Photo From You: Insect Identification

About two weeks ago one of our readers submitted a photo of an insect for us to identify. Erin Mills, our resident entomologist, figured out what it was and is ready to teach us all about a new moth.

Photo Peter sent us to identify

This photo comes to us all the way from right outside of Almeria, in Southern Spain, wow! Peter was digging in his garden and dug up what he thought was a snake, or part of one. It turned out to be a moth pupa. He kept it until the moth emerged and took a picture of what he saw. The moth’s wings were not yet completely developed at the time of the picture, so I knew I had a challenge ahead of me! Also, I don’t consider myself an expert on European moths. Luckily for me, this particular moth had some very distinguishing markings and a very unique behavior.

This is called a Death’s Head Hawkmoth. It is one of 3 different species that share this common name because of the marking on the thorax that looks vaguely like a skull. All 3 species belong to the genus Acherontia, This particular species, Acherontia atropos, is perhaps the most well-known of these moths.  They are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean region of Europe. This is the only species that is found in Europe, the other two are Asian. This fact, along with the markings on it’s thorax and abdomen, made it easy to identify.  Peter made a comment that the moth didn’t appear to like being harassed and actually hissed at him. This was another dead giveaway! Death’s Head Hawkmoths actually have the unique ability to make a squeaking noise by forcing air through their proboscis to deter predators. This is probably what Peter heard and described as a hiss. This is among several other unique features and behaviors of these moths.

Tomato Hornworm (5-Spotted Hawk Moth)
Creative Commons License photo credit: the_toe_stubber

They belong to the family Sphingidae, known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. Most sphingids have a very long proboscis that helps them to reach the sweet nectar deep inside of flowers. Death’s head moths, on the other hand, have an unusually short and thick proboscis. They have to find other ways of getting food, so they are known to raid bee hives for honey at night. They have a very thick exoskeleton to help protect them from stings and they are immune to the venom. Once inside the hive, they mimic the scent of the other bees, so for the most part they can move around the hive freely. Their thick, strong proboscis is perfect for penetrating the wax covering the honey cells. They will also feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. They can be a seasonal pest to some beekeepers.

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The skull pattern on their thorax has given them somewhat of a negative reputation. Their feisty disposition doesn’t help either. The caterpillars are known to make a loud snapping noise with their mandibles and will bite if they feel threatened. The squeaking noise of the adults has been compared to a melancholy cry.  They are often associated with death and the supernatural. You may recognize them from the movie Silence of the Lambs. In the movie and book, the trademark of the murderer was to place a pupa of this moth in the mouths of his victims. That in itself makes them seem kind of creepy! Also, all 3 of their scientific names are associated with death in Greek mythology. In Europe they were thought of as harbingers of war, death, and pestilence. Their appearance was thought to be a bad omen.  Of course this is all superstition and these are not harbingers of death, but just large beautiful moths, or are they??

Thank you so much for sending in the photo Peter, and I’m glad we could identify this insect for you! It’s amazing what you can find when digging in the dirt. Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

A Windy Day

Sphere
Creative Commons License photo credit: allegra_

Houston always has the biggest and best—being the energy capital of the world we have to honor one of the best alternative energies – WIND. The week of June 1 we had the largest Wind Power 2008 Conference and Exhibition in the world at the George R. Brown convention center, sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association or AWEA.

This was a total learning experience for me. Do you know what a nacelle is? Neither did I until I attended the NEED teacher workshop at the conference. NEED is considered the best energy education resource in the world. NEED workshops provide staff development and continuing education for teachers and sometimes even graduate credit. The Houston Museum of Natural Science is always honored to be associated with this exceptional group and is planning many NEED workshops at the HMNS during the next school year.

The NEED Wind Energy workshop was one of the most valuable and fun workshops I have attended.

Flame Shake-up
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joshua Davis (jdavis.info)

Mainly we learned why we should teach about wind energy – it is one of the fastest growing, cheapest, renewable, environmentally friendly, energy sources available. Every state in the U.S. has wind energy sources. The country that uses the most wind energy is Germany; Spain is second and the U.S. is third, which uses about half as much as Germany. Texas produces the most wind energy in the U.S.  The city of Houston starting July 1 will get 1/5 of its energy from wind for the next 5 years. This includes city owned facilities such as airports, police stations, fire stations, and water treatment plants.

Towards the end of the seminar, Ian Baring-Gould,  Senior Mechanical Engineer with the National Wind Technology Center in Golden Colorado told us about the Wind for Schools Program.  Even though the program is not for Texas, we can still use the ideas. Ian was referred to as the “guru of wind energy”, so I filed his name into my brain under “valuable people to know.” He also fell under, “nice people to talk with.” One of the coolest things he said was that they have a wind energy “graveyard” up in Golden where they do research. He said that I can come dig around and see if there is anything I could use to help teach my teachers back in Houston. WOOHOO I am always game for a great garage sale.

Then the teachers created model wind turbines. Our group created the fasted which produced 320 microvolts. That is me looking rather skeptical along with Sharon Fontaine, Science Content Specialist with Houston ISD, building our turbine.

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At the end of the day the teachers got to go into the Exhibition Hall and visit all of the exhibits. I continued to gather information about wind energy and met many fascinating people from all over the world. Most of the displays were rather ordinary but some were quite an experience. You could actually peer into a nacelle and see its inner workings.

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You could get an idea of how huge the blades are by standing next to a cross section of one:

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This company was quite extravagant in its display:

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If you ever have a chance to go to any of these energy conferences – do. Its fun to walk around seeing all the different yet related industries, and you get such a great sense of the global economy.