Moths

Text and pictures by Don McIntire

White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

White-lined sphinxAdult: Wingspan – 70-80 mm

Order Lepidoptera/ Family Sphingidae – Sphinx Moths

The White-lined Sphinx is common throughout San Diego County from the coast to the desert. These beautiful moths are a delight to see as they hover about flowers like hummingbirds from spring to fall. At the Extension they especially like the flowers of Mimulus arantiacus puniceus, the Coast Sticky-leaf Monkey Flower and Delphinium cardinale, Scarlet larkspur. In the desert areas in years of good rain, their numbers can be astounding. The huge orange, black and green streaked larvae, to 10cm., are primarily hosted by plants of the Four O’clock Family, Nyctaginaceae and Primrose Family Onagraceae. At the Reserve these two families are well represented. Watch for the larvae on the Pink Sand Verbena, Abronia umbellata or the Wishbone Plant, Mirabilis californica along the Guy Fleming or Parry Grove trails.

An interesting side issue which is usually not touched upon, is the practice of Entomophagy, or the use of insects as food by man. “The larvae of Hyles lineata were harvested by the people of the Colorado Desert in years of good rain and they called this ‘Piyatem’ or ‘Piyaxtem’ which was plural for ‘Piyakhut’. The larvae were collected in early spring and often eaten raw on the spot, but also much of the harvest was parched over hot coals and stored in baskets or skins for later use.” From: Bean, John Lowell 1972 – Mukat’s People. Berkeley: University of California Press

Ceanothus Silk Moth (Hyalophora euryalus)

Ceonothus mothAdult: Wingspan – 125 mm

Order Lepidoptera/ Family Saturniidae – Silk Moths

These large moths are most often seen around lights at night in areas which support their primary larval hosts, Wild lilac, Ceanothus spp. and other plants of the family Rhamnaceae. They are fairly common from spring through the fall from coast to foothills. The pale green caterpillars are seldom seen, however, because they tend to retreat into the foliage after early morning hours and blend quite well to their background. The rough gray cocoons, made of silk, usually embedded or coated with leaf matter, hang from branches with the pointed end down like a dead clump of leaves, fooling the most trained of eyes. A close relative and very similar species of Eastern North America, is the Cecropia Moth, Hyalophora cecropia.

Mexican Tiger Moth (Apantesis proxima)

MexTiger mothAdult: Wingspan – 45 mm

Order Lepidoptera/ Family Arctiidae – Tiger Moths

A striking family of moths, all species are variously boldly colored and patterned. This is the most common species to be found in Southern California. The specimen pictured is that of the female, the male differing with hind wing white instead of rose. The bright coloring of the abdomen along with that of the hind wing is used primarily in defense against potential predators. When disturbed, the moth will open its wings to suddenly expose the bright color, thus giving pause to the predator’s attack and perhaps added time to fly away. The Arctiid moths also emit a distasteful aromatic compound called acetylcholine (ammonia based) from a pair of caudal glands if molested. The dark brown caterpillars, called woolybears, with long dense hairs are one of the most familiar sights to gardeners as they often expose them while weeding. Larval hosts are mainly those plants of the Malvaceae and commonly the larvae feed on the introduced Cheeseweed, Malva parviflora.

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