Have you ever seen a plume moth?
Or has a plume moth ever seen you?
We spotted a pterophorid plume moth (family Pterophoridae) yesterday on our back door in Vacaville, Calif. The t-shaped moth stayed in the same spot the entire day, from dawn to dusk, even when we entered and exited the door multiple times.
Its shape is what makes it unusual. Butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, told us awhile back that the "T-square shape is classic."
In some respects, the pterophorid plume moth is fit to a "T."
At rest, the plume moth holds its slender wings at right angles to body, giving it a T-shaped profile.
In his book, California Insects, UC Berkeley entomologist Jerry Powell (now emeritus) explains why they're called plume moths..."because the forewings are deeply notched and the hindwings are divided into three linear parts, each with long scale fringes. When perched, the insects roll the forewings around the folded hindwing plumes, resulting in peculiar sticklike or craneflylike appearance, unlike any other moth."
Most are nocturnal and are attracted to lights, Powell adds. (Like porch lights!)
Its ancestors lived millions of years ago. Wikipedia tells us that a fossil species from the extant genus Merrifieldia originates from the Oligocene of France. The Oligocene, a geologic epoch of the Paleogene Period, occurred 33.9 million to 23 million years ago. Today some 160 species of plume moths live in North America.
So why did the plume moth visit us? Well, it's a common moth. The adults feed on nectar and pollen (plenty of that in our pollinator garden) and caterpillars of some of the species chew the leaves of garden plants, including geraniums and snapdragons (we have both).
We also have artichokes, and the larvae of one species, the artichoke plume moth, can be a pest when the vegetable is grown as a perennial, according to the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.
One thing is for sure: once you see the plume moth, you'll always recognize it.
A pollinator garden is a study in diversity--and of inclusion and exclusion.
The residents, the immigrants, the fly-bys, the crawlers, the wigglers, the jumpers. The big, bad and bugly. The prey and the predators. The vegetarians and carnivores.
The nectar-rich flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees and butterflies. And right near them are the predators: the praying mantids, dragonflies and assassin bugs.
The assassin bugs, family Reduviidae, are ambush predators. They resemble human assassins (or at least those on the movie screen!): long narrow neck, beady eyes, and sturdy body. When they ambush a predator, they stab it with their rostrum, inject venom, and suck out the juices. Or as UC Berkeley entomologists Jerry Powell and Charles Hogue write in their book, California Insects, "The victims, which include all kinds of insects, are snatched by quick movements of the forelegs, and immediately subdued by a powerful venom injected through the beak."
Such was the case with the assassin bug, Zelus renardii, this week. We watched one lie in wait on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia); we watched another dine on an unidentifiable prey on a milkweed blossom; and we watched yet another stab a lady beetle (aka lady bug) on a leaf.
Everybody eats in the pollinator garden.
The scientists and butterfly/moth enthusiasts who gathered Saturday, Feb. 9 for the Northern California Lepidoptera Society meeting in the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis, did all that: identify specimens and engage in collaboration and camaraderie.
They ranged from those early in their career, to mid-point, to the height of their career, to retired.
The group meets for a mid-winter gathering once a year, alternating between the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis and the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley.
Senior museum scientist Steve Heydon, Bohart associate John "Moth Man" DeBenedictis; and Jeff Smith, curator of the butterfly/moth section at the Bohart hosted the event, assisted by Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and Bohart associate and naturalist Greg Kareofelas.
In their meeting notice, Heydon, DeBenedictis and Smith noted that those attending could bring specimens, photos, PowerPoint presentations "or slides from collecting trips and tales of collecting triumphs to share with others
and that "attending lepidopterists may be able to help you identify specimens and the museum collection will be open for yoour inspection."
Retired public health entomologist and Bohart associate Dick Meyer of Bakersfield, known as "the mosquito guy," was there. He recently retired as assistant manager of the Orange County Vector Control Agency. He did not bring any of his collection, but he did tell us that he has 225 drawers of insects at home, including 71 drawers of butterflies. "Did you know that the highest diversity of butterflies in the country is in Kern County?" he asked. Meyer, who holds a doctorate in entomology, studied with major professor Richard M. Bohart Jr., for whom the Bohart Museum is named.
Among those participating:
- Bohart associate Jerry Powell, emeritus director of the Essig Museum, and co-author of California Insects.
- Marc Epstein, senior insect biosystematist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and author of the book, Moths, Myths and Mosquitoes: the Eccentric life of Harrison G. Dyer Jr.
- Kelly Richers, treasurer of the Lepitopterists Society and an affiliate of Essig Museum of Entomology who is also afield associate with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and member of board of directors of the Wedge Entomological Research Foundation
- Lawrence "Larry" Allen of Calaveras County, author of A Field Guide to the West Coast Butterflies of the United States, one of the books available in the Bohart Museum's gift shop (he donated all sales of his book that day to the Bohart).
- Arthur Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology and author of Field Guide to Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento Valley Regions.
- Entomologist Rick Kelson, who directs the butterfly habitat at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo
- Bohart associate Bill Patterson, former graduate student of Richard Bohart
- Rosser Garrison, research associate with the California State Collection of Arthropods, retired senior insect biosystematist, California Department of Food and Agriculture, and co-author of Dragonfly Genera of the New World: An Illustrated and Annotated Key to the Anisoptera
- Don Miller, professor at Chico State University who teaches entomology in the Department of Biological Sciences
- Ryan Hill, professor at University of Pacific, Stockton
- Chris Tenney, retired educator from Pacific Grove
- Jeffrey Caldwell, known for his ecological restoration
- John Lane, one of first graduate students of Art Shapiro (Lane received his master's degree)
- Paul Johnson, biologist with the National Parks Service
- Hobbyist Jeff Baier of Napa
- Physician Val Albu of Fresno
- And many more...
At the last gathering in the Bohart, Kelly Richers, who compiles the California Moth Specimen Database, maintained at the Essig Museum since 1996 as a resource to better survey and understand California moths, said of the systematists: "We're a dying breed."
This year self-described "aspiring entomologist" Madison Cunha of Modesto attended with her mother, Christine Cunha. True to her love of insects, Madison wore a dress adorned with a beetle pattern.
Scientists say that 180,000 species of the Lepidoptera are described, in 126 families and 46 superfamilies.
"The Lepidoptera are among the most successful groups of insects. They are found on all continents, except Antarctica, and inhabit all terrestrial habitats ranging from desert to rainforest, from lowland grasslands to mountain plateaus, but almost always associated with higher plants, especially angiosperms (flowering plants). Among the most northern dwelling species of butterflies and moths is the Arctic Apollo (Parnassius arcticus), which is found in the Arctic Circle in northeastern Yakutia, at an altitude of 1500 m above sea level. In the Himalayas, various Apollo species such as Parnassius epaphus have been recorded to occur up to an altitude of 6,000 miles above sea level."--Wikipedia.
A veritable Who's Who of lepidopterists.
Some 25 lepidopterists and others interested in butterflies and moths gathered recently at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, to work on identifications, share research information, and enjoy camaraderie.
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the butterfly and moth specimens at the Bohart Museum, coordinated the event with fellow Bohart Museum associate John Debenedictis. "It always takes place the last Saturday of January," Smith said. "We alternate each year between the Bohart Museum and the Essig Museum at UC Berkeley."
"John and I sort of work together every other year to host this gathering at the Bohart Museum," Smith said, "although it doesn't really involve much work on our part since all the attendees are self-winding and easily find ways to stay busy."
"We're a dying breed," said Kelly Richers of systematists. Richers, an Essig associate, was there working on underwing moths, genus Catocala, family Noctuidae. Catocala is Greek meaning "beautiful below." The common name, Underwings, "refers to the posture where the forewings are normally held together over the back at rest, hiding the hindwings beneath," according to BugGuide.net. "Hence, the hindwings are the (bold and beautiful) underwings that this genus is known for." Richers compiles the California Moth Specimen Database, maintained at the Essig Museum since 1996 as a resource to better survey and understand California moths.
If anyone had asked "Is there a doctor in the house?" scores of entomologists with Ph.Ds may have raised their hands, if they weren't too busy studying or discussing specimens. But there was at least one medical doctor there--Val Albu of Fresno, who was conferring with Bohart associate Jerry Powell, emeritus director of the Essig Museum, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Berkeley, and author of California Insects. Powell's expertise includes the New World Tortricinae (Tortricoidea) and Ethmiinae (Gelechioidea).
Marc Epstein, senior insect biosystematist for the California Department of Food and Agriculture and author of the newly published book, Moths, Myths and Mosquitoes: the Eccentric life of Harrison G. Dyer Jr., discussed specimens with Jeff Smith and Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart.
Entomologist Rick Kelson, who directs the butterfly habitat at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo, and associate curator Shanda Witham, associate curator, were there looking over specimens. Kelson studied entomology as a graduate student with Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis. The butterfly habitat at Six Flags is a 100-foot-by-50-foot glass atrium, and was the first major walk-through butterfly habitat in the western United States when it opened in 1988.
Photos of the newly discovered moth, Neopalpa donaldtrumpi, briefly drew the attention of the lepidopterists. Bohart Museum associate/research entomologist Thomas "Tom" Zavortink and colleagues collected the tiny moth with the orange-yellow and brown wings in the Algodones Dunes, bordering Arizona and the Mexican state of Baja California. The moth was among insects loaned to evolutionary biologist and systematist Vazrick Nazari of Canada, who sifted through the collection and made note of the new species. He named it after President Trump, and published the data Jan. 17 in the journal ZooKeys.
The Bohart Museum is directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, is the home of nearly eight million specimens, collected globally. The museum, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane, is open to the public Monday through Thursday and also hosts special weekend open houses.
Meanwhile, the Bohart is gearing up for the sixth annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day when the Bohart will be one of 12 museums or collections open to the public. The event, open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will "showcase natural history, biodiversity and the cultural-ecological interface," said coordinator Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum. The open house is free and open to all; parking is also free. All collections are within walking distance on campus except for the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on Bee Biology Road for the Raptor Center on Old Davis Road.
In some respects, the pterophorid plume moth is fit to a 'T.'
"The T-square shape is classic," says butterfly expert Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
"They always sit with their wings stuck out to the side like that," says Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
At rest, the plume moth (famlly Pterophoridae) holds its slender wings at right angles to body, giving it a T-shaped profile.
In his book, California Insects, UC Berkeley entomologist Jerry Powell explains why they're called plume moths..."because the forewings are deeply notched and the hindwings are divided into three linear parts, each with long scale fringes. When perched, the insects roll the forewings around the folded hindwing plumes, resulting in peculiar sticklike or craneflylike appearance, unlike any other moth."
Most are noctural and are attracted to lights, Powell adds.
Scientists report some 159 described species in North America alone and more than 30 in California.
In their larval stages, some plume moths are beneficial as biological control agents. And some are pests, such as the artichoke plume moth, the geranium plume moth and the snapdragon plume moth.
When you see them resting on a plant, however, the adults look a little like those wind turbines that stretch out in the hills of Rio Vista, Solano County.