The Wisdom of the Moth in a Changing World

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in North Carolina ranging from 60° to 90° F, things have been pretty wacky lately. In early July, the black walnut tree in my backyard started to drop nuts, which usually doesn’t happen until September. Dogwoods in the neighborhood have started to change color, and a few of them have simply died. Very few fireflies have been active this year, and they’re usually prolific from June to August. Thunderous rainstorms with torrential downpour and destructive winds have been punctuated by periods of dry and sunny weather that parches the ground until it cracks after little more than a week or two. All in all, the reality of climatic collapse–which is what climate change should really be called–is indisputable by anyone with observant eyes and a reasonably functional brain.

Nonetheless there have been a few recent occurrences which are normal for this time of year. Tomatoes have been ripening, corn has been rising, crepe myrtles have been blooming, and sunsets have been breathtaking. There’ve also been an abundance of moths at my doorstep and on the trails where I hike. A few of them caught my attention and prompted me to take a few photos. Those photos in turn prompted me to do a little research, the result of which is the article you’re now reading.

This Carolina satyr moth (Hermeuptychia sosybius) was sunning herself serenely on the prolific vegetation bordering the Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough when I went for a hike recently. I approached her slowly and did my best not to startle her. She seemed oblivious to the intrusion and carried on her business with the seriousness of a professional athlete, moving her wings to demonstrate the distinct pattern of circles and dots which characterize the Carolina satyr moth. It was a beautiful day, so I could understand her agreeable disposition. The area was probably also her home, since the grasses which predominate around the Eno are the preferred food for Carolina satyr caterpillars and make for a perfect nursery.

A few weeks ago I was coming in my front door after watering my plants in the evening when I noticed the brilliant coloration of this harnessed tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata). The bands of black and yellow are immediately recognizable; they make me think of a bumblebee who was perhaps slightly confused when choosing his final form. In any case, I was glad to know that someone in my yard has been taking advantage of the dandelions, clover, and plantains–all of which are the preferred food of harnessed tiger moths in their early stages of development.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

When I saw this walnut sphinx moth (Amorpha juglandis) on my mailbox on a separate occasion, I very nearly swooned. This little guy was almost three inches across and looked much, much heavier than most moths of his size. Clearly he’d been munching on a tree in the area and had the gains to prove it. Additionally his abdomen, at the rear of his body, curved upward in the most striking resemblance to a scorpion tail that I’ve ever seen in a moth. Despite this resemblance, he was perfectly at peace and paid no attention to my presence, which gave me this lovely photographic opportunity.

So, despite the weird and wacky climate, which is slowly but steadily collapsing in front of our very eyes, these moths have found a way to cope. They might not be leading any protest marches or boycotting extractive industries, but they’re doing what they do best: munching away, growing fat, changing form, and emerging from their cocoons to spread the pollen of plants in a cycle of life that makes all of our lives possible.

And we should be doing the same. By taking care of ourselves, developing our skills and abilities, resting when necessary, and emerging from our cocoons to take action in whatever way we’re able, we can take the wisdom of the moth to heart. And in the process we’ll be making a difference in this world that will not only help others but bring our lives purpose, making possible a united effort to preserve the one and only home we have in this universe, our planet earth.

References:

Amorpha juglandis,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Apantesis phalerata,” Wikipedia, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” University of Florida, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Pippen, Jeff, “Carolina Satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius),” Jeff’s Nature Page, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Subfamily Arctiinae — Tiger and Lichen Moths,” North American Insects and Spiders, accessed July 31st, 2017.

Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis),” Butterflies and Moths of North America, accessed July 31st, 2017.

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Taxonomic Cornucopia

by Mark Miles

In the spirit of gratitude that ideally characterizes this time of year, I’ve decided to share what I’m thankful for at any time of year, specifically wildlife. Every encounter with a wild animal or plant is a gift and one that’s increasingly scarce in many urban areas. Personally I live in a small town that’s largely rural, but even here you don’t have to look far to find new strip malls, housing subdivisions, and assorted industrial eyesores. Still, there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in almost any region, and each encounter is a reason to be thankful–provided you’re not being eaten for dinner of course.

In September, I stumbled upon this remarkable moth on the siding of my house. I was immediately dumbfounded by the vibrant coloration and markings, though at the time I had no idea what species she was. Despite not knowing the species, I did know the sex from a glance at the antennae–which are thick and furry in males, narrow and smooth in females. It’s easy to remember if you think of antlers, which are morphologically analogous to antennae and which are usually bigger in males than females. In any case, I was able to identify the species after a bit of searching, using the coloration and markings to point me to the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria).

Though I was thankful to see this little western honey bee (Apis mellifera) a couple weeks ago, I must admit I was pretty stunned. I can’t remember a year in living memory when bees have been active in North Carolina in November. Usually by late September they’ve gone into hibernation. However, with daytime temperatures exceeding 80° F on more than one occasion, it’s not terribly surprising. My rosemary is still more than happy to keep blooming, which gave this worker bee ample reason to make the unseasonal trek in search of pollen to feed her sisters.

Here’s another unseasonal bit of wildlife from the area. In my backyard I have a good amount of sweet violet (Viola odorata) which typically becomes dormant by early October. That’s not the case this year, and it’s only because of last week’s hard frost that most of the flowering plants have started to take the hint that it’s not still summer. Regardless of all that, I’m thankful whenever I see the brilliant white and purple of sweet violet.

For a number of years, the two willow oaks (Quercos phellos) in my front yard have been unable to produce acorns. It started around 2008 when strange markings–which appeared to be holes made by a power tool–appeared on both of them at the same time. For several years after that, my oaks stopped producing any acorns, and it’s only been recently that they’ve become fecund again. Even though these acorns are small for trees that are fully mature, I’m thankful that they’re here to provide food for the squirrels in winter.

Lately I’ve been trying to grow sawtooth blackberries (Rubus argutus) from seed. I gathered some wild blackberries a few months ago, put them in pots with soil, placed them in my sunniest window, and waited… and waited… and waited. After three months, I was pretty convinced those berries were never going to germinate. Then, of all things, I looked at my pots last week and saw–could it be?–actual sprouts. You have no idea how thankful I was at that moment, and I’m not even ashamed to admit it.

At the beginning of November I saw this eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) near the edge of a field that’s been left fallow recently. I thoroughly expected him to run as soon as he saw me, but instead he stared at me with the intensity of a laser-beam. All his senses were attuned to my presence, and I couldn’t help wondering what experiences had led him to be so hypervigilant in the presence of humans. Of course cottontail rabbits have every reason to be terrified of everything since only twenty percent of them survive to adulthood. The vast majority are killed by predators, starvation, poisoning or traffic. In short, their lives are a living nightmare due to the way in which industrial society has decimated their habitats, food-supply, and territorial contiguity. Despite that, I was thankful for the trust expressed by this rabbit who allowed me to be in the same space with him for a few quiet moments.

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Adventures in Identification

by Mark Miles

As you may have guessed by now, I’m endlessly fascinated by insect and arachnid life. As a kid, I would often roam in the forest near my house and catch arthropods in jars to add to my collection. Unfortunately I was a child and had no understanding of how to care for these little creatures, and in the majority of instances they ended up dying from starvation or eating one another. One particularly feisty praying mantis even managed to grab my finger and simply… wouldn’t… let go. It was awkward and slightly terrifying.
Since that time, I’ve mended my ways. Now I only admire and take pictures of the insects and arachnids with whom I come into contact. Occasionally they’ll come close to me or will even land on my finger, but I don’t force contact. It strikes me as bad manners and is also unethical. With all that said, here are my latest and most interesting adventures in identification.

This moth was actually in my house when I found him. He was hanging around the kitchen–where most of the moths that come into my house tend to congregate–and climbed onto my finger after I gently nudged him. He was completely calm, and I managed to take several shots of him, of which this was my favorite. It took me a doozy of a time to identify him, but I’m fairly certain he’s a ruddy Metarranthis moth (Metarranthis duaria), which has to be one of the worst names I’ve ever heard. Nevertheless he was a beauty, and I took him outside after our photoshoot, where he has presumably lived out his mothy days.

This cicada turned up in my front yard, dead when I found her. There was a very odd white coloration on her underside, which indicates a fungal infection and which is unfortunately an increasingly widespread cause of death for many cicadas. I was sad to see that she had died in such an unpleasant way, but I couldn’t help admiring her incredible coloration. If you look at the region covering her head and thorax, you can see a mixture of green, black and brown in overlapping irregular patterns. I was later able to identify her as a scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus), but to me she’ll always be the original camouflage.

I have to admit, I nearly crushed this little guy when I found him at Eno River State Park in August. I had noticed a beautiful sycamore, which I promptly inspected for photographic potential. I didn’t find any particularly good angles; but as I was inspecting the tree, I placed my hand against the trunk and felt a weird, cool, slightly slippery sensation. I immediately retracted my hand and found this beauty. Later I was able to identify him as an iron worm (Narceus americana)–which is by far the most amazing name I’ve come across in a while–though the more common name is the North American millipede. They’re harmless to humans, but they can release an unsavory substance that discolors the skin. Fortunately that didn’t happen in my case, and we parted on amicable terms.

This last arthropod was one I found at a local carwash of all places. She had built her web at the base of the teller machine, and it was impossible not to see her as I inserted dollar bills. After I’d gotten my quarters for the carwash, I promptly swooped down to her level and took several photos, of which this was the best. She was by far the easiest identification of the four arthropods in this post, since I had only recently read an article about the yellow garden spider (Agriope aurantia) and immediately recognized the brilliant black, yellow and white markings and the characteristic zig-zag formation in the center of her web, which is called a stabilimentum. Its purpose is unclear to scientists, but it provides her with another of her common names, the writing spider. For obvious reasons, she may be my new spirit animal.