Flora and fauna of the Athens County area, and occasionally habitats outside Ohio. Subject matter will consist of both interpretive material and taxonomic issues in plant and animal identification.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Clear Creek Caterpillars & other Critters

Acting on an invitation to do another photography hike with Lisa, we checked out a trail at Clear Creek Metro Park. One never knows what we'll see while exploring, but there are always subjects worth taking pictures of.  Because I strictly use a macro lens, my posts tend to concentrate on plants and insects. Birds beware should I ever switch to a telephoto.

It's getting late in the season, and the butterflies, especially swallowtails are looking a bit rough. This Great Spangled Fritillary still looked good, and in the right light those white spots shine silvery.

Who am I?

Most obvious were the hundreds and hundreds of Green Darners zipping around the field hunting.  Before long Green Darners will migrate south for the winter. Some fly by themselves, but it is common for them to form large swarms during migration. Some birds follow these swarms south, feeding on them as they go.  The life span does not allow them to return, but their offspring make the journey back in the spring.

At this time of year the Tiger moth caterpillars are maturing. They sit openly on leaves without hiding, probably because their hairs are too much of a pain to work through for a meal. This is the Hickory Tiger moth Lophocampa caryae. It can be recognized by the row of black hair tufts down the back.

Another common species is the Pale Tiger Moth Halysidota tessellaris. While the color can vary, the key features are the white and black tufts of hair in the front and back. If the caterpillar has red-orange tufts, it's the Sycamore Tiger.

Varying from yellow, white or orange, the Virginia Tiger moth is usually one solid color. Look for the vast array of scattered long hairs throughout the body.
This charcoal gray species is the Dogbane Tiger Moth, Cycnia tenera. The Dogbane plant is a Milkweed relative.

Some people think all these caterpillars "sting". Depends on your definition, but technically they do not, nor do they have any venom.  In the late summer and fall these caterpillars commonly drop from a tree, landing on someones neck. The natural reaction is to rub away whatever one feels on their body.  While the hairs are soft, they do end in sharp points, and the short hairs near the body are NOT soft.  The action of scraping off the caterpillar results in the hairs penetrating the skin where they act like fiberglass slivers. This can result in some people getting a swollen red rash.

Looking nearly identical to the tiger moths, this is the Wild Cherry moth Apatelodes torrefacta. They can be white or yellow.
Here is the American Dagger Moth feeding on Redbud. It's a Noctuid moth. You can separate it from the tigers by noticing a tuft of hairs near the middle of the back. Tiger moths tend to have these tufts only at the front and back. These last two can look alike, so I talked to THE caterpillar man Dave Wagner about the difference. You can see on Apatelodes, there is one tuft behind the other, on the Dagger moth, they are in pairs.

Many field guides call the tiger moths Tussock Moths.  This is a misnomer, and I never use that name. Tiger moths belong to the family Arctiidae, tussock moths are Lymantriidae. Pictured above is a true Tussock Moth. While they do have similar hair tufts, tussocks are recognized by the spiked punk-hair look on the back.

Still blooming is the Bouncingbet. This is an introduced non-native flower that can be white or pink.
The petals arise from long tubes, making it ideal for sphinx moths and hummingbirds to nectar at.

A common plant in bloom right now is the climbing vine Clematis virginiana, or Virgins Bower.
Looking like coral in an aquarium, this is the fruit of Virgins Bower.
Another showy species in this group is the Leatherflower Clematis viorna. Look for it in the late spring.

Another climbing vine with grape-like fruit is the Canada Moonseed.  These fruits are NOT edible.
It is called Moonseed because the seeds look like a three-quarter moon.  Pacman anyone?

Spending their time in forests or shady forest edges, this is a Scorpionfly (Mecoptera). They can be recognized by the mottled wings, long snout on the face, and the tail. This is a female, so the abdomen is straight.
Here is a male showing where the name comes from. The abdomen is curled like the tail of a scorpion. They use it in mating, but can not sting with it.

Other than goldenrod, one of the most abundant flowers in open bottomlands is the Wingstem. Bees and wasps flock to it. Sporting shiny black wings, fuzzy body, and two yellow bands, this is the Digger Wasp Scolia bicincta.
Another shiny blue wasp with a red and yellow abdomen is the Digger Wasp Scolia dubia. Recently I found thousands of these flying around together in an open field.
This is the common Paper Wasp, recognized by the two orange spots on the abdomen.
While paper wasps are very common, you should look closer at them next time. They are susceptible to another insect parasite.  Strepsiptera, or Twisted-wing Parasites live out their life inside the bodies of wasps. The male hatches out and can fly. They look like a black moth, but only have two wings. What makes them different is that although flies have only two wings, their wings are in front and the hindwings are reduced to clubs.  In the Strepsiptera, the front wings are reduced to clubs, and they fly with hindwings.  The females are wingless and never leave the wasp.  They stick out their abdomen and attract the males with a pheromone.

Look closely at this picture and you can see two bumps on the wasps body. Look midway down near each of the back legs and you can see the females protruding. An interesting life to say the least.


  1. what type of a paper wasp is it?

  2. Thank you!!! I was wondering what my wasp was and now I know that it is a digger wasp!