Thursday, August 18, 2016

Moth Rearing

     I have watched contacts I've met through birding and my adventures in the outdoors raise caterpillars and it has always looked intriguing. 
     I had a butterfly kit when I was a kid (I seriously picked it out as a report card or graduation present in elementary school) and got the caterpillars sent to me in the mail, they came with food they ate, them they went into their pupa and become painted lady butterflies, and I let them free.
     At a STEM (that's science, technology, engineering, and math) education expo, Carolina Biological supply was giving out caterpillars- my husband and I raised hubert into a painted lady butterfly- we really enjoyed watching the process and then setting him free.
     So when I saw a friend of mine had a hornworm invasion on her hands- I asked her (without being too weird, I hope) if I could take them off her hands-- as it looked like a good opportunity to try my hand at raising a wild caterpillar. So my husband and I drove to her place and we picked up this fat caterpillar and some of the leaves he was munching, and that's where our adventure begins...
Here he is- this is very much a tobacco hornworm- A few ways to differentiate between the tobacco and very similar tomato hornworm- first is this clever little trick about their stripes- tobacco has 7 lucky stripes (like lucky strikes) and the tomato has 8 V's- like V8-- check out this site for this cute little way to remember the difference.
Another way to tell the difference? The horn! With a reddish horn- this is tobacco- tomatoes have blue or black horns. And those cute little circles down his sides are spiracles - those are where he breathes from. 
So after his first night with us he devoured ALL his food and left a lot of frass behind- a lot! Frass is what you call caterpillar poop. The plant he was given to me on was black nightshade- tomatoes are in the nightshade family. Anyway, the thing about caterpillars I learned is that they end up eating only the plant they are on- they don't sample and taste other plants- so I had to go forage for some nightshade- I went by leaf shape, flower, and berries. I found some good plants in some very concrete parks- growing from the tree planters. The only place I found it in Prospect Park was near a playground- oh yeah, I did not search the whole park- it was super hot!
This is his set-up. A critter keeper where he is accessing the normal day/night cycle. There is a tree blocking the window so he isn't baking. Then the clippings of nightshade I collected are doing really well clipped and kept in a jar of water, even a week after collection. Originally I had no substrate which made for easy cleaning of frass. I only added soil when I saw him wandering.
After two nights, the next morning we caught our little guy in the "wander stage," the thing about this species of moth is that they don't dangle from a pupa as butterflies do-- they bury themselves in soil where they pupate and metamorph. Clearly our guy was very far along in caterpillar-hood. In seeing him walking around, I gave him some soil and he went right in for it! Here he is making his first contact with some soil.
Here he is wondering around before we added soil. You can see his heart beat- insects have an open circulatory system, with only one enclosed part- the pumping heart. Organs are bathed in the blood versus being surrounded by capillaries, veins, arteries. You also get a good look at his cute little face.

Here is his cute bum sticking out from the soil.
He spent two days moving around in the soil- he stopped eating at that point. By Wednesday I woke up to him laying motionless in the soil, he had shrunk in length- but was not desiccated. So I knew he was still alive and well. Despite being given about an inch and a half of soil, he settled near the top- which is good for me, because I am so curious!
I left for work to a still green guy laying in the soil.... but I came home to this!!!
I am looking forward to him eclosing (that's when they come out of their pupa state) and becoming an adult Carolina Sphix moth-- 18 days, but who's counting?!