A Pith Helmet and the ability to Communicate

The other day I was in the basement of my office when I discovered not one, but two pith helmets hidden in the back of a dusty, abandoned cabinet. There are few things that excite an entomologist more than the discovery of a new or unique insect and a pith helmet is one of those things.  It’s not something I ever envisioned being excited to find or anything I ever desired to own in my life before entomology, but as I move along in my career as an entomologist the desire to own one has increased steadily over the years.  And then, just yesterday, I find two pith helmets that have never been used, waiting for me to discover them. During outreach appointments, I get the feeling that there’s nothing that the public desires to see more than an entomologist with a pith helmet.  I was the same way before I started down this path.  Before beginning my Master’s I always pictured entomologists as old guys with interesting mustaches, wearing lots of khakis, high socks, a pith helmet, and of course carrying a net.

Why is this?  Why does everyone picture entomologists wearing these pith helmets or always carrying nets around?

But most of all… Why is that stereotype of entomologists so right?!

Well, I can’t grow a mustache, but I do carry around a net, vials, and camera almost everywhere I go and now I have a pith helmet for all of those great adventures through alfalfa, wheat, or soybean fields.  However, to answer this question a little better, I can only go back to an article that I saved when I began my Master’s degree at Purdue entitled, “Grasshoppers, Termites and Lovebugs: Responsibilities of Florida Entomologists to Communicate with the Public” written and presented by Dr. James Price in the early ‘90s.  This has been a treasured piece of literature and something that has compelled me to do better in this field and really communicate the needed information and promote an excitement for the field of entomology with or without a pith helmet- though it’s much more exciting with the helmet…  Enjoy the read!



Sighted at McCrory: It’s a bird, it’s a moth…it’s a hummingbird moth!

Every year I and my wife eagerly await for hummingbird moth appearance at McCory Gardens and this year doesn’t disappoint. Last week we stepped into the garden just before sunset and I immediately spotted six figures hovering above some flowers. Hummingbirds moth are indeed hummingbird-like. They flap their wings very fast and as the result are able to hover steadily in the air while telescoping their long proboscis into the flowers’ nectaries, usually located way down in the bottom of the flowers. The wings usually flap so rapidly, they seem to be a blur.


White-lined sphinx moth (Photo: Nita Sari Dewi)

The long proboscis are retractable and are usually coiled and tucked underneath the head when not used to feed. The picture below illustrates the beginning of proboscis coiling just after the moth finished feeding on a flower’s nectary.


Note the coiling of the proboscis (Photo: Nita Sari Dewi)

The species of hummingbird moth that we seem to always spot here in Brookings is white-lined sphinx moth, Hyles lineata.White-lined sphinx moth is readily identifiable by the white streak on the forewings and the pink area on the hindwings. The larvae have a unique feature of a horn jutting out of the hind end, earning its nickname of ‘hornworm’. White-lined sphinx moth larvae feed on various plants including garden plants such as tomato, elm or evening primrose. Yet the injuries caused by their feeding are relatively mild and do not usually require any control. The larvae burrow into the ground to pupate. It takes 3-4 weeks for adult moth to emerge from the pupa. Here in South Dakota we normally see up to two generations of hummingbird moth per year.

Although some have reported that hummingbird moths are easily spotted in daylight, I always found them at dusk. This past week has been a week for hummingbird moth sightings. A professor whose office is above me stopped by and asked about ‘a hummingbird-like moth’ he saw in his yard. A research specialist left two hummingbird moths on my desk (“They were coming after me!”), and finally I caught the town librarians chattering about these moths when checking out my customary weekend books on Friday. How about you? Have you spotted a hummingbird moth lately?


Photo: Nita Sari Dewi


Mother of Lacewings (just short of fire-breathing but still quite ferocious)


Adult lacewing (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae) (Photo: A.S.)

Mother of Lacewings (Neuroptera: Chrysopidae), is the adult of green lacewing. I am a huge fan of The Song of Ice and Fire series so I couldn’t resist the play on words. This beautiful insect is very common, and you’ve probably seen it flapping around at dusk. The Polish common name for it is actually ‘Golden-eye’, and if you ever get a chance to look at it closely you will see that it indeed has large golden eyes! It has four long wings with extensive venation, and green slender body. It’s probably a little under an inch in length.

Beautiful as the adults of these insects are, it is actually the larvae that are the real beasts worth learning about. Lacewings go through complete metamorphosis so the immature forms differ a lot from the adults. Immature lacewings lack antennae, have somewhat stocky built and long legs that allow them to move fast. It is their sickle-shaped mouthparts, however, that are the coolest feature of these insects. Lacewings are vicious predators always on the move in search of prey. One of their favorites are aphids, soft-bodied insects that attack many crops and garden plants. Once a lacewing larva encounters an unsuspecting aphid, it grabs hold of it using its powerful mouthparts, injects strong enzymes into the aphid to dissolve its contents and then proceeds to suck the aphid dry. Some lacewing species have psychopath-like tendencies, and fling dry, empty bodies of their victims on their backs to create a clever disguise. It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, no doubt!

Lacewing larva (Photo: A.S.)

What is pink, clumpy and found in a birdfeeder?

A couple of weeks ago, one of our county extension offices sent an email connecting me with somebody with an amusing insect story from her backyard. Susan Stone-Douglas was the person with the story. She is kind enough to write her part of the story for this blog:

“On April 17, 2012 I took my birdfeeder down to fill it and found this cocoon-like matter under the lid.  I thought it was a spider nest.  Being allergic to spider bites I wasn’t thrilled.  But at the same time I was totally fascinated by the beauty and symmetry of what Mother Nature produces. 


I first emailed my picture to my friend Shari Kosel and she forwarded it to her sister in New Mexico, whose 10 year old son, Reiney Houfek, loves bugs of any kind.  Reiney told Shari it wasn’t a spider nest it was a clump of moth eggs.

Meanwhile I had Googled the Extension Service and emailed my picture to them at SDSU and also my friend Dr. Holly Downing, an entomologist at BHSU.  The entomologist’s from both colleges confirmed our budding 10 year old entomologist was correct and went on to identify the moth.  Holly told me the black dot in the center of each egg told her they had already hatched, which, of course, proved true.  I never did get to see what came out of the cocoon.  I’m just happy it wasn’t spiders.

I also posted my picture on Facebook and an amazing conversation resulted.”

An amusing story indeed! It has all sorts of interesting little parts: mysterious cocoon-like thing in a bird feeder, a 10 year-old budding entomologist and a testimony of Facebook power to create conversations. What more can you want from a story?

The egg clump found in Sue’s bird feeder is indeed a moth egg cluster. Meal moths in particular are fond of laying their eggs in any location with accumulation of bird feeds with a long-term view that the hatching larvae can use the bird feed as food source later. Meal moths do not constitute a problem outdoors. They shouldn’t harm the bird and their populations do not usually become too big. They can become a problem indoors when they do get in. Meal moth larvae tend to be found in stored grains and their derivative products (e.g. flour, pet food, etc.). Keeping the stored grains in well lidded containers, not keeping them for too long and general sanitation of the storage area are good practices to keep meal moths away.

Again, thanks to Sue for sharing her story and kudos for Reiney Houfek for the spot-on id of the moth eggs!

When Life Gives You Plastic, Lay Eggs!

My previous department head pulled this piece off of the internet a couple days ago and I thought that I would share this with all of you…

It’s always amazing to see how insects can take advantage of the situations that humans put them into.  Clearly no one was expecting to find anything taking advantage of this awful situation.  But, low and behold, the sea skater (Halobates sericeus) is using this garbage to build up its numbers.  This article is just one more piece of evidence that insects will always be far more adaptable to their surroundings than even the most technologically advanced human.

Go bugs!



I’ve gotten many questions regarding the crazy amounts of moths that people are seeing right now.  Questions such as:

Why are they here?

Are they doing damage?

Is this a sign of things to come this summer?

Well, to begin, these moths belong to a group of moths called “Miller” moths.  This a generic name given to a bunch of mottled brown moths, but out west it commonly refers to the adult stage of the army cutworm.  In normal winters South Dakota and surrounding states experience cold enough temperatures that many of the adults are killed before spring.  However, with such a mild winter, many of the adults were able to survive and are now in the process of moving westward towards the Rocky Mountains.

The adult army cutworm doesn’t cause any damage and is more of a nuissance than anything.  They are attracked to porch lights so trying to reduce the amount of external lighting around your home should reduce this problem.  But, they can cause more serious problems for drivers where populations get too large…


Do these adult populations mean problems for the summer?  To be honest, it’s too hard to tell…  I’m not particularly concerned with their presence this early in the season.  The larvae are what we worry about and as long as we get moisture in the spring or fall, they will get drowned out and won’t be much to worry about again.

But before I end this post… 

Quick Question!  Does anyone know the best natural predator of the army cutworm?




Answer!  Grizzly bears!  Once the army cutworms migrate to the Rockies for the summer (they don’t like the heat and head to the mountains for the cooler temperatures and plentiful flowers to feed on) the grizzly bears also migrate further into the mountains to feed upon the cutworms.  I watched a documentary that mentioned that individual grizzly bears will feed on over 10,000 moths before the cutworms migrate back east!  Think of these moths as little energy packed vitamins…  The documentary also showed grizzly bears fighting over areas that had more moths than others.