I'm fascinated by the variety of life in the insect world. Now that summer is here, there are plenty of them to observe. There are at least 1,346 butterfly and moth species in Wisconsin according to North American Lepidoptera Biodiversity LLC. In addition to the showy daytime butterflies, there are some day-flying moths and hundreds of species of moths out at night.
Each species of butterfly and moth has its own life history, favorite food and means of reducing its risk of predation as larva, pupa and adult. Butterflies and moths are small enough to be bite-size for birds, frogs, lizards, mice, bats and are vulnerable to insect predators as well.
A number of our friends have been raising Monarch butterflies by placing young caterpillars in cages with milkweed plants, protecting them from predation until they pupate and emerge as beautiful orange and black adults to be released into the wild.
Monarch butterfly caterpillars have evolved a potent chemical defense against bird predators along with vivid green, black and white striped warning markings. They store toxins known as cardenolides, obtained from their milkweed diet, that makes them poisonous and distasteful to birds. The Monarch pupa chrysalis is green and blends in well with vegetation, rendering it hard to see by predators.
The orange and black wings on Monarch adults and the related Queen butterfly that we see down south carry concentrated cardenolides, making any bird that gets a taste of a piece of wing to not try to go for the body.
At a Fourth of July party with friends last weekend, kids and adults were fascinated by a strange-looking caterpillar. It was a White-marked tussock moth. A relative of the Gypsy moth and the Wooly bear, it is a common moth in eastern North America. The caterpillar has colors and spiky hairs that warn potential predators to look but don't touch.
The White-marked tussock moth caterpillar has four white tufts of hair on its back near the bright red head. The hairs are barbed and have chemicals that can cause an allergic skin reaction in humans. Don't let kids play with them. Two clusters of black quills on the head, an array of black and white hairs along its yellow-and-black striped body and long hairs at the tip of its abdomen comprise its bristly defense against predators.
In contrast with the caterpillar, the White-marked tussock moth adult is a master of camouflage. It looks like a piece of mottled gray tree bark with feathery antennae and hairy legs.
Enjoy the summer and the variety of insect life. A magnifying glass helps to observe them up close. Most insects are harmless to us and are fascinating to study for kids and adults.
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