Quoddy Nature Notes – What’s Bugging You (Besides the Fruit Flies)?

There is a whole bunch of different kinds of bugs out there this time of year furiously chewing up almost anything green in a feverish effort to finish the larval stage of their life cycle and hibernate as a chrysalis over the winter.  Now these critters really can foul up the nice patterns with their webs holding the chewed up leaves together, etc., but this time of year they don’t do much harm, and the perceived damage is largely cosmetic.  The leaves have generally finished their work of utilizing the sun’s energy to create the molecules of biomass from carbon dioxide and water, and some leaves of a plant in a stressed environment (too wet or too dry) have already lost their chlorophyll and are changing color.

Hickory Tussock Moth

Young caterpillars on a birch leaf.

The commonest bug seen on the Pin cherry trees and other hardwoods along Route 9 is the Fall webworm, Hyphantria cunea.  It is an off-white fuzzy caterpillar that overwinters as a pupa.  The critter that I have mostly around my house is the larva of the Hickory Tussock moth, Lophocampa caryae.  They started out earlier in the spring with a bunch of moths, then in the summer with a bunch of baby caterpillars munching on birch leaves, and now the full grown caterpillars; white bristly things with black spots and black tufts and white tufts; are crawling all over everything.  The adult Hickory Tussock moths look similar to the Spotted Tussock moth, L. maculata, but the larva of the Spotted is a fuzzy caterpillar with a yellow midsection with four black spots and black head and tail with white tufts.  The confusion continues as the adult Banded  Tussock moth, Halysidota tessellaris looks similar to the previous moth but its larva is a fuzzy yellowish brown with black and white tufts at either end.  One has to be careful  not to confuse the latter caterpillar with the Yellow Bear (Virginian Tiger moth), Spilosoma virginica, which is a fuzzy caterpillar that may range in color from nearly black to reddish brown to a light yellow.

Can you identify me?

Wooly bear caterpillar.

And finally the Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger moth), Pyrrharctia Isabella.  Everyone knows that the Woolly Bear is the fuzzy black caterpillar with the reddish- orange midsection.  For some reason, this critter is everyone’s favorite, especially here in Maine.  First off, the name, Woolly Bear, and, next, the myth that this caterpillar can predict the coming winter, make most people, especially children, take a liking to this critter.  According to folklore if the belly band is narrow, be prepared for an unusually cold winter.  Of course, this and other predictions similar to the ‘Old Farmer’s Almanac’, is usually open to varied interpretations.  The Woolly Bear is a little unusual in that it over winters as a nearly full grown caterpillar, hiding under anything that offers it a minimum of protection.  In most of the previously named caterpillars their bristles are somewhat toxic and most can cause an allergic reaction.  Although a severe reaction is very rare, some caution should be exercised in letting a child handle any fuzzy caterpillar.  Most of these caterpillars incorporate their bristles in their cocoons for additional protection when they pupate.  Apparently the fuzzy caterpillars have few predators, and their numbers are controlled more by conditions (weather, available food, etc.) and predation in the adult and egg stage.  I watched a Spotted Tussock moth caterpillar walk up to and almost touch a green frog in my garden.  The frog, probably with wisdom gotten from experience, ignored the bristly beast and let him go on his way.

Orgyia detrita

And what about the fruit flies? Fruit flies seem to like anything I like, and casually come through  any window screen and make sure I have enough company.  My ‘solution’ is to put my apple cores and cucumber peels on a paper plate and leave this on the counter until a good size batch of the little buggers are feasting, then spray ‘em with Windex.  It immobilizes them for a bit, and I get to examine the different sizes and color patterns before I squash them with my thumb.  Makes me feel like I’m in charge of something.