Friday, June 4, 2010

Virginia Creeper Sphinx Moth

Well, we were just heading out the door last night to get dinner someplace (I was too exhausted to cook—more on that in a second) when we noticed this groovy moth on the brickwork by our front steps.

We’re now in the habit of grabbing our cameras anytime we some something interesting, so instead of reaching for the field guides, we took pictures.

Indeed—later on, I didn’t identify it with a field guide at all (heresy for an editor of field guidebooks), but instead looked it up online at the wonderful and fun arthropod ID site “What’s That Bug.”

It was obviously some kind of sphinx moth or hawkmoth. The family is the Sphingidae (SFIN-jih-dee), which also includes the obnoxious tomato hornworm, the fairylike hummingbird moths, and this little fellow I showed you last year.

The larvae of the sphinx moths are typically (maybe all?) “hornworms”—the caterpillars have an “anal horn,” an elongated, sometimes thornlike projection arising from their butt like a tail.

So, this little fella is Darapsa myron, which, according to this informative Web site, is pronounced “dagh-RAP-suh MY-ron.” (I wonder what the “g” is for in that—how about “dah-RHAP-suh”? Whatever.)

It’s commonly called the Virginia Creeper Sphinx, a.k.a. Grapevine Sphinx, a.k.a. Hog Sphinx. The first two common names make a great deal of sense, because the larvae of this species munch on the foliage of Virginia creeper and grapes (in the genus Vitis), plus Amelopsis and Viburnum species (think of peppervine and raccoon grapes for the former, and blackhaws for the latter, here in Missouri).

I have no idea where the name “Hog Sphinx” came from. Combining the porcine with the Egyptian in a name for a moth seems completely bizarre.

Anyway, here’s more info for you. Once the larvae grow to full size on their Virginia creeper or grape vines, they descend to the leaf litter below to spin their cocoons and pupate. When they emerge as metamorphosed, winged adults, their diet switches to the sweet nectar of flowers.

Apparently you can often find them drinking from flowers, and they’re also attracted to sugar water.

I’m not sure if this is a boy or a girl, but I think it’s a boy—though its antennae aren’t massively feathery, some other pictures I saw online of this species seemed to have even smaller antennae, so I guess those were the females. (As with other moths, the female emits pheromones that males detect with their big feathery antennae.) [APPARENTLY A FEMALE; SEE COMMENTS BELOW.]

I think the curious little “crook” or bend in the antennae is interesting—apparently all Virginia Creeper Sphinxes have that. It almost gives them an “expression,” like a cocked eyebrow, I think.

Where do you find these moths? In the United States, they cover the entire eastern part of the country and extend as far west as the Dakotas, Nebraska, and New Mexico. (I’m kind of surprised they haven’t taken up residence in Northern California, what with all the vineyards there. Wouldn’t that climate support them? I suppose their introduction to that new territory is probably just a few accidental shipments away. None of what I read said they were a serious pest on vineyards, but I can’t imagine they’d be welcome by anyone wanting to grow grapes.)

Meanwhile, there are plenty of weedy wild grape vines and Virginia creepers around here for them to feed on, and they can be my guest! Indeed, it is ironic that we spotted this moth the same day I had spent part of the hot afternoon trimming, yanking, and wrestling various weedy vines from our poor lilac trees—Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, and that horrible, immortal, exotic clematis. The effort was tough and disheartening—our poor lilacs!—and it had exhausted me. While I worked, I decided I “hate” every single vine in the universe.

But within a few hours, I was kneeling on our front steps, taking pictures of this lovely fuzzy olive-tan creature that depends on vines for its sustenance. So, okay. Maybe I don’t hate all vines . . . just that doggone invasive Japanese honeysuckle!

Insect life cycles always stir my imagination. These creatures begin life as juicy green, creeping worms, and then become these gloriously patterned, furrily scaled adults, that can fly! And yet other insects, the ants, go the opposite direction—once pupated from grub stage, queen ants begin adult life as creatures with the capacity of flight, but after mating they tear off their own wings, burrow into the earth, and live the rest of their lives in a hole in the dirt.

Both life cycles are equally impressive, in my view. Sometimes I think the best part of living on this Earth is getting to witness so many variations on the theme of life.


Alex Baranowski said...

the moth photographed is actually female. males would have a spade shape to the end of the abdomen, hers is fat and ends in a point

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Alex, for the clarification!