Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Unidentified Lasiocampidae species Mexico

Honestly, I have no idea to what species these caterpillars belong. I got the eggs as an unidentified Lappet from Mexico. I haven't seen the moths yet. At first I thought it was Dicogaster coronada. Pretty much because the early instars look a lot like the pictures of young coronada caterpillars I found on the internet. And they only eat oak, like Dicogaster. It does not seem to matter much which oak. After the eggs hatched in august, I started them on Quercus robur and kept them on this plant until the leaves started to yellow. After that I sacrificed my young (semi)evergreen oaks. I really need to leave those plants alone for a few years, they are starting to look like bonsai trees. Anyway, I had the caterpillars on Quercus x Turneri (robur x ilex hybrid), Quercus x Hispanica (cerris x suber hybrid) and Quercus alnifolia. I kept this species warm and dry; first instars in plastic boxes and later on in netted cages. After a little over four months they started to pupate. I now doubt that they are Dicogaster coronada, because the full grown caterpillars are only large enough to yield a medium sized Lappet (about the same size as Lasiocampa quercus), while coronada is a lot larger. And, the collector told me that the moths didn't look like the pictures on Google. If you think you know this species, feel free to leave a message ...

Unidentified Lappet Mexico
Unidentified Lappet final instar on Quercus x Hispanica

Unidentified Lappet L7 on Quercus robur

Unidentified Lappet L5 on Quercus robur

Unidentified Lappet L2/L3 on Quercus robur

Unidentified Lappet L1 on Quercus robur

Friday, 26 December 2014

Silkmoth of the week: Rhodinia grigauti

Remember my squeaking caterpillars, the ones I posted early May? The moths are finally eclosing. Personally, I think these are amongst the most pretty moths I had this year. Males and females are more or less the same size and have a wingspan around twelve centimeters. The female is more robust and has more rounded forewings, while the male has a more intense coloration and slightly elongated and more curved forewings. This species has only one flight each year in late autumn, early winter. The moths only appear after night temperatures have dropped quite low (below ten degrees Celsius). The distribution of this Rhodinia is limited to Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, China and maybe northern Thailand, although there is still a lot of uncertainty as this species is identical in appearance to the closely related Rhodinia newara. Not everyone agrees that newara and grigauti are different species. However, there seems to be a difference in the DNA coding. Question is whether these difference are big enough to justify full species status. I have my doubts about this recent wave of 'new' species which are only separated based on small differences in DNA. I'm convinced that more thorough examination based on more specimens collected from different locations within a species distribution will reveal that these difference are nothing more then natural variations and that the same species can be quite different in parts of it's territory, only because they had to adapt to different living conditions. We used to call this subspecies or even local forms. I don't know when we started moving everything to species level. It probably was after entomologists started to pursue academic careers and started to feel the pressure to publish papers that comes with such careers.

Rhodinia grigauti female
Rhodinia grigauti female - Origin: Vietnam

Rhodinia grigauti male
Rhodinia grigauti male - Origin: Vietnam

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Automeris randa

Some of the Automeris randa cocoons hatched very late in the season this year. So late in autumn that it was no longer possible to use Quercus robur for my second batch of eggs. I tried Prunus serotina as an alternative and to my surprise the caterpillars not only accepted it, they seemed to thrive on the stuff. And when the leaves of the serotina became too yellow to use, the caterpillars switched without any hesitation to the evergreen Prunus laurocerasus. My last caterpillar pupated a week ago. So never again stress when having eggs at the end of October. The only thing you need to be careful with in autumn is not to give the animals wet leaves. Or when it cannot be avoided because it just would not stop raining, then make sure that the leaves inside the cage can dry within a few hours by using netted cages. Just don't keep them wet all the time, it will make the caterpillars sick. The cocoons will now be stored completely dry, in an unheated room, until next summer.

Automeris randa caterpillar
Automeris randa final instar on Prunus laurocerasus

Automeris randa caterpillar
Automeris randa L6 on Prunus laurocerasus

Automeris randa caterpillar
Automeris randa L5 on Prunus laurocerasus

Automeris randa caterpillar
Automeris randa L3 on Quercus robur

Automeris randa caterpillar
Automeris randa L1 on Quercus robur

Friday, 19 December 2014

Silkmoth of the week: Actias selene

Actias selene or the Indian Moon Moth is a very popular species among amateur entomologists. They are quite large (wingspan up to twelve centimeters), colorful, very easy to breed and available every where. In captivity they brood continuously, although it is possible to let the cocoons hibernate through winter with a stable temperature in between five and ten degrees Celsius. Warmer then ten degrees and most cocoons will eclose. Not really a problem, the caterpillars feed upon Rhododendron and Prunus laurocerasus, both evergreen. This moth not only occurs in India. The distribution reaches from Pakistan to Japan, north to Russia and south throughout Indonesia.

Actias selene male
Actias selene male - Origin: Vietnam

Actias selene female
Actias selene female - Origin: Vietnam

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The occasional hawkmoth: Hippotion celerio

It's nearly impossible to get Hippotion celerio to hibernate through winter. Even with temperatures around ten degrees Celsius (or lower) the pupae hatch. It's better to let it happen and not to expose the pupae to very low temperatures. They most certainly don't tolerate frost. The diet of the caterpillars is varied enough to find food plants in the winter, so it's not really a problem. Consider this one as a species that broods continuously with up to five generations each year. Celerio has an enormous distribution throughout Africa (except the deserts and very dry regions), southern Europe and (sub)tropical Asia. It migrates annually as far north as Danmark and south to most of Australia. The moths are not very large with a wingspan in between five and a half and seven centimeters.

Hippotion celerio
Hippotion celerio - Origin: France

Friday, 12 December 2014

Silkmoth of the week: Samia ricini

Without any doubt the most bred species of Saturniidae worldwide and the best choice when you're new to all of this. Samia ricini is fun to breed, because it almost never goes wrong. Only when you're unfortunate enough to get inbred stock you might have some problems. Most of the times not with the caterpillars, but often the moths emerge crippled. There is still a lot of confusion around Samia ricini. Many think it's a subspecies of Samia cynthia. But there are differences. For exemple: ricini is smaller than cynthia and darker. Also, ricini broods continuously with up to six generations a year, while cynthia has only one or two generations with a winter stop as pupae. Also the cocoons of both species are very different. Recent DNA research has clarified a lot. Samia ricini is not a subspecies of Samia cynthia. In fact, Samia ricini is a domesticated species, derived from Samia canningi and thus quite different from cynthia.

Samia ricini male
Samia ricini male - Origin: Asia/domesticated
Samia ricini
Samia ricini pair - Origin: Asia/domesticated

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Hawkmoth paradise

The Zomba Plateau is definitely the place to be when you're into hawkmoths. The Sphingidae are the most common moth family on the plateau. Best location to set up the moth trap turned out to be the balcony of my room. From my balcony I could see all the way down the mountain into the valley. This view worked both ways. Moths could see the light from miles away. In only four nights I caught literally hundreds of hawkmoths, belonging to nineteen different species. The most abundant were Hippotion osiris, Hippotion eson, Agrias convolvuli and Nephele comma. From these four species I caught twenty or more every night. Slightly less abundant, but still very common were Coelonia fulvinotata and Hippotion celerio. There were also Euchloron megaera, Daphnis nerii, Acherontia atropos, Nephele rosea, Basiotha medea, Hippotion balsaminae, Chaerocina zomba, Theretra capensis and Temnora pylades. From these species I only caught a few. This does not necessarily mean that they are less common, it's possible that their flight season peaks in other months. Unfortunately, all these species belong to the Sphinginae and Macroglossinae subfamilies. Moths of these subfamilies need space to lay eggs. I wasn't prepared for this, so even though I think I caught at least a few females, none of them layed eggs. When I go back to Malawi, I will be better prepared and take everything with me to construct netted cages on site. Also present on the Zomba Plateau and belonging to the Smerinthinae subfamily were a Pseudoclanis species (P. evestigata?), a Rufoclanis, a Platysphinx and Polyptychus coryndoni. If they would have been females instead of males, there would have been a good chance that they had layed eggs in a paper bag. But again, no luck, only males. As I caught all of this in only four nights, I'm convinced that there must be other species. Going back a few weeks later may give completely different results.

Pseudoclanis sp
Pseudoclanis sp - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Nephele rosea
Nephele rosea - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Coelonia fulvinotata
Coelonia fulvinotata - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Hippotion balsaminae
Hippotion balsaminae - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Euchloron megaera
Euchloron megaera - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Nephele comma
Nephele comma - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Chaerocina zomba
Chaerocina zomba - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Theretra capensis
Theretra capensis - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Hippotion eson
Hippotion eson  - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Temnora pylades
Temnora pylades (?)  - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Rufoclanis sp.
Rufoclanis sp.  - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Sunday, 7 December 2014

No, you can't have these

As I wrote before, catching moths was not the primary objective for my trip to Malawi, but of course I had to try. So I ended up in an African forest, in the middle of the night, all by myself, staring at a 125 watt Mercury Vapor light, hoping to catch some interesting species. How reckless can you be? But it turned out to be just as safe as a Belgian forest, I even got the forest rangers stopping by a few times curious how it was going. And it did go well. In the forest I caught several Pseudobunaea tyrrhena, Nudaurelia dione, Gonimbrasia zambesina and a few moths which I believe were Nudaurelia herbuloti. Unfortunately all males. That was the case on most nights. Of course, most of the moths coming to the light are males, that is always the case, but usually there are at least a few females. But not this time. There were plenty of interesting species like the Dactyloceras (Brahmaeidae), two large Jana species (Eupterotiidae) and several Erebidae that could have been worth breeding. But no luck, none of them were females. Not even one of the hundreds of hawkmoths of which I will tell you in the next post. It was disappointing. It was like taking a child to the candy store, asking what he would like to have and then saying no, you can't have any of it, let's go home now. But the last night, my luck turned and I finally caught a female of Bunaea alcinoe and one of the two large Eupterotiidae. Also a few of the smaller tigermoths finally started to lay some eggs.  Now that I know the huge potential of the place, I will probably go back one day to do some serious moth trapping. Hopefully, I will have more luck then...

Pseudobunaea tyrrhena
Pseudobunaea tyrrhena male - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Dactyloceras sp.
Dactyloceras sp. male - Origin: Zomba Plateau

Amphicallia sp.
Amphicallia sp. - Origin; Zomba Plateau

Friday, 5 December 2014

Silkmoth of the week: Nudaurelia krucki

Before continuing with the Malawi posts, first one of the moths that emerged only a few hours before I left to the airport. With this one, we stay with the Africa theme, as this large silkmoth occurs in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Males have a wingspan of fourteen centimeters. Females are almost identical, but have a more robust body. In captivity this species broods continuously. This moth has been moved around from one genus to another more then a few times. It has been an Imbrasia and a Gonimbrasia, but for now everybody seems to agree that it is in fact a Nudaurelia species.

Nudaurelia krucki male
Nudaurelia krucki male - Origin: Kenya

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Zomba and the Zomba Plateau

There are several ways to visit Malawi. Most people choose to make a tour throughout the country, going from one hotel to the other, staying one or two days in one place. I never liked this way of travelling because half of the time you're on the road and it's my believe that by doing that you do not feel the 'vibe' of the country. I always pick an hotel which then serves as my base to which I return every evening. Downside is of course that this makes it impossible to see the entire country. But, I think it's better to see a part of the country thoroughly then everything superficially. You can always come back to visit another part. That's why I chose the Zomba Plateau as my 'home base' for ten days.

View from the balcony at the Kuchawe Inn

Baboon in the hotel garden

Fog giving the hotel garden something mystical

Zomba Plateau landscape

Zomba Plateau landscape

Why the Zomba Plateau? For starters it's a forest reserve where nature is still quite intact, although the wildlife rangers in this park seem to have a difficult time stopping the locals from illegally cutting down trees, which threatens the long term future of this unique forest. And unique it is. When thinking of African forests, you do not immediately think of pine trees. The higher elevations of this mountain plateau are covered with an open pine vegetation, which gets more mixed with Brachystegia and Searsia trees towards the lower elevations to finally become a more typical tropical forest closer to the valley. The best reason to choose an hotel on the plateau is that temperatures are much more moderate then in the valley. During the winter months (our summer) it can even become rather chilly with temperatures far below twenty degrees Celsius during the day and towards ten degrees (or lower) at night. This can be a huge contrast with the temperatures in the valley where it can be very hot and dry. The Zomba Plateau also receives much more rain, making the dry season much less dry allowing for a lush and mostly evergreen vegetation all year round, while the rest of Malawi has a distinct dry season in which many trees drop their leaves and the rest of the plants die down to sprout again after the first rains. Maybe the best reason to stay here, is that there are no large and dangerous animals on the plateau. It is perfectly safe to walk around in the forest by yourself and search for the many births, butterflies and orchids. Just don't get to close to the baboons which are everywhere, even in the hotel garden and on your rooms balcony. You can easily fill ten days with only walking the many trails and dirt roads on the plateau.

Noisy ravens giving you an early morning wake up call

Zomba Plateau landscape

Zomba town

You could also drive down the mountain to Zomba city. This former capital of Malawi is nothing more then a small African town, although it's Malawi's university city. To tourists it has not very much to offer. In one day you have seen it all. But from Zomba it is not far to other places worth visiting like the larger city Blantyre, the Liwonde Wildlife Reserve or the 2500 meter high Mount Mulanje that suddenly rises from the surrounding Chiradzulu plains.

Anyway, for me the best reason to choose the Zomba Plateau are the many different insect species. Especially butterflies and moths which are very abundant. Best period to see those is not during the dry season (the otherwise recommended time to visit Malawi) but during the wet season. Many species hatch after the first rains at the end of November and early December, after that one generation after the other follows until temperatures drop again. On the plateau there are never no insects, many species continue to breed throughout the year, however insect activity is at its peak during the warmer and more humid summer (our winter).