Butterflies, Moths, and Beetles, oh my!

I have always been fascinated by insects and arachnids; even the dangerous ones, although I do my best to admire these from a distance. Nonetheless, I have an ever-growing interest in the world of entomology. To me they are intelligent, resourceful, and amazing creatures. Now I love all animals, really anything with fur, feathers, or scales, (I believe that covers everything). As a result, I had a multitude of pets growing up; common pets like a dog, a few  cats, and an iguana, yet also a Rhode Island Red hen, a ferret, and of course, some bugs. So I’ve decided to talk about four different kinds of insects, the four that I’ve had pets over the years.

Silkworm Moth (Bombyx mori)

Silkworm Moth larvae

Silkworm Moth larvae.

When I was in grade school, to study metamorphoses, each student was given a white silkworm to take care of, so that we could watch its transformation from larva to moth. Either the teacher didn’t tell us what kind of moth it was, or she did, but it was so long ago now that I don’t remember, ( I graduated from high school fourteen years ago, so grade school was nearly eighteen or nineteen years ago now). Anyway, each of us had a silkworm, and I remember being totally enamored with the entire process of metamorphoses; eventually each silkworm spun a silken cocoon, and then later emerged as a white moth. In doing research recently, I am led to believe that they were Silkworm Moths. Based on the photos that I’ve seen, like those on this page, the silkworms, cocoons, and moths, look just like mine and those of my classmates.

Silkworm Moth cocoon

Silkworm Moth cocoon.

The female can lay up to 150 to 300 eggs over the course of two to three days; yet some can lay up to a thousand. She does this in the Spring, and they generally hatch in ten days. The silkworms at this stage are only 0.08 to 0.12 inches long, and they prefer mulberry leaves. They spend one month to 45 days in this stage, and during that short period of time, they grow exponentially fast, ultimately reaching a maximum length of three inches, and going through four molts. The larvae will stop eating and begin preparing to spin its cocoon.

Silkworm Moth adult

Silkworm Moth adult.

The cocoon is made from one long continuous strand of silk that can reach up to 1,000 yards.  About 14-16 days later, the adult moth will emerge from the cocoon, and will prefer to eat mulberry leaves, oranges, and lettuce.

 

Painted Lady Butterflies (Vanessa cardui)

Painted Lady Butterfly

Painted Lady Butterfly.

Closely related to moths, are the butterflies. When I was younger, there was this company that would send you a butterfly habitat box and five caterpillars; I believe there is still something like this out there. The caterpillars came in a jar, and you didn’t do anything with them until they formed chrysalises. Until then, the caterpillars had all they needed for food and space in this plastic jar. When they were ready, the caterpillars would crawl up to the lid of the jar and each form a chrysalis. And what was really interesting was when you would happen to see one of them as it was forming from a caterpillar into a chrysalis; I only got to see it actually happen twice, but it was absolutely amazing to witness.

Once all five caterpillars were chrysalises, (some waited longer than others), you would as gently as possible, because the last thing you want to do is drop them or have them fall off, transfer them to the butterfly habitat box, and hang the lid on one of the habitat walls. Eventually all five caterpillars hatched into Painted Lady Butterflies. The box came with fake flower inside it, but the middle of the flower could absorb sugar water, and you put this solution onto the middle of the flower for the butterflies to feed off of, similar to nectar. After a day or two of observing them, you open the box and let them go free; a moment that was always a little bittersweet to me. Of course I didn’t want to keep them in the box for their entire adult lives, because that’s just downright cruel to begin with. But after having them for so long and seeing them change from caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, farewell was a bit difficult.

Female Monarch Butterfly

Above, female Monarch Butterfly; below, male Monarch BuMale Monarch Butterflytterfly.

V. cardui looks similar to the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), but there are visual differences, as referenced in the photos.

The light green eggs of the Painted Lady are only the size of a pin head. Painted Ladies may lay several eggs on one plant leaf. The caterpillars (1st instar), will hatch around four days after the eggs are laid, and look like nothing more than tiny black ants. At the 2nd instar stage, the prolegs are visible, plus the caterpillars have grown a little larger and have changed color. At the stage of Painted Lady chrysalisthe 4th instar, they have formed clearly visible, and harmless, bristles. The larva will reach a length of 1.25 inches. The caterpillar will hang upside-down in a J formation, and with its last molt, the chrysalis is formed. During this stage, there will be times when the chrysalis shakes around, but it’s nothing to worry about; rather it’s a defense mechanism to scare away predators. The chrysalis itself is a light brown color, with darker golden dots running down it. This stage lasts for about two weeks before the adult Painted Lady emerges.

The butterflies will also emerge with a lot of meconium. This is a reddish liquid that looks like blood, but it is only the waste material of the chrysalis. The adult will also need about one hour to dry out and harden its wings before taking its first flight. The wingspan for the adult Painted Lady is around 2.875 inches. They prefer Thistle, Hollyhock, Cheeseweed, and Tree Mallow as host plants on which to lay their eggs. Painted Ladies migrate northward in the Spring, and sometimes there will be a migration of Painted Ladies that migrate from Mexico to California.

 

Potato Bug or Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopelmatus fuscus)

PB front view

Jerusalem Cricket, a.k.a. Potato Bug.

I found one of these little guys in my front yard when I was in my teens, and I kept it. I had a few of those plastic habitat, that you can buy at pet stores and will typically use to house hamsters, rats, or small lizards. I put a layer of dirt and leaves from the yard on the bottom of it, before placing my Potato Bug, (cleverly named PB), into the habitat. I then did some research on what to feed Potato Bugs, wondering if potatoes were amongst their food choices; although they are called that here in California because of their large size. Until that time, I had never seen a Potato Bug, not even in photos, so I had to first decipher what kind of bug I had, (and in the pre-Internet days, this could take awhile). However, I had a lot of insect books, and found it rather quickly, along with its diet. To me, this was and still is, an adorable insect. Yet I suspect that many people looking upon the photo of this insect may be recoiling at the sight of it. I don’t blame you, this may even be the normal reaction, but for me, anything in the insect and arachnid family is adorable, (except maggots, even I can’t stand those).

Male and female potato bugs beat their abdomens on the ground when mating season has arrived to signal each other. This beating of the abdomen upon the ground often sounds like drumming. Also the female will eat the male once the mating act has concluded. The eggs are about 1/8 of an inch long, and are laid in a nest six to ten inches below the soil. They are often laid in the fall, and will stay there through the winter. The eggs will hatch in the Spring, and the juveniles are immediately able to walk, jump, and eat. They will then molt about nine to twelve times before becoming adults. The juveniles and adults both prefer to feed on roots, decaying vegetation, other insects, and have actually been known to eat potatoes. Adults can emit a foul odor, or a painful bite only if provoked. Many people fear or believe that the Potato Bug is venomous, but they are not. Fortunately, I never experienced the odor or the bite. The adults are anywhere from one inch to two inches in length and are nocturnal.

 

Figeater Beetle

Figeater Beetle.

Figeater Beetle (Cotinis mutabilis) Also known as the Green Fig Beetle or Green Fruit Beetle.

There were a couple of these flying around in the yard a couple of years ago, and of course, I was intrigued. They were big, they were a beautiful metallic green color, and they emitted a loud buzzing sound as they flew around. I managed to capture one of them, just to observe it and make some notes, and then I promptly released it in the same area where I first caught it.

One thing that I won’t forget though, is that I had the box on the table, and when sitting down at the table the box was at eye level. Anyhow, I looked away for a few minutes only to turn around and see the beetle peering over the top of the box, and apparently watching me. Possibly he just wanted a look at his captor. However, it was something that I had never experienced with insects before. I had captured the beetle to observe it, and it was observing me as well, or so it seemed. It didn’t appear to be attempting to escape, after all the box had no top on it and these insects can fly, so if freedom was what he wanted, he was more than welcome to it. From then on however, I do happen to see a few every summer. They prefer the dry, desert-like heat, that I so abhor. So oftentimes, the only good thing about the unbearable heat, for me anyway, is the possibility of seeing some of these beautiful insects.

As I mentioned, the Figeater Beetle is a green-colored june beetle; a part of the Coleoptera Order of insects. They can often be mistaken for Green June Beetles, (Cotinis nitida), or Japanese Beetles, (Popillia japonica).

Green June Beetle

Above, Green June Beetle; bottom, Japanese Japanese BeetleBeetle.

In Autumn, the female lays her eggs in decomposing material or compost. Through the Winter and Spring, the larvae feed on the decaying matter in which their eggs were laid. When resting they curl into a C shape. To move, they roll over onto their backs and use their body segments to get around, not their legs. During the Spring, the larvae form chambers underground to pupate, and then emerge a few months later as adults. The adult beetle has weak mouthparts and cannot tear apart plant material; instead if feeds on overly ripe fruits such as figs (hence the name), peaches, and grapes.  They may be found eating plant pollen or cactus fruit, but generally this was already damaged by another insect, and the beetle is taking advantage of what is left.

 

Darkling Beetle

Darkling Beetle.

My next endeavor will be to raise mealworms into Darkling Beetles (Tenebrio molitar), and hopefully breed a few generations of them. I have an Entomology book that explains the materials that I need to achieve this, and I have everything now except for the mealworms, which I can purchase at my local pet store. And once I’ve done this, I will be embarking on my next entomological adventure!

 

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