northeast Utilities decided to put a nuclear power plant there.  The only legal means for preventing this was to speak up at a hearing held by the Atomic Energy Commission, whose decision would preempt all state and local laws.  A local organic farmer named Sam Lovejoy recognized that these hearings were a farce, and 41 years ago today [well, yesterday, since I finished this after midnight], he knocked over a 500-foot weather tower that Northeast Utilities had erected to test wind direction.  His intent was to spark a public debate on the effects of nuclear reactors.  The details are given in the documentary Lovejoy’s Nuclear War, which I just had the opportunity to see today. But the upshot is, the nuclear plant was never built, and the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area remains a special place.

So last summer, when Lang Elliott came for a visit and was looking for some interesting bugs to film, I brought him to the Montague Plains.  In addition to things like tiger beetles, wolf spiders, and velvet ants, sandy places like this are home to all kinds of digger wasps, each of which stocks its burrow with a particular paralyzed prey item to feed its offspring. Some species specialize in spiders, others in flies, or grasshoppers, or metallic wood-boring beetles, and so on.  I knew a spot where we could be sure to see some cicada killers (Crabronidae: Sphecius speciosus), which are wasps that are big enough that they can actually fly while carrying a cicada, and their burrows look like they could be the work of a small mammal rather than an insect.  The cicada killers did not disappoint, and at one point we got a good look at a mating pair:


Lang was excited enough about the cicada killers that he came back two more times to get additional footage.  When Julia and I joined him for his third visit, he showed us the spot he had found where the males all hang out together while the females are busy hunting and bringing back cicadas to their burrows.  His mission this time was to get footage of a wasp carrying a cicada into her burrow.  This proved to be a major challenge, because when you saw one coming, there was no way of knowing which burrow it was heading for, and when it landed it would zip into the hole so quickly that if I was lucky I might manage one shot like this…


…but there was no time to set up a tripod with a video camera before the wasp disappeared. Eventually we decided to place a twig over a burrow, just to slow the wasp down enough to get the camera set up.  When the wasp returned, she dropped her cicada and flew away.  Lang got everything ready and removed the twig, but when the wasp came back again, she seemed confused about where her burrow was, and she started dragging the cicada every which way across the sand. While Lang waited patiently for her to get her bearings, I followed her around and managed some better shots, including this one:


She then proceeded to run up Julia’s leg, continuing until she bumped into the lens of Julia’s camera:


If I’d been a little quicker, this could have been a great in-flight shot:


Around this time, another insect showed up–I seem to remember it being a fly–and chased the cicada killer back and forth over our heads several times.  Presumably it wanted to lay an egg on the cicada so its offspring could devour it after being deposited in the cicada killer’s burrow.  Eventually, the wasp managed to lose her pursuer, came back to the ground, and Lang got beautiful footage of her finally dragging the cicada into her burrow (which I’m hoping he will post on his website one of these days…).


The Montague Plains are now facing another assault, this time from Kinder Morgan, the energy company formerly known as Enron, which proposes to put a major natural gas pipeline through at least 148 “permanently protected” parcels across Massachusetts.  This proposal is not based on need; as Kinder Morgan’s public affairs vice president candidly stated at an informational meeting last fall, the company bases its decision to go ahead with a project based on two criteria: 1) whether they will make money on it, and 2) whether the government will let them do it.  The second criterion is no problem, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, like its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, virtually never denies a project.  And their decision, too, trumps any state or local laws, such as those governing “permanently protected” conservation land.  The first criterion will also be no problem, because the plan is to export a good chunk of the gas overseas AND have electric ratepayers in New England cover the cost.

The cicada killers likely won’t be affected by this pipeline, and maybe it’s just fine for public and private land to be taken through eminent domain for the sake of enriching a corporation with a terrible environmental record.  And maybe I’m just being a NIMBY for not wanting Kinder Morgan to put one of the largest natural gas compressor stations in existence–with three turbines each droning louder than the loudest rock concert in history, belching formaldehyde and other chemicals into the air–right next to a conservation area that is within a mile of my house.  It could be that choosing to live within the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant isn’t enough of a sacrifice for me to make.  But the fracking to obtain this gas is destroying livelihoods and communities in other parts of the country, not to mention causing earthquakes and contaminating aquifers with a long list of toxic chemicals.  And not to mention that natural gas (methane) is an even more potent greenhouse gas in the short term than carbon dioxide, and is just another fossil fuel rather than the “bridge to a clean energy future” as is often claimed.

It’s easy for people to be convinced that all this devastation and all these pipelines are necessary when all they pay attention to is the price of electricity (especially when the supply and price are being deliberately manipulated in order to convince them).  But I can’t help but think that the $3-4 billion cost of this pipeline would be better invested in efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies.

I guess all I’m saying is, it would be nice if everyone could think a little more about where our energy is coming from so I can stop worrying about these assaults on my local landscape and get back to thinking about bugs.

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More Fun with DNA Barcoding

Back in July, I shared an assortment of moth photos I’d taken during a week on Nantucket, which happened to be National Moth Week. I included this photo of a row of flat, overlapping eggs on a woolly bulrush (Scirpus cyperinus) leaf in a marsh.


As I mentioned, this was one of three similar rows of eggs on the same leaf:


I collected the leaf in the hope of raising the larvae to learn what they were. A week later, some tiny, bright red caterpillars had hatched.


Unfortunately, they weren’t interested in eating bulrush leaves or anything else I offered them. Seeing that they were all dying, I salvaged one to include in my shipment to the Netherlands of specimens for DNA barcoding. The other day Erik van Nieukerken informed me that barcoding had identified it as Epina alleni (Crambidae), which looks like this as an adult:


Apparently nothing is known of the immature stages or host plant(s) of this moth. According to the HOSTS database, the other species in this genus, E. dichromella, has been recorded as feeding on rice in Sri Lanka. This is odd, since Wikipedia only mentions that species as occurring in the southeastern US and Cuba. I’ve grown accustomed to finding outright lies in the HOSTS database, and in glancing at the list of North American crambid moths on the Moth Photographers Group website,  I found a likely explanation:

5468 Epina dichromella
5469 Epina alleni
5470 Chilo plejadellus Rice Stalk Borer Moth

The rice stalk borer moth (Chilo plejadellus) is listed just after the Epina species, and it does occur in Sri Lanka. My guess is that whoever added that record to the database accidentally attributed the host record to Epina dichromella because the two species were listed next to each other in whatever reference they were using. I have found clear cases of this same error before, when I had access to the book version of the HOSTS database, which cites all the sources of the host records (except, maddeningly, many of the most questionable host records are attributed to reference #492, which is missing from the bibliography).

So, as far as I can tell, no one knows what the larvae of either Epina species do, but at least now we know what their eggs (and first instars) look like. Since they are closely related to the rice stalk borer, it may be that they bore in the stems of bulrushes. If I remember correctly, this bulrush was in standing water, so it does seem like it was the intended host plant, unless the larvae are able to swim.

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A Hidden Gem in My Vials of Moldy Old Leaves

Last year Erik van Nieukerken and Camiel Doorenweerd put out a request for specimens of leaf-mining moths in the family Gracillariidae, for Camiel’s PhD project entitled “Evolution and diversification of leafmining Lepidoptera and northern hardwood forest trees.” They are doing DNA work to prepare phylogenies (evolutionary “family trees”) of these tiny moths, as well as the even tinier Nepticulidae. I collected a number of samples for them at work and around my yard, and with their permission I threw in a few other miscellaneous dead things that I had failed to raise and was hoping could be identified with DNA.

One of the items I sent off to the Netherlands was a shriveled leaf that I’d kept for two years. It was a leaf mine in a thornless currant (maybe wax currant, Ribes cereum) that Julia and I had collected in Oregon in mid-October 2012.


When we collected the mines, I wasn’t entirely sure whether they were moth or sawfly larvae. But after finishing my keys to leaf mines of the plant order Saxifragales last year, I was sure that this wasn’t any of the species that are known to mine currant and gooseberry leaves, which include one heliozelid moth and several gracillariids. Another example:


The larvae never emerged from the mines to pupate, but I stubbornly refused to throw the leaves away, in the hope that somehow someone would be able to identify their remains. When Camiel opened up the leaf I sent, the larva was furry with mold:


Amazingly, Erik wrote to me today to tell me they had managed to sequence the DNA, and it was a 97% match for Acanthopteroctetes bimaculata (Acanthopteroctetidae). The family Acanthopteroctetidae is closely related to Eriocraniidae, and almost nothing is known about its few species (somehow the unpronounceable name seems fitting for such an obscure group of insects). Acanthopteroctetes unifascia is a leafminer on Ceanothus in California, and it is the only species that has been reared. Acanthopteroctetes bimaculata is known from Oregon and California, A. aurulenta from Oregon and Utah, and A. tripunctata from Montana. All four of these species have had their DNA barcoded, and 97% isn’t quite good enough to call this currant-mining moth A. bimaculata, but that is apparently the most closely related species that has a name. A fifth, undescribed species is known from a single California specimen. That’s it for the known North American representatives of this family, but there is another Acanthopteroctetes species in South Africa and a single species of another genus, Catapterix, in Crimea. Three other undescribed acanthopteroctetids are known from Peru, South Africa, and the Thienshan region (see references below).

I don’t know when I’ll next get out to Oregon, but if anyone out there is so inclined, it sure would be nice if someone would keep an eye out for these larvae and try to raise them. I’m including some photos of the host plant below, in case anyone is good with Oregon Ribes species and can confirm its identity.



Davis, D. R. 1978. A revision of the North American moths of the superfamily Eriocranioidea with the proposal of a new family, Acanthopteroctetidae (Lepidoptera). Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology 251:1–131. (PDF)

Davis, D. R. 1984. A new Acanthopteroctetes from the Northwestern United States (Acanthopteroctetidae). J Lepid Soc 38:47–50. (PDF)

Kristensen, N. P., J. Rota, and S. Fischer. 2014. Notable Plesiomorphies and Notable Specializations: Head Structure of the Primitive “Tongue Moth” Acanthopteroctetes unifascia (Lepidoptera: Acanthopteroctetidae). Journal of Morphology 275:153–172. (PDF)

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Sword-bearing Conehead

There is an insect call that I often hear outside my window in the summer, which always sounds like a samba rhythm to me (but that’s probably just me). A while ago I identified it as a “sword-bearing conehead” (Tettigoniidae: Neoconocephalus ensiger) by listening to a CD of insect sounds. Although this is one of the more memorable common names I’ve heard for an insect, somehow I’d never gotten around to looking up what this nighttime percussionist actually looked like. But as soon as I saw this katydid sitting on my deck last September, I was sure that’s who I was looking at.


This is a female, so she wasn’t actually one of the ones I’d been hearing, but her long, sharp ovipositor is the reason for the “sword-bearing” part of the name. The “conehead” part is self-explanatory.


I thought her distinctive face was worthy of a portrait. The reddish “eyebrow” makes her seem to be glaring suspiciously at the camera.

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Exploring Exotic Places

People are constantly telling me I should travel to the tropics, so I can see all the strange and exotic creatures there. I’m sure the tropics are very nice, but I’m perfectly content with the strange and exotic creatures in my own yard in western Massachusetts. I don’t think any of the photos below would look out of place if they were slipped in among series of shots of insects from the Amazon Rainforest. All three insects were found within 50 feet of my house on August 23 last year.


An assassin bug nymph (Reduviidae: Pselliopus) on flowerbuds of pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolia).


Larva of a dogwood sawfly (Tenthredinidae: Macremphytus tarsatus) on alternate-leaved dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).


Caterpillar of a beautiful wood-nymph (Noctuidae: Eudryas grata) feeding on a leaf of summer grape (Vitis aestivalis).

Unfortunately I don’t get to spend much time exploring my own yard, since I have to work pretty much nonstop during the growing season. In the first year of living here (August to August), I documented 235 invertebrate species in and around the house (not counting the ones I brought home from work, of course). This would be an embarrassingly low number if I had devoted any appreciable amount of time to making a list. We’ll see how I do in year 2.

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Winter Leafminers

Happy New Year! As I mentioned before, now that winter is upon us, I get to take a break from collecting and raising leafminers and focus on writing about them. At least, that was the plan. On December 25, while on a family walk in the woods behind my parents’ house, Julia plucked a sedge leaf and handed it to me for inspection. The leaf tip was dead and brown, but the rest was green. A short, narrow line extended from the dead area toward the base, and on close inspection there was a caterpillar inside:


The field of view in the above photo is 2 cm wide, and I have no idea how she spotted the mine. Since the larva was a dark reddish brown color, I wasn’t sure if it was alive. But when I got it home and started taking pictures, I could see that its head was moving from side to side from one picture to the next. I don’t know how long I will be able to keep the leaf green, but the larva is still alive and well. Below is a photo I took a few minutes ago:


The two photos are at different magnifications, but if you note how far the larva has moved past the little hole in the leaf that was right next to it in the first photo, you can see that it has been actively feeding over the past week. This is not a case of an insect hatching prematurely, being fooled by unseasonable warmth into believing that spring has arrived. Annette Braun reared several species of Cosmopterix and Elachista that begin mining sedge leaves in the fall, completing development in the spring. Obviously they go dormant when temperatures are below freezing, but on milder winter days they continue to nibble away.

I haven’t organized my chapter on sedge miners yet, so I won’t hazard a guess as to which species this is, but I’m confident it isn’t Cosmopterix clemensella, the sedge miner I’ve written about previously here. That species expels all its frass through a hole at the beginning of the mine, whereas you can see there is plenty of frass in this mine (the larva has definitely been returning to the linear portion to deposit its frass, though, in order to keep its feeding area clean). I suspect this is one of the many Elachista species, which are known as the “grass miner moths” (a great disservice to the species that feed on sedges and rushes). It may or may not be the same as this one I reared from a sedge in May 2012, which may or may not be E. cucullata:


The immature stages of most Elachista species have not yet been found, so there is no particular reason to assume that this is one of  the species that has been reared from sedges before. And the microlepidopterist to whom I sent the above moth has warned me that the adults are very difficult to identify, despite the extensive work Lauri Kaila has done to revise the North American species. So there is no particular reason to assume that rearing this larva to an adult moth will get me any closer to being able to put a name on it. But I carry on, with the hope that someone will get it all sorted out someday.

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