Naturalist Fact: Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

Photo Credit: Birds & Blooms

The Hummingbird Clearwing Moth (Hemaris thysbe) is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird or bee based on the moth’s appearance and behavior. Adult coloration is variable, but a “furry” olive green and burgundy back is common. Its underside is light yellow or white on the thorax, and burgundy on abdomen. The wingspan is 1.6 to 2.2 inches, and the wings always have a dark reddish border with a transparent center. These moths have fast wingbeats, and hovers while collecting nectar with a long feeding tube from flowers.

During its four weeks as a caterpillar, it feeds mostly on honeysuckle, cherry trees, and hawthorns. As a moth, it feeds on a variety of flowers. These moths feed during the day, which is another factor to their mistaken identity. In the southeast, there are two broods with most activity during the summer months.  The largest population of Hummingbird Clearwing Moths is along the east coast ranging from Florida to Maine. A west coast population ranges from Alaska to Oregon.


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Naturalist Fact: White Peacock

White Peacock butterfly

White Peacock butterfly

The White Peacock (Anartia jatrophae) is a tropical butterfly that can be spotted in southern Florida and southern Texas year-round and along the Georgia and South Carolina coast as a stray. However, we have been spotting several on Little St. Simons Island this fall.

This butterfly prefers open habitats like roadsides, gardens and fields. On Little St. Simons, we have been spotting them along Beach Road, near the gazebo, and in the inter-dune meadows. The adults will nectar on many of the flowers in fall bloom, and lay their eggs on Frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora) and water hyssop (Bacopa monieri).

White Peacock caterpillar

White Peacock caterpillar

When butterflies lay eggs in late summer or fall, sometimes the eggs will overwinter on the plant, and hatch in the spring with the new foliage growth. Since butterfly eggs usually only take 3-10 days to hatch, eggs laid here in October probably have time to hatch and feed before temperatures drop too low. Another adaptation for fall caterpillars is to form a chrysalis, but not emerge until spring.

The White Peacock has a wingspan of about two to three inches, and can be recognized by silvery white wings with an orange-brown border. Each forewing has a single round black spot, in addition to two black round spots on each hind wing.

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Naturalist Fact: Southern Flannel Moth

Adult Southern Flannel Moth

The Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) is named for the texture of its wings, and is found commonly in woodlands and forests in the Southeast. The adult moth emerges in the spring, after having overwintered in its cocoon. The moth will only live about 5-7 days in which time the female deposits her eggs one of a variety of woody plants.

The larva of the flannel moth, also known as the Puss Caterpillar, grows to no more than an inch in length and is covered in dense gray to tan hairs, giving it a furry appearance. The hairs appear to be combed into a crest at the to

p of its body and extend in a tail-like tuft from the back. Younger caterpillars’ hairs are white and wispier.

Puss Caterpillar

Although this caterpillar may look soft, it is armed with an intense defense strategy. Venemous spines are hidden beneath the tuft of hairs, and when agitated, this caterpillar can administer one of the most painful stings of any caterpillar found in the United States. The puss caterpillar feeds on woody plants, and it is not a stranger to the Live Oak dominated forests of Little St. Simons Island. If you come across this little creature, marvel at its peculiarity, but don’t pet it!

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Naturalist Fact: Redbay Ambrosia Beetle

Redbay ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus)

The redbay ambrosia beetle is an invasive pest first detected in 2002 near Savannah’s Port Wentworth. Originating in Asia, this tiny beetle (2 mm) is thought to have been introduced via infested wooden packing materials at the port. Like several other invasive species, this ambrosia beetle has spread quickly and its effects can now be seen on redbay trees throughout the Georgia Coast and into Florida and South Carolina.

Fungus introduced to redbay trees by the invasive ambrosia beetle causes laurel wilt in the tree.

Unlike native ambrosia beetles, this beetle attacks healthy redbay trees by boring into the wood just under the bark, creating galleries in the sapwood where it will lay its eggs. However, it is not the boring, or even the beetles themselves that will kill the tree. The female carries spores of a fungus (Raffaelea lauricola) in a pouch in her mouth which she inoculates into the sapwood as she bores. The developing and adult beetles feed on the fungus while the fungus grows within the tree. As the fungus grows, it blocks water and nutrient movement within the tree, causing laurel wilt and eventually, the death of the redbay tree.

As you explore the maritime forest here on Little St. Simons Island, you will see sapling redbay trees, with the majority of their leaves brown with wilt. Currently, scientists have not found a method of fighting back against the redbay ambrosia beetle. As the beetle and fungus spread, the redbay could be affected across its entire range. An important host plant to three species of swallowtail butterflies, a decline in the redbay could also mean hardships for palamedes, Schaus, and spicebush swallowtails in the coming years.

For more on the palamedes swallowtail, read our previous Naturalist Fact of the Week.

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Naturalist Fact: Palamedes Swallowtail

Image courtesy of

The Palamedes Swallowtail belongs to the Swallowtail butterfly family (Papilionadae) of which several members are common in the Southeast. The Palamedes Swallowtail is restricted to the Atlantic Coastal Plain, and adults can be found nectaring in suburban gardens, along roadsides, and in moist wooded areas.

It is one of the larger butterflies in the area with a wingspan of 3.5 to 5.5 inches. Its black wings are decorated with a yellow band running across the wing and yellow spots along the margin of the wing. It also has two blue hindwing eyespots ringed with black and a splash of orange, which distinguishes it from the similar Black Swallowtail.

Unlike most other swallowtails, the Palamedes Swallowtail is restricted to a single host plant—the Red Bay tree (Persea borbonia). The female is known to lay eggs only on this tree, usually a single egg is laid upon a new-growth leaf.

Unfortunately, the Red Bay populations along the South Carolina coast, Georgia coast, and into Florida are in serious decline due to an invasive ambrosia beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) that is believed to have been introduced via the port at Savannah in 2002.

For more info on the Red Bay and the red bay ambrosia beetle, stay tuned for the next Naturalist Fact of the Week!

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Naturalist Fact: Cow Killer

Cow Killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis)

The “cow killer,” also known as a red velvet ant, is a wasp that has earned its name from its extremely painful sting. This wasp has probably not been responsible for the death of many livestock, but the family to which it belongs (Mutilladea) are said to have the most painful sting of any insect in North America!

The female cow killer is wingless making it resemble an ant. However, its large size (3/4 inch -1 inch), hairy body, and bright red color help distinguish from ants found in our area. The males look similar to the female with the exception of two pairs of black wings. If you look closely, the hair-like protrusions covering its body looks similar to the texture of velvet.

Cow killers are solitary wasps and can often be seen crawling along the ground in sandy places along roadsides, forest edges, and meadows during the warmer summer months. They range from the Atlantic coastal regions of New York to Florida, and along the Gulf coastal regions to Texas. The female will lay a single egg in another ground-nesting insect’s nest like bumble bees. Once the cow killer larva hatch, they consume the eggs or larvae in the nest where they have been laid.

So, if you see one of these brightly colored insects crawling around admire its beauty, but don’t try to catch it!

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Butterflies growing in the garden

Here at Little St. Simons Island, we take pride in all the organics that our on-site garden produces. Sometimes, we even get excited about the pests!

This Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) hatched out of a chrysalis found in our garden. The pale green chrysalis hung by a thread on a stem. We relocated it to a mesh enclosure in the lodge to wait for the adult to emerge. Sure enough, a few days later, the black butterfly clung to the mesh with wet folded wings. Within a few hours, the wings had dried out and were fully extended to about 3 inches across, and he flew freely back out into the wild.

The Black Swallowtail has black wings parallel bands of yellow spots along the margins on its wings. In between the bands of yellow are shorter bands of blue that end at a red eyespot on each wing.

The females will lay their eggs on members of the parsley family (carrots, fennel, dill) and the caterpillars will hatch out, munch on their host plant while they grow and molt. When they are ready to form their chrysalis, they usually wander a bit from their feeding grounds.

We have an abundance of Black Swallowtail larvae, sometimes called parsley worms, on the parsley in our garden right now. As you might imagine, Black Swallowtails are fairly easy to attract by planting some parsley in your garden. And of course, it is always a beautiful surprise to see the adult butterfly emerge from the lifeless-looking chrysalis!

Some other butterflies that have been spotted this spring include the Cabbage Whites, Red Admirals, Monarchs, and many more that are soon to follow!

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