Photo From You: Insect Identification

Egyptian star cluster / Pentas lanceolata / 草山丹花(クササンタンカ)
Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

If you’re an avid, or even amateur butterfly gardener, you are probably familiar with pentas.

Pentas, also known as star clusters, are one of our favorite nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. They have medium-dark green foliage with clusters of small 5-petal flowers that come in a variety of colors. I love them because they are very heat and drought tolerant! I try not to forget about watering my poor plants, but with 3 dogs, 2 turtles and a husband all needing my attention, they sometimes go by the wayside.

I was very surprised and pleased when, despite my neglect, my pentas grew tall and flowered often, providing yummy nectar for all of my butterfly, bee and fly visitors! If you’re familiar with this versatile plant, you may have seen our mystery bug for the month.


Picture from
Crosby, Texas

This picture (immediate right) was taken in Crosby, Texas. I immediately recognized it as a Tersa Sphinx caterpillar. Naturally, we have a lot of pentas here at the Butterfly Center and we have run into this caterpillar more than once!

I can tell it’s a sphinx moth caterpillar, also known as a hornworm, by the pointed protuberance  on its last segment. It stands out from other hornworms because it has a pair of eyespots on each abdominal segment, including one very large pair of eye spots on it’s first abdominal segment, similar to those on a spicebush swallowtail.

shade
Creative Commons License photo credit: lecates
The greenform,
showing eye-spots and horn

When the caterpillar feels threatened, it can retract it’s thorax into it’s abdomen, putting those eyespots in the face of a would-be predator in hopes to intimidate them.  They can be green, brown, or gray. After happily snacking on the leaves of pentas, firebush, buttonplant, or other similar woody plants, these caterpillars pupate close to the surface of the soil.

Adult moths fly starting at sunset and can often be mistaken for hummingbirds due to their large size and flight capabilities. Hawkmoths can hover next to flowers just like hummingbirds! These moths can be found all along the Gulf Coast and throughout most of the Eastern US. They reach far down through Mexico and into South America. They are not considered to be major pests and when we’ve found caterpillars there really hasn’t been major damage to our plants. They are just another cute caterpillar to observe and they’re very safe to touch and handle!

If you’re stumped by a creature in your garden, feel free to send in a photo. Or better yet, bring it in for us to see! We’re always happy to help with identification!

We have heard from a few folks that are over-run with caterpillars, grasshoppers, or other creepy crawlies. If this is happening to you, don’t kill them, donate them! We can sometimes use them for educational programs or display purposes! If you are interested in any of this, please send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don't ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.