Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Will touching a butterfly's (or moth's) wings kill it?

I hear this question frequently, and it came up again recently, but I don't think I've discussed it yet on my blog.  People are often taught that if they touch a butterfly or moth and rub any scales off its wings that it will die.  However, that is not the case.  
Butterflies and moths belong to the order Lepidoptera, a word derived from the Greek words lepis (scale) and ptera (wing).  Their wings are covered in tiny scales, overlapping like shingles on a roof.  These scales give the butterflies and moths their wing patterns, and make them more aerodynamic, a little like feathers on a bird's wing.  However, unlike birds, when butterflies and moths lose scales on their wings, they can still fly.  Depending on the amount of scales lost, it may make them less aerodynamic and affect their flight pattern slightly, but it will not kill them.  Some species of butterflies and moths actually have very few scales, resulting in partially or entirely clear wings. It's really not much different than most other insects with wings, such as dragonflies and wasps.
Butterflies and moths naturally lose scales throughout their lives.  They often rub some off in the course of emerging from their pupa, in addition to losing scales while flying, and from escaping from birds or other animals (nothing like a mouthful of powdery scales to make you change your mind about a meal!).
Although butterflies and moths are certainly delicate, they are much hardier than many people give them credit for.  So the next time you encounter a butterfly or moth, don't be afraid to coax it onto your hand if it wishes to cooperate! Handle it gently, don't try to pet it, and enjoy its beauty!
One of many species of clear-winged butterflies from South America
Close-up of the clear patch and surrounding scales on the wing of Rothschildia lebeau forbesi (see previous blog post)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Spring Silkmoths

This year I'm enjoying being nearly overrun by silkmoths; in past years, I usually only had three or four different species, but this year I decided to get a wide range and wound up with 1-3 cocoons each of ten species!  I've had four moths emerge in the past three days, and spent some time photographing them last night and this morning.  I have had 8 moths emerge so far this year, and have 11 more that should emerge between now and the end of April.  These species are mostly from the eastern half of North America, although the Rothschildia and Eupackardia species are from southern Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, south into Mexico.  Last November, I posted a photo of several of the cocoons I purchased (see here).  I ordered a few more after that.
All of these moths do not feed as adults, therefore they only live for about a week, just long enough to mate and lay eggs.  I always feel a little bad about putting these in the freezer after a day or two, but the reason I do this is twofold: 1) so I can photograph the cocoons and live adults and 2) so I have perfect specimens and can show people all the different kinds of cocoons and how beautiful moths can be.  It always surprises people to be told that these are moths, as many think of little brown things buzzing around a lamp, rather than such a large and colorful bug.
What has emerged so far:
February 15 - Hyalophora cecropia Cecropia Moth, male
March 9 - Automeris io Io Moth, male
March 12 - Automeris io Io Moth, female
March 18 - Actias luna Luna Moth, male
March 26 - Rothschildia lebeau forbesi Lebeau's Silkmoth, female
March 28 - Eupackardia calleta Calleta Silkmoth, female
March 28 - Actias luna Luna Moth, male
March 29 - Callosamia promethea Promethea Silkmoth, male
What is left to emerge:
Hyalophora cecropia Cecropia Moth x1
Callosamia promethea Promethea Silkmoth x1
Samia cynthia Cynthia Moth x2
Rothschildia cincta Cincta Silkmoth x1
Rothschildia lebeau forbesi Lebeau's Silkmoth x2
Eupackardia calleta Calleta Silkmoth x2
Agapema homogena Rocky Mountain Agapema x1
Eacles imperialis Yellow Emperor x1
Rothschildia lebeau forbesi - Lebeau's Silkmoth, female
Rothschildia lebeau forbesi - Lebeau's Silkmoth, female (underside)
Rothschildia lebeau forbesi - Lebeau's Silkmoth, female
Rothschildia lebeau forbesi - Lebeau's Silkmoth, female
Eupackardia calleta - Calleta Silkmoth, female
Eupackardia calleta - Calleta Silkmoth, female (underside)
Eupackardia calleta - Calleta Silkmoth, female
Actias luna - Luna Moth, male
Callosamia promethea - Promethea Silkmoth, male
Callosamia promethea - Promethea Silkmoth, male
Having fun with my silkmoths!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Coming soon to a land near you...

Spring is just around the corner, the daffodils are starting to bloom around town, and the crocuses on my porch are about to bloom.  Yes, I'm in southwest Washington and I know the other side of the Cascades is still blanketed in frost and snow, but even in those colder places some butterflies, such as the Moss' Elfin (Callophrys mossii), are known to emerge in late February or March when patches of snow are still on the ground.  The first butterfly of the year in Washington was reported on Friday in Seattle, a Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti) taking advantage of the sunny day to stretch her wings.  Several butterfly species, such as Milbert's Tortoiseshell, overwinter as adults and are often the first butterflies observed on warm days in late winter and early spring.  Other species, such as Echo Blue and Moss' Elfin, overwinter as pupae and are some of the first butterflies to emerge as fresh adults.  On sunny days when the temperatures start to climb, keep an eye out for some of the butterflies pictured here.

Many nymphalids, such as tortoiseshells and anglewings, overwinter as adults.  The following species are often the first butterflies seen each year in Washington.
Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti) at Reecer Canyon, Kittitas County, WA
Compton's Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis l-album) sipping water at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA.
It is larger and has a distinct white mark on the leading edge of each wing, compared to California Tortoiseshell (see below).
California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), dorsal view
California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica), ventral view
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) basking in the sun at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA
Satyr Anglewing (Polygonia satyrus) basking in the sun at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA
Satyr Anglewing (Polygonia satyrus) at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA.  It is generally brighter orange dorsally and very brown ventrally, compared to the Green Anglewing (see below).
Green Anglewing (Polygonia faunus) basking in the sun at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA
Green Anglewing (Polygonia faunus) at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan County, WA.  It has two rows of sea green spots along the ventral wing margins and is darker than the Satyr Anglewing (see above).
Some butterfly species overwinter as pupae, allowing adults to emerge very early in the spring.  Examples of species you might see in Washington are shown here.
The Two-banded Checkered Skipper is very small and easy to miss, often appearing as a large fly or bee quickly buzzing about close to the ground, searching for low-growing flowers and mates.
Two-banded Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus ruralis), dorsal view
Two-banded Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus ruralis), ventral view
Margined Whites (Pieris marginalis, not pictured), Spring Whites and Sara's Orangetips are usually the first pierids (whites and sulphurs) to emerge in spring, sometimes in early March.  Margined Whites are common in forested areas of Western Washington, with smaller populations in the northeast and southeast corners of the state, while Spring Whites are found in drier, shrub-steppe habitats from the east slopes of the Cascades through eastern Washington and Oregon.  Sara's Orangetips are found throughout Washington and Oregon but are absent from most of the coast.
Spring White (Pontia sisymbrii), dorsal view
Spring White (Pontia sisymbrii), dorsal view
Sara's Orangetip (Anthocharis sara) basking in the sun at Deschutes River Canyon near Maupin, OR
Sheridan's Green Hairstreak is often the first butterfly to emerge in shrub-steppe habitats, sometimes competing for the early record with Spring Whites and Sara's Orangetips.  This and other green hairstreak species are generally called "greenies" by lepidopterists, and are mostly gray but have a beautiful dusting of sea green scales on the undersides of their wings, flashing emerald in the sunlight.
Sheridan's Green Hairstreak (Callophrys sheridanii) nectaring on desert parsley (Lomatium sp.) in Deschutes River Canyon near Maupin, OR
Echo Blues are usually the first butterfly I see each year near my home in Cowlitz County, only occasionally beaten by the Margined White that emerges around the same time.
Echo Blues (Celastrina echo) gathering minerals from mud near the Lewis River, Clark County, WA
Echo Blues (Celastrina echo) gathering minerals from mud near the Lewis River, Clark County, WA
If you have seen any butterflies this year, please comment on this post and let me know where and when!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Winter projects

This is what I've been working on the past couple weeks...
Re-hydrating and mounting butterfly specimens:


Creating and updating maps for my butterfly guide:
Map of Washington showing the location of Okanogan
County (green) and the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area (star)

Detailed view of the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area

Monday, February 3, 2014

Go Seahawks!!!!

Sorry, I couldn't help it, even my butterflies and moths are Seahawks fans!