WDEL Blog: Eclectic Hobbies with Allan Loudell

Winter Moths

For those of us who are amateur lepidopterists, winter does not necessarily end all our activities.

For lepidopterists who collect specimens, winter is a great time to properly mount all those butterflies and moths.

But for those of us who only observe and photograph, it's still worth checking out brightly lit walls of service stations and convenience stores in more isolated areas. (Although even our WDEL/WSTW building walls draw SOME moths!)

January has seen several periods of warmer, balmier weather, often with somewhat overcast nights: Perfect for moth activity.

Granted, most moths which fly during the winter aren't particularly colorful, with a few exceptions.

Probably the most prevalent moth out right now is Phigalia denticulata -- The Toothed Phigalia, with an overall mottled look, thin black lines on white or gray. However, some individuals can display a rather dramatic pattern. As with many of the Phigalia species, the females are either wingless, or have wings reduced to nubs. Talk about discrimination! But, evolution appears to explain this distinction. Not having to fly, Phigalia females can carry many more eggs.

And a lesser threat of predation may have created the niche for winter moths. Many birds which feed on insects have flown south for the winter; bats have either migrated or gone into hibernation. Therefore, fewer predators.

Freezing temperatures kill most adult butterflies and moths. But winter moths are shielded in several ways: Dense "fur" (actually greatly enhanced scales as on all butterflies and moths!); air sacs which insulate the thorax; "shivering", which raises temperatures inside the thorax, etc.

Anyway, I observed several dozen Toothed Phigalia this week on the walls of a convenience store/bank south of Northeast, Maryland. Also, Alsophila pometaria, a Fall Cankerworm moth, admittedly a very drab species. More colorful: Eupsilia vinulenta, a Straight-Toothed Sallow, displaying reddish-brown wings with purplish lines & shading, and a dramatic white spot on each forewing. I also saw and photographed one moth I couldn't identify; I'm seeking an I.D. from a lep friend in Pennsylvania.

Not the diversity or color we see in many spring-summer-fall moths, but still satisfying. Some invasive moths from Europe - with larvae that can defoliate trees - are also called "winter moths". But they seem to be a much greater problem in New England. The big villain is a species called Operophtera brumata, which has been a particularly troublesome pest in some fruit orchards in Rhode Island.

Posted at 7:08am on January 13, 2012 by Allan Loudell

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