Hylaphora cecropia – once among North America’s most common large insects, is now rare.
Some photography projects are planned months in advance. Others just sort of happen at unexpected moments. Like, when taking out the trash.
One summer evening a couple years ago, while dumping rubbish in the can, I spotted these spectacular moths up against the house behind the recycling bin. Cecropia moths, mating on the young female’s cocoon! These giant silk moths used to be common insects in the eastern United States, but owing to a combination of biocontrol gone wrong and habitat loss I don’t see more than one or two individuals a season. It was a rare find in an unphotogenic setting, wedged up next to the cinderblock foundation.
I wanted a photograph of course, but in situ I had no room to maneuver nor any hope of a non-industrial backdrop. So I opted to move them. The moths stayed put when I pulled up their redbud sapling for transplant to a studio whitebox. Whiteboxes allow precise control over lighting and backdrop, and with subjects as cooperative as these I had ample time to experiment. In the final photograph the moth’s behavior is natural, as is the foreground plant, but the setting and light are staged. The backdrop is a single colored posterboard, curved slightly to add a light gradient.
Once finished with the project, I moved the amorous insects to a nearby tree trunk. After continuing to mate for a few more minutes, they flew off.
If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 100, f/16, 1/100 sec
Lit by an off-camera flash in a white box
As many of you correctly surmised, the mystery orb was a monarch butterfly egg, Danaus plexippus. I was thrilled to see it because our monarch population crashed last year for reasons that still aren’t clear. We’ve seen hardly any since. In fact, the egg was only the second individual monarch I’ve seen in all of 2013.
8 points to Ainsley for getting there first, and 2 points to Martin for pointing out the common thread between last week’s and this week’s mystery. Both Aphis nerii and Danaus plexippus feed on milkweed.
Also, a point to Ted MacRae for noting an aphid photobomb.
What was that giant scaly eye? It belonged to this delicate animal:
The owl butterfly, Caligo uranus, photographed at the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch in Belize
It was, as so many of you nearly instantaneously guessed, an owl butterfly in the genus Caligo. Points are awarded as follows:
10 points go to Bill Rockenbeck, for being the first to the correct genus. I’ll also award 2 consolation points each to Pedro Rodrigues and Jeff for providing additional relevant information.
And, since there were so many complaints about how easy this week’s was, next week will be extra challenging. You’ll want to practice.
A moth sips goldenrod nectar after nightfall
During the day our showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) is visited by the usual sun-loving suspects: bumble bees, sweat bees, hover flies, butterflies, and so on. I was curious about what happens after dark, though, so I just popped out to have a look. It’s nearly as active at night, too, but with a different set of species!
I don't normally think of mosquitoes as pollinators, but our goldenrod was covered with mosquitoes sipping nectar. This one is a male.
Up close, a mosquito's eyes are gorgeous green.
A blister beetle mugs for the camera.
Oh, to have a straw for a mouth!
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/200 sec, diffuse twin flash
A dark green-yellow mottled background helps along this photograph of a swallowtail caterpillar’s defensive osmeterium:
Subtle & tasteful.
Scaled up for a larger insect, though, and the fact that I’m using a watermelon for backdrop becomes perhaps a bit too obvious:
A large papaya might have been better.
Evo-devo biologist extraordinaire Antónia Monteiro is visiting campus this week, and she shared with us this photograph of a simply unbelievable Malaysian moth:
Macrocilix maia, Malaysia
Do you see the mural?
Mimicry is common in insects. Some adopt the cryptic appearance of sticks or leaves, some ape the stripes of stinging wasps, and some sport the colors of poisonous butterflies. There are caterpillars that look like bird droppings, and beetles that look like caterpillar frass. I’ve even seen a blister beetle that mimics a harvester ant running backward dragging a seed.
But Macrocilix maia is a first. It’s the only mimic insect I know that paints an entire scene. It looks like a watercolor. Two red-eyed muscomorph flies feed from fresh bird droppings, complete with light glinting off their wings. I’ve never seen anything like it!
The scant published research on the mural moth is systematic in nature, with nary a mention of the incredible mimicry. In fact, the photo-sharing site Flickr has outpaced any academic work: photographer Allan Lee reports in 2009 that the moth reinforces the imagery with a pungent odor. That’s the extent of our knowledge. Macrocilix maia is a Ph.D. project waiting to happen.
We have, I think, a new time record for guessing the Monday Night Mystery: 1 minute.
Hyalophora cecropia, male antennae
JasonC’s quick pick of Hyalophora cecropia eggs nets him 10 points, plus the two-point bonus for 12 total. Congrats, Jason!
…make up the wing pattern of Hylalophora cecropia, North America’s largest moth:
Hyalophora cecropia, wing
A mating pair of Cecropia moths, Hyalophora cecropia. The female is on the right.
What was that Tiger-Skin Rug?
It was a close-up of the abdomen of North America’s largest moth, Hyalophora cecropia. I happened across a mating pair while taking out the garbage the other night, of all things, and spent the next couple hours arranging the above photograph.
Ten points to MrILoveTheAnts for a game well played. With two consecutive wins, MrILoveTheAnts accumulates a total of 18 Myrmecos points for the June Mystery Title. Congrats, MILTA- email me for your loot!
What was that dashing, color-coordinated tropical moth?
This mystery was difficult on two counts. First, it’s a tropical moth from a poorly documented fauna. Second, the family-level taxonomy of this group was just revised and the once-proud Arctiidae, the tiger moths, is now a mere subfamily (Arctiinae) in a larger Erebidae.
What was the genus? I’m not sure. There don’t seem to be any decent keys. But the wing venation had me 80% on Cosmosoma, and the moth also matches online photos for Loxophlebia. So I’ll take both for an answer until someone more knowledgeable shows up to tell us otherwise.
Points are awarded as follows: 6 each to JasonC and Ben Coulter, and 1 to Chris Grinter for the useful taxonomic summary.
Now. Time to tally our points for February. The monthly winner remains reigning mystery champion JasonC, with 21 points. Josh King (12 points) and Morgan Jackson (10 points) take second and third.
At some point we need to tie JasonC down until he reveals his entomological secrets.