Unusual moths that you might find in your back yard

2014-03-10 00:00

HAVING recently experienced a summer migration of our familiar brown-veined white butterflies (Belenois aurota) that many people witness and marvel at, I thought I should talk about some rather unusual Lepidoptera to make the point that this is a large and highly variable group of insects.

South Africa boasts almost 700 species of butterfly and probably double that number of moths. While butterflies are pretty well known and a number of books are available to the general public, far less is known about moths and the best book covering them is now out of print. The difference is due largely to the fact that butterflies are diurnal and, therefore, more visible, while the vast majority of moths are nocturnal and active while we sleep.

The unusual moths I want to talk about are all day-fliers and don’t appear much like our usual concept of moths. The first is commonly called a Hornet Moth because the uninitiated think it looks like one. The individual photographed belongs to the genus Euchromia and was photographed at Kosi Bay. Similar species are found elsewhere in KwaZulu-Natal and beyond. While many wasps and hornets tend to advertise the fact that they can sting, this moth is probably not trying to pass as a stinging insect as I am not aware of any wasp with a similar appearance that could be the model for mimicry. Instead, I believe this is an example of aposematic colouration. A big word that means the animal is warning others of the fact that it is distasteful and should be left alone. Most insects that warn predators of their distasteful nature use black, white, red and yellow colours. Another clue is the fact that this moth is sluggish and slow in flight. It must, therefore, rely on its warning colours to escape being eaten.

My second unusual moth is one of the few members of the family Aegeriidae and is called the Brushleg Clearwing (Melittia rufodorsa). “Mel” in Latin means honey and so the name suggests a similarity to bees. The clear wings and thickened back legs resemble those found in some members of the insect group Hymenoptera (wasps, bees and ants). This moth flies quickly and shows off its dangling hind legs in a manner that would probably fool many predators and so I am happy to accept this as mimicry. Clearwings are not common insects and little is known about our local species.

The last of my three unusual moths is a Plume Moth belonging to the large family Pterophoridae (over 70 described species). These small moths are easily recognised by their slender bodies, narrow wings (held at right-angles to the body) and long delicate legs. While they are commonly encountered during the day, they are also attracted to lights at night. To my knowledge, their rather peculiar appearance has not been adequately explained. However, these moths do resemble bits of dry vegetation and so my guess would be that their cryptic form provides them with protection against predation. Predators are probably fooled into thinking they are tufts of dry vegetation or airborne seeds. Plume Moth caterpillars commonly feed on flowers and leaves, as do the majority of Lepidoptera larvae.

If the Lepidoptera is as diverse a group of insects as I have tried to portray them, you must be asking: “What is the feature that links them all together?” My answer is that all members of the group possess scaly wings. In Greek “lepidos” means scale and “pteron” means wing — hence the scientific name Lepidoptera. Rub the wings of a moth or butterfly between your fingers and you will find many flattened “hairs” or scales adhering to your fingertips.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with an interest in entomology. He welcomes queries, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net Please do not send large attachments

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