New backyard bug: White-lined Sphinx Moth

Hyles lineata - White-lined Sphinx moth (Hodges# 7894). Boca Raton, FL, October 28, 2015.

One gray and overcast morning near the end of October I saw a large moth nectaring from the porterweed and petunia patch out front. I took a terrible video with my phone, then ran inside for my real camera with its real macro lens and ran off thirty shots in hopes of getting something useful for ID purposes. And sure enough, shot number thirty (thank goodness!) was enough to ID it, although it certainly wasn’t an aesthetically pleasing portrait of this actually quite lovely moth:

Hyles lineata - White-lined Sphinx moth (Hodges# 7894). Boca Raton, FL, October 28, 2015.

Hyles lineata, White-lined Sphinx moth (Hodges# 7894) nectaring on blue porterweed. Boca Raton, FL, October 28, 2015.

The wings in the picture above are blurry with motion; that’s because they have to beat very fast to keep this rather fat moth airborne. The large size and the strong wingbeats have given this moth another common name, in addition to the rather “technical” white-lined sphinx: the hummingbird moth.

That’s not a specific name, though; several other large moths are also known as hummingbird moths.

However, if you take the trouble to do an image search, you’ll find that this is probably the prettiest of the hummingbird moths. It’s fairly widespread, too. The page at BAMONA (that’s Butterflies and Moths of North America) mentions that it’s found on at least three continents:

Range: Central America north through Mexico and the West Indies to most of the United States and southern Canada. Also occurs in Eurasia and Africa.

The reason for that large home range is that it’s a generalist: its larvae can feed on many different plants:

Caterpillar Hosts: A great diversity of plants including willow weed (Epilobium), four o’clock (Mirabilis), apple (Malus), evening primrose (Oenothera), elm (Ulmus), grape (Vitis), tomato (Lycopersicon), purslane (Portulaca), and Fuschia [sic].

This is the fifth “sphinx” I’ve found on the property (the previous four being Xylophanes pluto, Erinnyis ello, Manduca sexta, and Enyo lugubris). All of these moths are quite large and very interesting to look at.

Actually, this is the sixth sphinx moth I’ve found, but I don’t have a solid ID on the fifth one yet. One of the commenters at bug thought it was probably Aellopos sp., probably Aellopos tantalus, but the jury’s still out:


Hummingbird moth, Aellopos sp. Boca Raton, FL, October 13, 2015.

Still and all, large day-flying moths, while nowhere near as common in my yard as their cousins the butterflies, do provide some interest.

And these particular moths, the white-lined sphinx, since one of their larval host plants is purslane, give me a reason not to pull up the rather large patches of purslane “weeds” in my beds of golden creeper:

Purslane (Portulaca sp.). Boca Raton, FL, July 2015

Purslane (Portulaca sp.). Boca Raton, FL, July 2015

Purslane flowers are purty.

Purslane flowers are purty.

The yellow-flowering purslane is probably Portulaca oleracea; I also have a pink-flowering version, Portulaca pilosa, that’s quite pretty as well:

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa. Boca Raton, FL, May 14, 2015.

And I haven’t felt the need to get rid of these low-growing “weeds.” That really is one of the best parts of gardening for wildlife: you can tolerate weedy species that have redeeming qualities.


PS—I have no idea where the genus name comes from. In Greek mythology, Hylas was a companion of Herakles, but I haven’t been able to find any info about any Hyles. In medieval Latin, hyle was used as a transliteration of the Greek húlē, wood, matter; in another sense, the first matter of the cosmos, from which the four elements arose, according to the doctrines of Empedocles and Aristotle.

It isn’t immediately apparent why it was applied to this particular genus.

Backyard butterflies: Crescent city

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2015.

This October, just in time for Halloween, I’ve had sightings of two different orange and black butterflies known as crescents: Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon).

I’ve written about the Pearl Crescent before, but here are this month’s pictures:

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015. Put your cursor over the image (or click here) to see the text.

The upper side, at least, is orange and black. The under side is more brown and cream than black:

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2015.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos). Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2015.

The Phaon Crescent looks remarkably similar; the main difference is that one of the bands of orange in the upper wings in Pearl is cream-colored in Phaon:

Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Phaon Crescent (Phyciodes phaon). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015. Put your cursor over the image (or click here) to see the text.

There are plenty of orange-and-black butterflies in this part of the world, of course (Monarch, Queen, Gulf Fritillary), but these two are kind of fun, and they’ve been underrepresented on this website for the past few years.

Both Pearl Crescent and Phaon Crescent are “weedy” butterflies. By this I don’t mean that they are as common as weeds. They’re actually, at least in my yard, somewhat rare. By “weedy” I mean that their larvae eat weeds. Phaon caterpillars eat the leaves of a ground cover known variously as carpetweed, turkey tangle fog fruit, frog fruit, mat grass. Its taxonomic name is Phyla nodiflora. It’s fairly pretty:

Turkey tangle fog fruit. Photo from UF/IFAS website, photographer Donald Hall.

Turkey tangle fog fruit. Photo from UF/IFAS website, photographer Donald Hall.

There’s a decent-sized patch of it in the weedy front lawn of the house across the street from me (the one vacant house on the block). For an amazing life-cycle write-up of the Phaon Crescent, check out this page from MOSI outside.

The look-alike butterfly, Pearl Crescent, eats the leaves of flowers in one of the largest families of flowering plants, the Asteraceae. The most common weed in south Florida? Bidens alba, in the Asteraceae.

What I’m trying to say is both butterflies have their larval host plants in my neighborhood, so I can’t decide which butterfly I’m looking at by simple probability. I have to look closely at each one to be sure I know which is which. Hopefully the little lesson above will help you figure yours out as well.

Oh, did I mention? These are rather small butterflies; their wingspan is at most 1-1/4 inches. Yes, you do have to look rather closely.


Phyciodes presumably comes from the Greek phykos, meaning (in a somewhat convoluted way) painted. The word actually means seaweed, but it also referred to the products made from it, among which one of the principal ones was cosmetics, rouge. (Seaweeds can be brown and red, right?)

Tharos might be related to the Greek tharsos, courage, or it might be a reference to the ancient Sardinian city of Tharros, but it’s not clear that’s what Drury had in mind when he named this species back in 1773 (he called it Papilio tharos).

Phaon, of course, was the handsomest man in the world, although he didn’t start out that way. One day this old and unhandsome boatman from Mytilene had the good fortune to ferry the goddess of love, Aphrodite herself, from Lesbos to somewhere in Asia Minor. She was disguised as an old crone. Phaon, it is said, would accept no money for the fare. As recompense, Aphrodite gave him an ointment (it’s supposed to have contained myrrh—those of you who remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian know how some people feel about myrrh) to use that turned him young and handsome.

After his transformation, he captured the heart of Sappho, it is said (no mean feat, that), but apparently grew weary of her charms, prompting her to drown herself. His end was no less predictable: Aelian reports (in Varia Historia) that he was slain by a husband he was cuckolding.

As you can imagine, the story of Phaon was rather popular, being told by, among the ancients, Aelian, Ovid (Heroides xv, the epistle from Sappho to Phaon, translated by Alexander Pope), and Lucian.

It was also illustrated on vases:

Apulia Hydria depicting Phaon and the women of Lesbos. Offered on eBay in October, 2015.

Apulia Hydria depicting Phaon and the women of Lesbos. Offered on eBay in October, 2015.

I’ve always loved Greek vases, but the 7500-pound offering price on that one is a bit rich for my blood.

The story was also depicted in paintings (this one by the unofficial semi-official painter of Napoleonic France, Jacques-Louis David):

Sappho and Phaon. Jacques-Louis David, 1809. Image from Wikipedia.

Sappho and Phaon. Jacques-Louis David, 1809. Oil on canvas, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Image from Wikipedia.

So the Pearl Crescent might translate as courageous painted butterfly, while the Phaon Crescent would be the beautiful painted ferryman.

Go figure!

New backyard bug: Sleepy Orange butterfly

Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe). Boca Raton, FL, October 11, 2015.

The senna plants I put in this spring have been paying dividends for the last couple of months already. A nearly constant population of Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) butterflies has been present, both adults and caterpillars, although the former are quite a bit more difficult to photograph than the latter. Still, I’ve managed a few decent shots.

This month (October, for those of you who aren’t reading this the instant I post it) these plants brought in a new species to the yard: Sleepy Orange, Eurema nicippe. I knew it wasn’t a Cloudless Sulphur right away, because it was quite a bit smaller, and the upper side (visible only in flight) was bright orange. It nearly always has its wings folded when it lands, though, so the only images I have are of the yellow undersides:

Sleepy Orange (<em>Eurema nicippe</em>. Boca Raton, FL, October 11, 2015.

Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe). Boca Raton, FL, October 11, 2015.

The brown patches on the wings indicate that this is a female. A good clue to its being an orange and not another kind of yellow or sulphur is that there are only two orange butterflies in this butterfly family: tailed orange and sleepy orange. As long as you see the orange wings in flight, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of identifying it right away. And the tailed orange has a very different wing shape, so… About as easy an ID as they come.

Here’s the other side of this beautiful butterfly:

Sleepy Orange (<em>Eurema nicippe</em>). Boca Raton, FL, October 11, 2015.

Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe). Boca Raton, FL, October 11, 2015.

The “sleepy” in the name comes from the marking that looks like a “closed eye” in the forewing. Very few internet commentators give an illustration of this, at least those who work from live insects, because it’s very difficult to get a good photo of this butterfly with its wings open. But if you do manage it (and I haven’t), or you just use specimen photos, you can see the two spots that do indeed suggest closed eyes, at least to those with a little imagination:

And apparently John Henry Comstock, the godfather of entomology in America, gave this species the first part of its common name based on that character.1 I’m not sure when the common name changed from Comstock’s original Sleepy Yellow to the current Sleepy Orange, but it helps easily distinguish it from the other Eurema species: if you see orange, you know it’s not one of the “yellow” yellows. Here’s the picture of it from Comstock’s How to Know the Butterflies:

Screen Shot 2015-10-11 at 2.45.22 PM Plate XV from Comstock (1904)

It’s surprising how many different guides don’t show winter and summer forms when they’re different, or female and male; for Sleepy Orange, there’s quite a difference, so you’d need to show all four forms to really help your reader. The yellow on the summer form is “clean,” with the various black markings showing up in stark contrast to the brilliance of the ground color. Minno and Minno (1999) illustrate this species (and most other species) quite well, with two male and two female specimens, one for each form (click the picture if you’d like to see the caption at legible size):


Like several of the oranges and sulphurs, Sleepy Oranges enjoy both the flowers and the leaves of many kinds of cassias; mine is Senna mexicana, var. chapmanii, native to Florida and the West Indies. When it blooms (when the caterpillars leave it alone long enough for it to do so!), it has a pretty yellow flower. I saw one the other day, but it was so windy I wasn’t able to get a picture of it. Here’s one from April instead:

Chapman's or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015

Chapman’s or Bahama Senna (Senna mexicana). Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015



Cech, R. and G. Tudor. 2005. Butterflies of the East Coast: an observing guide. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Comstock, J. and Comstock, A. 1904. How to Know the Butterflies. New York: Appleton.

Minno, M. and Minno, M. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening: A complete guide to attracting, identifying, and enjoying butterflies of the lower South. Gainesville: U of Florida P.

New backyard bug: Three-spotted Skipper

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

Skippers are the little brown jobs of the butterfly world: small, fast, hard to see clearly, and hard to distinguish in the field. Fortunately, a good camera can overcome almost all of those problems, and it came in handy last month when I uncovered a new species visiting the yard: Three-spotted Skipper, Cymaenes tripunctus.

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

In the photo above, the butterfly is sipping nectar from the Bahama Strongbark (Bourreria succulenta) tree in the front yard. That tree is a favorite of many nectar-drinkers and pollinators, from the common European Honeybee to the more specialized leafcutter bees in the family Megachilidae. Flower flies, also called hover flies, in the family Syrphidae also frequent the blossoms, as do my most common resident butterflies, Zebra Longwing and Gulf Fritillary.

Last month I also noticed a huge spike in the population of Monk Skippers (Asbolis capucinus); on a good day I’d see 8 or 9 of them hanging out between the dwarf strongbark (I have a hedge of it out front) and the regular-sized tree. And one day I noticed another lightly marked brown butterfly, about half the size of the hulking Monk, and was able to get a couple of reasonable shots of it. Good enough, at least, to secure the ID.

Since that first sighting (September 23), these have been fairly regular visitors to the yard. Here’s another shot from a week later:

Three-spotted Skipper (<em>Cymaenes tripunctus</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

Now it’s near the middle of October, and I’m still seeing them on a regular basis (and still waiting for the light to be just right, so I can get a pretty, instead of just a decent, shot of one). But I can’t wait any longer to post the “New Backyard Bug” post or I’ll forget about it, as I’ve done with poor Pelidnota punctata, the grapevine beetle that I saw back in 2013 and have yet to finish writing up…

Like most butterflies in this family (the Grass Skippers), its larval host plant is various species of grasses. Listed in my manuals are bamboo, paragrass, crabgrass, thin paspalum, guineagrass, sugarcane, and eastern gamagrass. While I’d like to have that last species, which is nice and ornamental, I have thin paspalum (Paspalum setacea) instead. It’s a bunch grass, but very low growing, not very attractive, and I rip it out whenever it gets too thick.

I guess I’ll have to start inspecting it for caterpillars before I do!


September 2015 Inventory

Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

Here’s a somewhat complete list of the insects and spiders seen around the yard last month (those that I’ve noticed, those that I’ve taken pictures of, and those that I’ve been able to ID). Some of them are linked to ID pages on Others aren’t. If it was a new species for the yard, I’ve indicated it as such, along with a link to the write-up on the blog. (Some of which I still haven’t even caught up with yet…)


  • Swallowtails (Papilionidae)
    • Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)

      Giant Swallowtail (<em>Papiliio cresphontes</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 2, 2015.

      Giant Swallowtail (Papiliio cresphontes). Boca Raton, FL, September 2, 2015.

    • Polydamas Swallowtail (Battus polydamas)
  • Whites and Yellows (Pierids)
  • Blues, Coppers, and Hairstreaks (Lycaenidae)
    • Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)
    • Martial’s Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis)

      Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

      Martial Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon martialis), head-deep in the weeds.

    • Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon istapa)
  • Brushfoots (Nymphalidae)
    • Queen (Danaus gillipus)
    • Monarch (Danaus plexippus)
    • Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae)
    • Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia)
  • Skippers (Hesperiidae)
    • Fiery Skipper (Hylephila philaeus)
    • Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus) (New yard bug, no write-up yet)

      Three-spotted Skipper (<em>Cymaenes tripunctus</em>). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

      Three-spotted Skipper (Cymaenes tripunctus). Boca Raton, FL, September 23, 2015.

    • White Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus albescent) (New yard bug!):

      Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

      Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus sp.), Boca Raton, FL, September 11, 2015.

    • Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus)
    • Monk Skipper (Asbolis capucinus); very high numbers this month (8–9 individuals at once)
    • Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius)



  • Damselflies (Zygoptera)
    • Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata)
    • Rambur’s Forktail (Ischnura ramburii)
    • Everglades Sprite (Nehalennia integricollis)
  • Dragonflies (Anisoptera)
    • Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata)
    • Blue Dasher (Erythrodiplax longipennis)

      Blue Dasher (<em>Pachydiplax longipennis</em>). Boca Raton, FL, October 10, 2015.

      Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis). Boca Raton, FL, October 10, 2015. (Yes, October, but I saw them in September, too.)


  • Honeybee (Apis mellifera)
  • Leafcutter bee (Megachile petulans)
  • Leafcutter bee (Megachile albitarsis) (new to the yard!)

    White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

    White-footed Leaf-cutter Bee (Megachile albitarsis). Boca Raton, FL, September 3, 2015.

  • Sweat Bee (Agapostemon splendens)
  • Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi)
  • Sweat Bee (Lasioglossum lepidii)
  • Chalcid wasp, Conura sp.
  • Chalcid wasp, Eurytoma sp. (“new” to the yard!)

    Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

    Tiny chalcid wasp, family Eurytomidae. Boca Raton, FL, September 13, 2015.

  • Chalcid wasp, Brachymeria sp. (“new” to the yard!)

    Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

    Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

  • Myzinum wasp (Campsomeris dorsata)


  • Metallic Blue Ladybeetle (Curinus coeruleus)
  • Asian Multicolored Ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis)
  • Click beetle, perhaps Diplostethus carolinensis



  • Condylostylus mundus

    Long-legged fly, probably <em>Condylostylus mundus</em>. Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

    Long-legged fly, probably Condylostylus mundus. Boca Raton, FL, September 30, 2015.

  • Palpada vinetorum
  • Plagioneurus univittatus
  • Toxomerus geminatus
  • Sarcophagidae sp.
  • Phytomizinae sp.


  • Hentzia palmarum
  • Gasteracantha cancriformis
  • Menemerus bivittatus
  • Argiope trifasciata
  • Leucauge venusta


New backyard bug: Ocola Skipper

Ocola Skipper, Panoquina ocola. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

That’s right: Ocola, not Ocala. No one seems to know the origin of that name. I assume, although I don’t know, that the “common” name comes from the species name, Panoquina ocola. (I’m having  trouble writing this post; the autocorrect keeps trying to change it to either “Ocala” or “cool”; apparently “Ocola” isn’t a word!) My own personal guess is that it’s a corruption of either Ocala or Osceola, both of which are Florida place names that might have flummoxed a young industrialist coal miner from New York.

The coal mine owner who gave the species its name was William Henry Edwards, who named it Hesperia ocola in the Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia back in 1863; the range is given as Florida, Georgia, Texas. (In that same article he also described the “Mandan Skipper,” with range given as Lake Winnipeg, just a few miles north of North Dakota, in which state is located the town of Mandan, of Lewis and Clark fame.)

He, together with (and separately from) Samuel Scudder, established American lepidoptera studies in the latter half of the nineteenth century. They were the first to go beyond simple cataloging and taxonomy of the North American butterflies, to include their life histories:

every stage, what the insect ate, its courting and mating behavior, its “parenting” practices, how it dealt with the surrounding world, how it kept going in the face of a grisly army of enemies, and what finally killed it. (Leach 7)

For more on Edwards and his stormy relationship with other nineteenth-century American butterfly enthusiasts, read William Leach’s recent history of American lepidopterists, Butterfly People. Edwards wrote the first comprehensive illustrated guide to North American butterflies by an American, and he spared no expense on the plates; he considered that “nothing is more discouraging to the beginner than dry, unillustrated descriptions” (Leach 18).

With that in mind, I’ll wait no longer to bring you a picture of this migrant to my yard, first time seen after over four years here:

Ocola Skipper, <em>Panoquina ocola</em>. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Ocola Skipper, Panoquina ocola. Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Unlike with most skippers, identification of this one isn’t terribly hard, as long as you get a clear view of the distinctive chevron-shaped mark in the wing. Still, I was reluctant to post this until I got the ID confirmed over at Randy Emmitt has made an excellent identification page at Butterflies of the Carolinas and Virginias.

While this is a fairly common butterfly, it’s a bit of a local phenomenon. The caterpillars feed on aquatic and semi-aquatic grasses, which I don’t have in abundance anywhere near me. Bugguide lists the following species: Rice (Oryza sativa), Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), and Trompetilla Grass (Hymenachne amplexicaulis). So I imagine this is a much more common butterfly out in the western parts of Palm Beach County, where more sugarcane is grown than anywhere else in the continental United States, thanks to a byzantine arrangement of USDA and other government subsidies that allow corporate farmers to sell their product at a price that would be unsustainable on any kind of open market.

But that’s a different story. Me, I’m just writing about a little butterfly that just recently decided to visit my little part of the world. And now I’m done writing about it.

[UPDATE: In my reading about this species in Minno and Minno, I discovered that this grass skipper also uses torpedograss (Panicum repens), which is a very weedy grass that I have growing out front near my lantanas and gumbo limbo; I keep ripping it up, but it has an extremely tenacious and energy-filled rhizome that basically means it’s ineradicable. So maybe there’s a corner of my yard where these Ocola skippers are just enjoying themselves to no end, and I just haven’t found it yet!]


Edwards, W. H. 1863. Description of certain species of DIURNAL LEPIDOPTERAN found within the limits of the United States and British America. No. 1. Proceedings of the Entomological Society of Philadelphia, vol. 2, no.1: 14–22.

Leach, W. 2013. Butterfly People: An American encounter with the beauty of the world. New York: Pantheon.

Minno, M.C. & Minno, M. 1999. Florida Butterfly Gardening. Gainesville: UP of Florida.

New backyard bug: Ornate Bella Moth, Utetheisa ornatrix

Ornate Bella Moth (Utethesia ornatrix). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

The more I get to know my little patch of ground, the more exciting it is to find something new in it. In early October this year I found a species of moth called a Bella Moth (or Ornate Bella Moth), Utetheisa ornatrix. It’s a pretty little moth, with orange wings that bear white stripes with black dots in them. On its “shoulders” it bears a pretty white “shawl” with black polka dots:

Ornate Bella Moth (<em>Utethesia ornatrix</em>). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

Ornate Bella Moth (Utetheisa ornatrix). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2015.

It looks quite a bit more pink than orange in flight, because, like many moths, its underwings are of a different color than its upper wings. Unfortunately, since I didn’t have a dead moth, I was unable to get a shot of them, but here’s a screenshot of what they look like, from the UF/IFAS Featured Creatures website, photo by Don Hall (clicking the photo will take you to the UF/IFAS page about this moth; scroll down the page to Figure 6):

Bella Moth underwings. Photo by Don Hall from the UF/IFAS featured creatures website.

Bella Moth underwings. Photo by Don Hall from the UF/IFAS featured creatures website.

I was surprised to find this moth in my yard because I don’t have the host plant for it, which is any number of species of wildflower in the genus Crotalaria, called rattlebox for the way the seeds rattle in the seed pod.

Here’s a bad picture from my files of one species I saw back in 2008 at Fern Forest; you can see that it will bear yellow flowers and it has abundant seed pods (making this a rather weedy species):

Rattlebox (<em>Crotalaria sp.</em>). Fern Forest, September 16, 2008.

Rattlebox (Crotalaria sp.). Fern Forest, September 16, 2008.

It tends to grow in scrubby sites, and the closest scrub areas that I know about are several miles away. But it’s a weedy genus, and there must be some growing nearby that I don’t know about.

An alternative explanation for the presence of this moth in my yard comes from the Century Dictionary online, which defines this genus and uses U. bella (an older name for this same species) as the prototype:

Uthethesia definition in the Century Dictionary online (continued)

Uthetheisa definition in the Century Dictionary online (continued)

Plants in the genus Myrica include the common Wax Myrtle, which I have in my back yard! So I’ll have to inspect my two shrubs for evidence of these larvae. Just for fun, here’s the beginning of the definition from the Century Dictionary:

The entry <em>Utethesia</em> in the <em>Century Dictionary</em>.

The entry Utetheisa in the Century Dictionary.

Assuming this moth to be a stray, rather than one who grew up on the wax myrtle in my back yard, it probably had a formidable array of chemical defenses to protect itself from predators. It gets these chemicals from its most common host plants, the crotalarias. They  have some very poisonous chemicals in their tissues to repel plant-eating critters. But, as Thomas Eisner wrote about in his book For Love of Insects, (I wrote a bit about that book a few years back in discussion of another new backyard insect) if a plant creates a defense, an insect can find a way around it. And that’s what these beautiful moths do.

Eisner devotes almost an entire chapter (chapter 10, “The Sweet Smell of Success”) of his book to the work he and his graduate students did on these moths at the Archibald Biological Station in Venus. Apparently it was a chance observation of this species of moth being freed from a spiderweb by the spider that “changed forever the way we [think] about insect survival” (349). This moth is distasteful to predators, which confers a huge survival advantage on it.

Their distastefulness derives from their diet: eating these crotalarias (in the pea family, but toxic enough to kill cows) enables them to absorb their defensive chemicals (in this case, pyrrolizidine alkaloids) and saturate their bodies with them, to the point where most predators, even naive1 ones, will leave them alone.

Interestingly, Eisner and colleagues discovered that the uptake of this chemical in the moth caterpillars is variable, and if a growing larva doesn’t have enough of it, it will resort to cannibalism to acquire it! Alkaloid-hungry caterpillars will leave alone their brethren who also don’t have the chemical, but should they encounter one that has it, they’ll do their best to eat it up!

The bella moth is a tiger moth, in the large and diverse subfamily Arctiinae. My etymological research has come up empty; the Century Dictionary is my fallback etymological source for insect names, and as you can see from the pictures in the post above, it didn’t bother to give an etymology, although it did source the name to Hübner, 1816. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the taxonomy:

In 1758, Carol Linnaeus first characterized two species of the genus PhalaenaPhalaena ornatrix was used to describe the paler moth specimens, and Utetheisa bella, described the bright pink moth specimens.[3] In 1819, Hübner moved these species to a new genus, Utetheisa.[4] For nearly a century, it was difficult to determine this moth’s evolutionary history as researchers focused on external similarities (color, shape, patterns, size), rather than determining features specific to the species. This led to great confusion when trying to categorize the different subspecies.[4] In 1960, Forbes combined both species, Utetheisa ornatrix and Utetheisa bella,into the species now known as Utetheisa ornatrix.[4] His conclusion was also supported by Pease Jr. who, in 1966, used genetic testing and determined that any phenotypic differences were based on interspecific variation due to geographic differences (rather than intraspecific variation).[4]

And here’s a beautiful picture of a slightly different color form of this moth from the island of Tobago:

Ornate moth from Tobago. Photo by Don Sharp, from Wikimedia Commons

For more on this moth, I highly recommend Donald Hall’s write-up on Featured Creatures (see References, below); his bibliography is stuffed with more technical references if you’re curious.


Century Dictionary online.

Eisner, T. 2003. For Love of Insects. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard.

Hall, D. 2005. common name: bella moth, rattlebox moth, inornate moth or calico moth
scientific name: Utetheisa ornatrix (Linnaeus) (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Erebidae: Arctiinae). From the Featured Creatures website,

The dread Wikipedia. Utetheisa ornatrix.

It begins with the letter A…

Sweat bee (Agapostemeon splendens). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.

I’ve been reviewing the photos on my old Mac mini, since supplanted as my workhorse computer by the laptop. But I haven’t transferred the nearly 2TB of photos from it, and inevitably I missed a few. Here are a couple from last November that begin with the letter A.

Sweat bee (<em>Agapostemeon splendens</em>). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.

Sweat bee (Agapostemeon splendens). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014.

Green anole (<em>Anolis carolinensis</em>). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis). Boca Raton, FL, November 14, 2014

As usual, click the photos for a larger image.

“New” backyard bug: Milkweed Assassin. Or, chalcid wasps as prey items

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

The wasps in the superfamily Chalcidoidea may be small, but they’re not invisible, nor are they invincible. At least not to a hunter as skilled as the milkweed assassin bug, Zelus longipes:

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

This photo marks the first time in years of trying that I was able to see one of these guys in the yard with a meal. I’ve seen them in the yard before, waiting around on leaves with their sticky forelegs raised up (always sidling around the plant to be on the opposite side of the leaf or stem from me and the camera), but until today I’d never seen one with a capture!

The legs and antennae of this insect are enormously long; presumably the long antennae aid in identifying and sorting prey from non-prey items. The length of these appendages also probably enables them to keep their distance from any dangerous insects they may encounter.

Adults have wings, so they do fly, but apparently not so well (video captured by a YouTuber in Broward County a few years ago):

As for what the bug from this morning is eating: yes, indeed, it is one of those conurid wasps, family Chalcidoidea, that I’ve just started paying more attention to:

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

I know some butterfly enthusiasts who worry about the presence of these predatory wasps in their gardens; they’ve probably witnessed countless episodes of caterpillars being used as hosts for the parasitoid larvae. It’s certainly not pretty, but it sure beats industrial pest control!

And, as the above picture demonstrates, these “nasty” wasps don’t have it all that good, either.

Finding this example of a predator becoming prey is a bit ironic because I had spent a good part of the morning trying to find a live one of these wasps so I could get a decent picture of it (they’re quite elusive, moving quickly from leaf to leaf as they search for prey items, making it hard for me to get a decent shot at one). I was not expecting to get a helping hand (or piercing-sucking mouthpart) from an assassin bug! Nor was I looking for a shot of the milkweed assassin bug, as I had already added it to my photo archives (although I hadn’t written it up anywhere except my Encyclopedia Taxonomica, so perhaps this post can serve for that as well).

Of course, it wasn’t all that helpful: these assassin bugs are wary creatures as well, and I was never able to maneuver my camera close enough to get a really, really good shot.

You can read all about this beneficial garden insect at the UF/IFAS web site. According to that site, these bugs (true bugs, so the name is apt, for once) are “generalist predators feeding on a wide range of soft-bodied prey in garden and fields such as mosquitoes, flies, earthworms, cucumber beetles and caterpillars.”

And important to remember when dealing with any true bug, they have piercing sucking mouthparts. UF/IFAS reminds us that “While not a threat to humans, if not handled properly, a Z. longipes ‘bite’ can cause a burning sensation with swelling that may last for several days.”

In the meantime, here are some more pictures of the wasp; a living specimen would have much brighter yellow eyes:

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).

Milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes) with a conurid wasp (Chalcidoidea).


The taxonomy of Zelus longipes goes all the way back to Linnaeus himself (1767), although the actual genus name now used for it comes from Fabricius (1803). The specific epithet means “long-legged” (strictly speaking, long-footed), a fact which you can probably appreciate from the photos. Zela is an ancient Greek (Thracian, actually) word for wine, but it’s more likely that the genus is named for Zelus, one of the attendants of Zeus’s throne, who was supposed to have personified “zeal.” (This deity was the less famous sibling of Nike, “winged victory.”)

Chalcid wasps are small

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

We relate to the world around us through our senses. We have little choice. There might exist a world of objective reality, the realm of Plato’s ideal, but we can’t reach it, except perhaps through pure mathematics (and even then, Plato says, we’re still looking at shadows on the cave wall rather than the actual objects that cast those shadows).

So, stuck in the cave as we are, we tend to judge the world around us as it relates to us. A slightly older contemporary of Plato’s, the ancient Greek sophist Protagoras summed up this anthropocentric tendency thousands of years ago in the pithy saying “Man is the measure of all things.”

This tendency has persisted to the present day, both in common usage and in cosmological theory1 But we don’t need to be cosmologists to understand that we relate to the world around us through our human-sized senses. A pretty sunrise, for example, is easy to appreciate; it seems to be sized for our enjoyment:

Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

Sunrise. Boca Raton, FL, September 12, 2015.

The sun looks about as large as my thumbnail held at arm’s length—easy to handle, despite my knowledge of how incredibly large the actual sun is. The point I’m trying to make is that everyday experiences like these center around events, objects, and beings that are, or appear to be, in the human-sized world.

Our experience of worlds larger and smaller is less immediate. Both the microscopic world and the realm of the astronomically large are almost always mediated by our equipment: macro lenses,2 to make the tiny objects that inhabit the micro world large enough to see, and telescopes, to magnify and make visible as extended objects the tiny points of light that are, in actuality, the largest objects in the universe: other planets, stars, nebulae, and galaxies.

That’s one reason I love these bits of optical gear so much. They open up realms of experience that are otherwise inaccessible to me. When I see a tiny little dot in the air with my naked eye, and it resolves itself into a lovely little bee through optical aid, I get a thrill. And when those tiny little dots and patterns in the night sky3 resolve themselves into recognizable patterns (for example, in Messier 42) in the eyepiece of my telescope, I get a thrill.4

Similarly, in our everyday experience of nature, be it in the back yard or at a nearby park (or even in a far-away national park or wildlife refuge), we tend to focus on those large objects that are visible to the naked eye: birds, butterflies, and perhaps the various shrubberies, trees, or flowers in which they appear. When we pay really close attention, we might see something as small as a dayflower, or a common honeybee or an ant, but that’s pushing our powers of observation to their limits:

<em>Commelina</em> flower with small bee (<em>Lasioglossum lepidii</em>). The flower is about 3/4-inch wide.

Commelina flower with small bee (Lasioglossum lepidii). The entire field of view is probably 6 inches wide.

To experience the true diversity of the natural world, at least as it manifests itself in the insect world, we need magnification. I use binoculars, a hand lens, or the macro lens on my camera. The camera lens is especially useful as it helps me record details that I’m unable to see in real time. (For example, it enabled an expert to identify that bee in the above picture.)

recent fortuitous encounter through the camera lens drew my attention to the enormous wasp superfamily Chalcidoidea. This group is enormous in terms of diversity, not physical size: most of the over 22,000 described members are less than 3 mm from stem to stern; in fact, this group contains the smallest known insect, Dicopomorpha echmepterygis. And there are thought to be as many as 500,000 species in this group; there are so many of them, and they’re so tiny, that relatively little attention has been paid to them compared to the “charismatic megafauna” of the insect world like the beetles or the butterflies.

After several years of almost complete ignorance of their presence here in my yard I’ve recently discovered three tiny little members of this superfamily of wasps. At our current level of taxonomic sophistication, none of them can be identified to the species level, but they can all be assigned to a genus. Here they are, in alpha order:

Brachymeria species (family Chalcidinae):


Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Brachymeria. Boca Raton, FL, September 16, 2015.

Conura species (family Chalcidinae):

Wasp, Conura species. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Chalcid wasp, genus Conura. Boca Raton, FL, October 30, 2014.

Eurytoma species (family Eurytomidae):

Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

Chalcid wasp, genus Eurytoma. Boca Raton, FL, September 14, 2015.

What’s astounding to me is how different all of these tiny creatures are from each other, once their images are enlarged enough to be useful. The conurid is eye-catching: bright yellow-orange body, with yellow eyes and black marks in distinctive patterns on the body; the two black wasps have remarkably different eye colors (bright red for the eurytomid, black for the brachymeriid) and antennal structure (the feathery antennae of the eurytomid differ markedly from the “straight” antennae of the two chalcidinids).5

While I know very little about these particular species, it seems plain to me that the conurid wasp is a predator, either a parasitoid or a hyperparasitoid; it’s constantly scanning the leaves of my wild lime bush for caterpillars. The other two wasps appear to be phytophagous, eating either the nectar or the pollen of the plants I find it on; they seem to adore my butterfly bush (Cordia globosa), and I frequently see them inside the flowers, rather than scanning, scanning, scanning for prey like the predatory wasps.

I’ve seen dozens of individuals of two of these species (the eurytomid and the conurid), which makes me think that they’re either gregarious or social, if not eusocial like the ants and the honeybees; so far I’ve only seen the one brachymeriid, so either it’s a solitary wasp or I’ve just not been paying enough attention. And part of the reason for this post is to testify that I haven’t been paying enough attention, and to try to remedy that situation.

But this is as far as I’ve gotten for now. Hope you enjoyed the trip!


Bug Guide. Available at

Noyes, J.S. Universal Chalcidoidea Database. Available at

Wikipedia article on chalcids. Available at

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