Thank you and more about spectacular underwings moths


Photo by Lary Reeves

Once again, thank you NfN community for helping complete the fourth expedition digitizing the spectacular underwings moths! With this data, researchers can begin to examine the moths’ distribution changes, changes in host plants, and impacts of climate change during the last century. As we take a break from spectacular underwing moths, Lary Reeves (a photographer and PhD candidate at the University of Florida in the Entomology Department), has provided more information and photos of the Catocala moth.


Photo by Lary Reeve

The Catocala moths have been popular among moth collectors for more than a century, in part, because they are both diverse and charismatic. Each of the world’s ~230 Catocala species is a unique variation of a repeated theme: cryptically patterned forewings coupled with striking, often colorful hindwings. This theme earns Catocala the common name of underwing moths. In North America, there are at least 110 species with more than 100 named color forms within the species. New species are described with regularity. The Catocala species are made to be even more charming by their romanticized, and sometimes sorrowful, names, e.g., C. amatrix (sweetheart underwing), C. amica (girlfriend underwing), C. insolabilis (inconsolable underwing), C. lacrymosa (tearful underwing), C. piatrix (penitent underwing), C. muliercula (little wife underwing), C. nuptialis (married underwing), C. neogama (bride underwing), C. vidua (widow underwing), among many others. 

During the day, Catocala moths rest on tree trunks or dark, sheltered locations such as underneath bridges, in tree cavities, on the root masses of overturned trees, or in caves, giving them a mysterious countenance. They rest with their gaudy underwings covered by cryptic forewings, camouflaging the moth against the substrate. If approached too closely, the unseen moth, sometimes surprisingly, explodes from its resting site in a flurry of striking colors as the hindwings flash into view. At night, Catocala become active and seek out mates and sugar, feeding from flowers, tree sap or rotting fruit.



Photo by Lary Reeves

There are a variety of ways to collect Catocala that have been practiced and refined for more than a century. Like many other moths, Catocala can be attracted to lights, particularly those towards the ultra violet end of the spectrum. They are occasional visitors to porch lights, even in relatively developed areas. Most nocturnal moth taxa are attracted to lights. Light trapping is an effective and common method for collecting moths in general, but for Catocala, there are more productive, targeted methods. 


Light trapping

As the sun sets, Catocala moths become active and begin their nightly search for sugar. Catocala and many other erebine moths are highly attracted to rotting, fermenting fruit and tree sap. One of the targeted methods of collecting Catocala is baiting or sugaring. As fruit rots and ferments, sugars are converted to alcohol which may provide an olfactory cue for hungry moths. To concoct a bait for Catocala, the two required ingredients are sugar and alcohol. Many collectors have their own, sometimes complex bait recipes. The most basic of these rely simply on white or brown sugar mixed with beer or wine. This bait can be augmented with rotting fruit (bananas, apples, mangoes, peaches, pineapple, watermelon, berries, etc.) or yeast. One useful and relatively affordable recipe is 1.8 kg brown sugar, 1.5 L Carlo Rossi red wine, 2-3 kg overripe bananas and a couple of packets of yeast. This recipe can be mixed in a large bucket. Baits that include fruit should be given at least 24 hours to ferment before use. Failure to provide time for adequate fermentation may result in an ineffective bait.


Ingredients for bait

Once the bait is ready for use, it can be applied in several ways. One of the common methods is to apply the bait to the trunks of trees with a large paintbrush. Ideally, this is done along a trail that traverses suitable habitat. (In Florida, the greatest Catocala diversity and abundance is found in habitats that contain high densities of hardwood trees.) Catocala moths are wary and startle easily. They are particularly sensitive to sound. Using trails reduces the likelihood that moths will fly off in response to the vibration of footsteps or crunching of leaves. Bait-feeding Catocala moths should always be approached as stealthily as possible. Another method of applying bait is ropes. Rope can be soaked in the bait and hung from trees or other conspicuous locations. Catocala are readily attracted to these baits. Once it has been applied, moths usually begin to arrive within 30 minutes. Baited trees and ropes can be checked and revisited at 30-60 minute intervals, usually with new arrivals on each pass. While the moths are easily startled by sound, they are somewhat distracted by feeding and can be cautiously approached to be photographed or collected. Catocala are strong fliers, and once they have been disturbed from feeding, may be difficult to collect without a net. However, if a headlamp or flashlight is used, a startled Catocala often makes several circles around the light source before flying off into the darkness, offering a frantic, last ditch opportunity to collect.


Moth feeding on bait

Another method for collecting Catocala is to locate them at their diurnal roosting sites. Against many substrates, Catocala are well camouflaged. Unless their position is given away by movement, they are likely to go unnoticed. However, because they startle easily, inducing a roosting moth to flight is easy. Catocala spend the daylight hours perched against tree trunks, or hidden in the shadows of tree cavities, stumps, the roots of fallen trees, caves or underneath bridges. With some practice, it becomes easy to identify sites that are likely used by roosting Catocala. Knocking on tree trunks, especially those of shagbark hickory, with a hammer or baseball bat will induce any resting moths to fly. Larger trees with a DBH of >30 cm should be targeted. Once flushed, the moth flies, often erratically, just a short distance to a new perch on another tree. If visually tracked, the new position can be located allowing the moth to be quietly approached and netted. This method is somewhat less productive, and requires more effort (and often agility) than baiting.


Camouflaged moth

In Florida, Catocala moths become active as adults in late April and are abundant through June. Elsewhere in the U.S., Catocala fly through much of the summer until early autumn. During these times, collecting Catocala can be very productive. For experienced collectors, general naturalists, and those with budding interest in moth collecting, collecting Catocala is an enjoyable and enriching experience. Some species are particularly challenging to collect, either because their populations are very localized or sparse, or for the simple fact that Catocala are wary and easily startled. Catocala are also very diverse, with around 70 species in the eastern U.S. For these reasons, collecting Catocala is a favorite pastime of lepidopterists and naturalists.


Photo Lary Reeves


— Lary Reeves, PhD candidate, University of Florida

Instagram: biodiversilary





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