Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A black-, orange- and white-checkered moth walked in...

...and decided to stay! Thus begins the story of the Ailanthus Webworm Moth and its excellent adventure. (This is a companion piece to an earlier post on the Common Buttonbush.) While Matty and I were sketching the Buttonbush flowers along the Little Miami River, we noticed a small black-, orange- and white-checkered insect was on a lot of the blossoms...

Orange-, black-, and white-checkered moths with long, thin beetle-like bodies were on many of the flowers at Spring Valley Wildlife Area.
Ailanthus Webworm Moths on a Buttonbush Inflorescence
These two dapper moths look like they are tiptoeing through the styles of each tiny flower. 

Ailanthus Webworm Moth
I'd seen the bug before, but had never studied it, so when we got home, I got out my "Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America," by Kenn Kaufman, and sure enough, there it was, an Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea), a day-flying moth that pollinates a lot of flowers as it visits them to sip nectar.

An Ailanthus Webworm Moth clings to the underside of a Swamp Milkweed flower along the Little Miami River near Spring Valley Wildlife Area. 

Tree of Heaven
This moth, which looks like a long skinny beetle when seen from a distance, is "sort of" a native to the United States (and here is where its excellent adventure kicks in). The lovely little moth got brave one day and jumped host plants. Originally, the moth was native to southern Florida and Central and South American, where its host plant, the Paradise Tree grew, but one day, it found a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which is closely related to the Paradise Tree, and decided to live on it. The Tree of Heaven is not native to the United States. It's from China, but it was introduced to the U.S. in the 1700s.  Since then, it has spread across the country, and the Ailanthus Webworm Moth moved along with it. (Click here for a detailed history of the Tree of Heaven in the United States and control strategies to prevent its spread.)

The Ailanthus Webworm Moth originally was native to southern Florida, but it followed the Tree of Heaven, an invasive introduced from China in the 1700s, as it spread across the nation.

The Tree of Heaven looks a lot like our native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), which produces seeds beneficial to the birds. There are several ways to tell the two trees apart. The easiest is the Tree of Heaven has smooth leaflets that turn yellow in autumn, while Staghorn Sumac has serrated leaves and turns bright red. Click here for an earlier post on Staghorn Sumac to see what it looks like in the fall, and learn about how it helps birds get through deep winter.  Click here for a pdf titled, "Invasives Strike Force Plant Guide, 2012," from the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference. This guide teaches you how to spot many invasive trees and tell them apart from native look-alikes.

An Ailanthus Webworm Moth, an early instar Monarch caterpillar, and a Monarch butterfly all share a Swamp Milkweed flower. The larvae of the Ailanthus Webworm Moth only eats Tree of Paradise leaves, but the adult moths are not picky and pollinate many types of flowers. 

One more thing...
The Tree of Heaven is famous for its starring role in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," by Betty Smith. Click here for a link to a critical essay on the symbols in the book, including the Tree of Paradise described in the first chapter, where the tree was a metaphor for all the immigrants coming into New York City during the 1700s and 1800s.

Additional references
For more information on the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, click here for "Moths of Ohio Field Guide," by David J. Horn, Ph.D; Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife, or here for an interesting post on the blog "MOBugs; Missouri's Majority."

(I really enjoyed spending the day sketching with Matty (8-7-2015) at the Spring Valley Wildlife Area. Getting out in the wild with pencil and paper is relaxing and helps cement memories. The next day, I drove out with my camera to get photos. Beauty was everywhere...)


Midmarsh John said...

Moths are not among my favourite creatures but that one is incredibly pretty.

Mary Ann Gieszelmann said...

It certainly does look like a beautiful beetle, rather than a moth!

Montanagirl said...

What a beautiful creature! You post such interesting information.

Kelly said...

@John - He is, isn't he? Even though he is small, he is very noticeable and striking.

@Mary Ann - he does look like a long and skinny beetle at first glance. After a closer look, you can see he's a moth, but at first glance.. :-)

@Mona - thank you very much! It seems every time I step outside I find something new to learn about!

Diane said...

Kelly, these pictures are just amazing! Your talent and your camera - what a combination! Aunt Diane

Kelly said...

Hi Aunt Diane!!! Thank're the best! :-)