A beautiful villain

I found one of the culprits that can cause cucumber wilt on some milkweed plants in a backyard nearby yesterday — the very attractive orange and black Squash vine borer moth (Melittia cucurbitae).  It’s too bad they are such damaging pests in the garden because they are quite photogenic.

squash vine borer moth sipping nectar from milkweed

It looks like a wasp from a distance with its striped body and long dangling legs, but is actually a member of the clearwing moth family (Sesiidae).

Long, highly “feathered” back legs drag behind the body as the moth flies, making it look like the wasp that it is trying to imitate.  But the clear, moth-shaped wings give it away, although these are not really visible to the human eye because they are moving so fast, they almost disappear.

squash vine borer moth on common milkweed flowers

The wings are just a gray blur in this photo, and you can clearly see the long proboscis inserted into the nectary of the milkweed flower — a very un-wasp like head. It looks like those hind legs also have some sharp spikes on them, as well as their feathery covering of scales.

Many of the species in the Sesiidae family are active in the daytime and are brightly colored, yellow and black or orange and black, mimicking bee or hornet coloration. This Batesian mimicry (in which a palatable species mimics an unpalatable or predatory one) presumably reduces their chances of being eaten by predators while foraging on flowers in the daylight.

squash-vine-borer on swamp milkweed

At rest, the mimicry is closer to the real model, since its folded wings do resemble the shape of a wasp’s.  (This is probably the culprit whose larvae wilted my cucumber vines last year — feeding on the swamp milkweed flowers in my backyard.  You can read more about that here.)

Other members of the Sesiidae family are also agricultural pests, infesting fruit tree, vegetable, and timber crops, as their larvae bore into the woody stems or trunk and decimate the interior vasculature system of the plant.

The Clearwing Hummingbird Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is no relation to the garden villain above.  It’s a member of the Sphingidae family of hawkmoths, and although the larvae do feed on honeysuckle vines and some fruit trees, they don’t do nearly the damage that the Sesiidae species do.

Clearwing Hummingbird Moth nectaring on flowers of an Apocynum species

This photo is from a recent post on critters of the northern bogs and forests, but the Clearwing Hummingbird Moth can be found almost everywhere in North America from Alaska to Florida.   Hawkmoths have a stouter, less slender body, shorter legs, and no scales on their legs, compared to the Squash vine borer moths. 

I’m not sure what the significance of clear wings is in these very different clearwing moth species.  Perhaps lack of scales on the wings means less air resistance during hovering flight, which both types of moths use for nectar foraging; or perhaps clear wings enhance their mimicry; or perhaps clear wings just present a smaller target to potential predators, since they appear almost transparent while the moth is flying.  Whatever the reason, the convergence of species from two different moth families is an interesting one.

Not a bee…or a wasp

Each day I go out in the garden to look for bees, and each day I find only flies, damselflies, and dragonflies.  So many flowers, no bees.  Even the bumblebees have deserted the garden, it seems.  Finally, I spied something yellow and black, about the size of a honeybee, not really buzzing, but definitely very interested in the pollen.

Very short stubby antennae, a single pair of wings, and an almost hairless body mean this is a fly, not a bee.

Very short stubby antennae, a single pair of wings, and an almost hairless body mean this is a fly, not a bee.  It’s a bee-mimicking syrphid fly.  These are good insects to have in the garden — the adults are good pollinators, and their larvae are predatory, consuming lots of aphids and other pests.

Syrphid flies eat a lot of pollen, but they also do a good job of transferring it from one flower to the next as their head and tongue comes into contact with the anthers.

Syrphid flies eat a lot of pollen, but they also do a good job of transferring it from one flower to the next as their head and tongue comes into contact with the anthers.

If I were naming insects I would call this "vacume fly" because his long proboscis ends in a stubby tube

If I were naming insects I would call this one, “vacume fly” because his proboscis ends in a stubby cylinder, just like the end of a vacuum hose.

There are some very small (< 1/2 inch) wasps flitting about in the garden, but they rarely sit still enough on a flower to photograph.  One caught my eye, though, because it did sit very still.

A closer look reveals that this, too, is not a bee or wasp, but a wasp-mimicking clearwing moth.

A closer look reveals that this, too, is not a bee or wasp, but a wasp-mimicking clearwing moth, about the same size as the tiny black wasps I was seeing.  No more than a 1/2 inch long, but with a very distinctive behavior while sitting — flicking that fringed “tail” slowly up and down.

The clear wings, dark purple body with yellow stripes, and fan tail were good hints about where to start looking on BugGuide.net.  I think this is probably a Eupatorium Clearwing Moth, whose larvae like to feed on the roots of Joe-Pye weed.  Oh great!  I just planted some of that in the garden last summer.

It’s interesting how many insects have copied that yellow and black body coloration of the stinging Hymenoptera.  I wrote about this mimicry pattern last year, so I won’t repeat myself here.  But if you would like to read more….click here.

Beware the Wasp Moth

I saw this insect on a Swamp Milkweed plant today and thought at first it was a beetle.

No, it doesn’t have the hard outer elytra covering its wings that beetles have.  So maybe it’s a wasp.  Those sort of look like wasp wings.

But look at that hairy body, hairy legs, and long antennae.  And the clincher to figuring out that it’s a moth is that long proboscis it is using to probe the milkweed flowers.  Aha — it’s a wasp moth.

And apparently it has clear wings, as you can see it hovering in front of the milkweed flower that was blowing furiously in the wind.  This was quite a challenge to get the insect in focus while it was waving around in the wind.

Search clear wing wasp moth on Google and you’ll find that this is the dreaded squash vine borer, (Melittia cucurbitae) a major pest of the squash, pumpkin, and cucumber plants.  It is a member of the Sesiidae family of clearwing moths, many of which have this same wasp or hornet coloration, a mimickry which apparently protects them well enough to be active in the daytime.   The adult is harmless enough except that it bores a hole in the base of a squash (or cucumber plant), lays an egg there, and the larva then proceeds to eat out the interior of the vine, usually killing the plant.  This behavior is also typical of other species of clearwing moths.  Preventative measures include wrapping duct tape or nylon stockings around the base of each vine or killing the larvae within the stem by poking the stem with a sharp object, like a stiff wire.   I’m glad I don’t grow pumpkins for a living.

Rather handsome insect.  Too bad it’s a pest.