Caterpillar: Orange-barred Sulphur

Last fall I was excited to find a couple of beautiful yellow and orange butterflies (Orange-barred Sulphurs) flying around the Bahama Senna shrubs in the front yard. Search as I might, though, I never did find a caterpillar. This fall I've seen them flying on several occasions, but they've never settled down while I've had my camera with me. (Seriously, I've never seen so much fluttering and so little landing.) Even though I haven't been able to get a photo of an adult, I have finally found a caterpillar, so I guess things balance out. I was cleaning up the yard and taking down the shutters the morning after Hurricane Matthew passed by, staying politely out to sea but giving us all a healthy scare, when I discovered this bright yellow caterpillar on one of the shrubs:
Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2016.

Orange-barred Sulphur (Phoebis philea). Boca Raton, FL, October 7, 2016.

Calloo callay! This little guy brought a little brightness to an otherwise drab gray day.

Ants bite; they can also tend your garden for you

Last weekend I went out to Yamato Scrub for another volunteer clean-up event coordinated by Palm Beach County ERM. We were removing the last of the temporary irrigation installed years and years ago to jump-start the native plants that they imported to the site to replace the acres and acres of Brazilian Pepper and Australian Pine that had grown up over the years since the site was drained by the canals that run all over the place down here. The irrigation was the typical black poly tubing with smaller tubes for the emitters. But the contractors who installed the tubing made sure that the emitters didn't wander off by tying them around the trunks of all the plants. And over time, those trunks got larger and even started growing right over the tubing, making it quite difficult to remove. What's more, the combination of small amounts of water (this is drip irrigation, after all) and delicious leaf litter and mulch, proves irresistible to that imported scourge, Solenopsis invicta: the red imported fire ant. As anyone who's had the "opportunity" to deal with fire ants knows, they bite. And then they spray acid into the bite. And it hurts. A lot. The Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce has perhaps the best description of how to ID them:
Macroscopic identification of the mounds of red imported fire ants (RIFA, Solenopsis invicta) is typically made by lay residents of Florida while in the midst of a hasty retreat once the mounds are accidentally disturbed and large numbers of irritated stinging red ants emerge to attack the source of the disturbance.
In the course of trying to remove three tied-off irrigation tubes that served as hosts to fire ant colonies, I was able to learn a bit too much about how the defense systems of these tiny social insects operate. At first, they feel like normal ant bites--a bit painful, but nothing to get excited about. Brush them off and move on. But it turns out, that's just the beginning. After about 24 hours, the site of each bite swelled up, blistered, and started itching like crazy. I'm no fan of benadryl, but hydrocortisone cream alone just wasn't cutting it with these things. So even though I appreciate the amazing social creatures that ants are, yadda yadda, I'm not exactly a fan of the whole bite-me group at the moment. But ants can also be extremely beneficial, as I discovered just a couple of days later. I recently planted a Florida fiddlewood tree in the back yard (and never have gotten around to writing it up). Citharexylum spinosum is a lovely tree, with elegant foliage on slender curving branches. It flowers and fruits in a rather showy manner for a native plant. Here's a photo from a field trip I took back in 2008 during one of my Florida Master Naturalist field trips:

Florida Fiddlewood (Citharexylum spinosum).

I'm looking forward to seeing this little guy grow up. Now, my native plant guru warned me that there was a caterpillar that can attack these plants, defoliating them rather quickly. She didn't know the name of it (most moths don't have common names), and I decided I'd take the risk; after all, part of the reason I have a native plant garden is to increase the biodiversity on my little plot of land. A few more insects has to be good for the old ecosystem, right? Nevertheless, I was dismayed when I went outside one morning and saw leaves drooping, skeletonized, victims of some foul miscreant. I immediately  searched the leaves to see who could be responsible, and, sure enough, I discovered a group of caterpillars resting on a partially skeletonized leaf:
Fiddlewood caterpillar moth. Boca Raton, FL, June 10. 2014.

Moth caterpillar (Epicorsia oedipodalis) on Fiddlewood. Boca Raton, FL, June 10. 2014.

There were four of them, all told, on this little leaf. A fifth, a bit more alert than these sleepyheads, was able to abseil down a silk line to safety on the ground. I let him go, figuring I'd catch him again as he climbed the trunk, as I'd be keeping a close watch on this plant for the next couple of days. Turns out there was no need. After only a few minutes inside taking mug shots of the four perps I had in custody, I went back out to see if I could nab any other malefactors. I scanned the ground for the one I knew had escaped, and there it was, being carted off by a busy troupe of ants. Not fire ants, mind, but good old brown garden-variety ants. Those same ants that tend their herds of scale that damage my plants with sooty mold, that I curse whenever I find them, were doing me a big favor patrolling the ground around my wounded fiddlewood. How about them apples? After a friendly referral on bug guide.net, I was able to tentatively ID the moth species as Epicorsia oedipodalis, which is a species of pyraustine crambid moth. (That tells you everything you need to know, right?) Its host plants appear to be lancewood and fiddlewood, so I'd better be on the lookout for this guy over in another spot of the garden where I have a couple of lancewoods. Epicorsia appears to refer to something "on the side of the head/temple"; perhaps the little eyes (stemmata) located high on the head, near where the caterpillar's temple would be if it were human, is responsible for the name:
Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head

Epicorsia oedipodalis detail. Note the stemmata rather high on the head.

I trust that oedipodalis reminds you of Oedipus, but I'm not sure why this moth or caterpillar (whichever is responsible for the name) reminded someone of him strongly enough to merit the name.

New backyard butterfly: Great Southern White

I've been noticing some large, white butterflies in the front yard throughout the month of May; they've been a bit hard to photograph with the constant wind and their habit of flying off at top speed when I approach with a camera, so I'm digging into my photo files and showing this version from a January, 2008 trip to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) nectaring on Indian Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella). Merritt Island, FL, January 12, 2008.

Now back to Boca: this June, for the first time ever, I  noticed some butterfly eggs on my limber caper (Capparis flexuosa). I was surprised, because I wasn't aware that these plants, with their incredible showy flowers, were butterfly host plants. The eggs I saw were small (as butterfly eggs are), slender, yellow, and laid out in attractive little bunches on the leaves. Most butterfly eggs are laid on the bottom of the leaf surface, to protect the developing larva from the sun and, I don't know, lazy predators who don't know how to cruise the underside of a leaf? But what caught my eye this fine morning was a cute little bunch of eggs on the top surface of a tender young leaf:
Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Great Southern White (Ascia monusta) eggs. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

The yellow-and-white pattern was rather striking. It turns out that the yellow was made up of still-occupied eggs, and the white was just the reflection through the translucent remains of some "hatched-out" eggs (eclosed, in technical parlance). These eggs were so small that I really had no idea what I was looking at until I brought the camera inside and looked at the photos on the computer screen. It was only then that I discovered that they were butterfly eggs and not, as I'd first suspected, stink bug eggs, which are also laid in geometric patterns. Once I found out they were caterpillar eggs, I needed to figure out what species they might be. That part was easy: just consult Marc Minno's book on Florida butterfly caterpillars and see which butterflies use Limber Caper as a host plant. Turns out there are only two, Florida White and Great Southern White. And the Florida White's eggs are white, not yellow. Case closed! But, I reasoned, since in this group there were some occupied eggs and some eclosed eggs, there must have been some caterpillars on this here plant that I missed when I was photographing the eggs. So I went back outside to try to find them. And sure enough, I found a whole little community of tiny caterpillars doing their thing:
A whole passel o caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

A whole passel o' caterpillars (Ascia monusta, Great Southern White). Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

They appeared to be busily occupied constructing a little shelter for themselves out of silk, presumably to protect themselves from the numerous ants, lacewings, and other predators in the well-tended garden. (I noticed several lacewing eggs on other parts of this bush.) The caterpillars are quite interesting, with numerous "spikes" (setae), most of which seem to be growing out of the numerous small black sp0ts that adorn the caterpillar's back. It's green and yellow, at least this early in life (first instar); Minno describes the body of later instars as "gray with yellow stripes." Apparently the back of the caterpillar has short tails, but I've been unable to discern any in the photos I've taken so far. Also, it seems that the caterpillars—which right now appear to be quite social, feeding and hanging out  together—start to disperse as they mature, rather like human children. Here's a solo shot:
Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

Ascia monusta (Great Southern White) caterpillar. Boca Raton, FL, June 6, 2014.

I'm not quite sure what the droplets on the end of their hairs might be; there was no rain this morning and I hadn't even watered the plants as I often do early in the rainy season when, as now, we've been without rain for a few days. I've posted a question on my go-to site for insect identifications, bugguide.net, and will update this post if I hear anything back. If you're interested in learning more about these butterflies, the Miami Blue chapter of the North American Butterfly Association has a nice write-up on their website. References Minno, M., J. Butler, & D. Hall. (2005). Florida butterfly caterpillars and their host plants. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida P.

Backyard animals in June

There aren't a ton of animals visible in the steamy sunny heat of late June here in Boca; those few that there are, apart from the omnipresent mockingbird and his counterpart in red, the cardinal, tend to be insects. Here's a blue dasher dragonfly that seems to favor a perch on the spicewood tree on the side of our house: As you can see from the red eyes, this is a not-quite-mature male (the adult male has green eyes). But he's got the adult male body coloration: blue abdomen with black on the tip, and yellow on the sides of the first few abdominal segments. Females are brown and yellow, but tend to turn blue as they age. They usually retain the yellow stripes that run down the dorsal side on the majority of the abdominal segments, though, which helps differentiate a "blue" female from a juvenile male. For more on this, visit buguide.net's blue dasher page. The blue dasher is a widespread species in the United States, occurring from Florida and the Bahamas all the way out west to California, and north as far as southern British Columbia in the west to Ontario in the east. In other words, just about wherever you live in the lower 48, you have a good chance of encountering this species, although it is apparently absent from the Dakotas and the Rocky Mountain states. Apart from the lovely anisopterans, the other insect we get in droves here is one of Eric's favorites: butterflies! (He calls them lellerflies, as near as I can make out. He's not actually referring to the lepidopterans around here; his gymnastics lessons have him "reach for your butterflies"; i.e., reach your arms straight over your head, in preparation for "making your pizzas," which means planting your hands on the floor in front of you. All of this is to position you properly to allow you to turn a somersault. Just don't try it with real pizzas, please!) And here's a lellerfly in potentio, a Polydamas swallowtail (Battus polydamas): As you can see, he's fatter than the Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia gigantea) leaf he's feeding on! For the life history of this guy, visit the UF/IFAS web page; for many better photos, use bugguide.net. From the archives, here's another common caterpillar we get this time of year (although this archive shot was from December--while the summers can be a bit muggy, Florida winters are da bomb!): The gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) is a very pretty adult, and the larval form is one of the more attractive critters among lepidopterans. Certainly friendlier looking than the big old swallowtail larva above, although apparently its diet of passiflora species (Passiflora incarnata in our yard) renders it noxious, as its bright orange and black coloration (an aposematic combination) would suggest. So go on, get out into the real world, even if it is a little hot, and a little muggy, and a little buggy. It'll do you some good!

Agraulis larvae

A couple of weeks ago (December 2, actually), I happened to be outside and found this larva of Agraulis vanillae, the beautiful Gulf Fritillary, on our maypop (passiflora) vine. I can't get over how those little feet work so well to keep these guys attached to whatever they're clinging to at the moment. Seeing this caterpillar was a bit of a surprise, because most of that entire fence on the side of the house is covered with a very aggressive Aristolochia vine that these fritillary caterpillars can't eat. But way back when we planted, we had two (or maybe it was three?) of these native passiflora vines, and only one of the exotic Dutchman's pipe. Even in the detail photos, the larger leaves of the exotic vine are easy to spot; it's pretty hard to tell that the caterpillar is happily munching on its food in and among all that foliage that wouldn't do it any good at all... Now I'm not saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but there really is something to it, at least as far as these vines are concerned. If I even want to see one of these vines, I have to go over to my neighbor's yard and look back at the fence; for some reason the pretty little flowers are more prominent on that side of the fence. Here's another shot of the fritillary:

Backyard nature

Remember the Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough? Australian novel that got turned into a miniseries here in the States? I don't. I wasn't allowed to stay up late enough to watch it when it came out, and now I don't really care too much to track it down and find out whether I've missed something or not. And why bother? I have all the drama I need right here in my backyard in Boca. Of course, you have to look a bit more closely; this is not the wide-open sweep of the Outback (even though it is, technically, out back). Read more