While cutworms can be common during the summer months into the fall, we usually don’t expect to see them this time of the year. Surprisingly, there’s one cold-hardy species that has been common in Wisconsin recently—the “winter cutworm” (Noctua pronuba). This species gets its name due to the fact that the caterpillars are cold-tolerant and can be active when temperatures dip. While they won’t be out-and-about during a polar vortex, I’ve had many recent reports at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab of winter cutworm caterpillars wandering on the snow when temperatures have been in the 20’s. Overall, there are very few caterpillars that venture onto the snow, period.
Similar to other cutworms, the winter cutworms are plump, earth-toned caterpillars—they are brownish with pairs of black dashes bordered by white running down the sides of their backside, which makes them easy to identify. (Technically, a greenish form of the caterpillars also occurs). In addition, if you see any caterpillar that even looks “cutworm-like” out on the snow, it’s almost certainly this species. They pass through the the winter as nearly-mature caterpillars before pupating in the spring. The adult moths are active during the warmer months and display an amazing array of different color forms—ranging from very light beige to grey or brownish—although the hindwings (typically tucked under the body at rest) are a diagnostic yellow color. Thus, adults are commonly known as “large yellow underwing” moths.
The winter cutwormcan be found from coast-to-coast in much of the US and Canada, although this wasn’t always the case. This species is common in Europe and wasn’t known from North America until 1979 when it was first spotted in Nova Scotia. While the caterpillars do feed on a wide range of plants, they’re rarely a notable pest. Outbreaks and reports of damage aren’t common, although there was a notable outbreak in Michigan around 2007-2008. In most cases, these caterpillars are simply a curiosity as they wander across the snow on mild winter days—sometimes by the thousands. In addition, winter cutworms can occasionally sneak into structures as well, which can be another surprise to see caterpillars actiely wandering in garages or barns when the temperature is in the 40’s.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably been out appreciating our recent fall weather.Likewise, boxelder bugs (Boisea trivitatta) have also been enjoying the warmth.I’ve seen an uptick in reports of boxelder bugs at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year compared to most other years in the last decade and weather patterns in the Midwest have played an important role.
Whether you recognize them or not, there’s a good chance you’ve bumped into boxelder bugs before.These black and red insects can be common throughout the warmer months and can be especially abundant in late summer and early fall.Adults are approximately ½ inch long and have a criss-cross pattern on their backside created by their wings.Juveniles (nymphs) are smaller with much more red on their bodies.As the nymphs mature, their developing black wing pads become noticeable.True to their name, boxelder bugs are commonly associated with boxelder trees (Acernegundo).Botanically speaking, boxelders are technically a type of maple, and some other maples can also be a host for these insects as well as ash trees and a few others.
From a plant-health perspective, boxelder bugs cause little damage to plants and are of little concern.These insects get the most attention when they’re spotted on the sides of homes and other structures.They’re often particularly fond of the southern and western sides of homes where the warm afternoon sun hits.Boxelder bugs are often spotted on buildings in fall as they search for sheltered overwintering spots.If they can squeeze in through a gap or crack, they can easily hunker down in a wall void, or similar spot for the winter.Sometimes, boxelder bugs can make it to a location where they become active indoors during the winter months, much to the chagrin of the humans living in the home.While these insects can be perceived as a nuisance, they’re really quite harmless to people, pets, and homes (although they could stain light-colored fabrics if crushed).Like other “fall invading” insects (e.g., cluster flies, multicolored Asian lady beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs, and western conifer seed bugs), a helpful approach is to seal up potential entry points on the exterior of your home before these insects make their way inside.
Looking at long-term patterns, boxelder bug populations have generally been low in many parts of Wisconsin over the last decade.A reason for this is moisture.When we have rainy years, entomopathogens (insect-infecting pathogens) can keep boxelder bug populations low.In contrast, boxelder bugs tend to thrive under drier and warmer conditions.There’s even been research on a closely-related species (the western boxelder bug, Boisea rubrolineata)in the western US suggesting that those insects deliberately sunbathe and secrete a chemical to help inhibit the common entomopathogenic fungus Beauveria bassiana.Here in Wisconsin 2021 was surprisingly dry in many areas which likely helped boost boxelder bug numbers.Likewise, some parts of Wisconsin also saw dry conditions continue into 2022, which may have helped them further, leading to an increase in boxelder bug populations and reports this year.
With the arrival of fall, we’re starting to see pumpkins, spooky yard decorations, and pumpkin spiced everything (*shudder*). Not to be left out of the festivities, one insect can be quite noticeable this time of the year—the large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus).
If you’re wondering, we do also have a small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii), although it’s not usually as common as the ubiquitous, larger cousin. Both juveniles (nymphs) and adults of the large milkweed bug are fittingly adorned for fall. Adults reach lengths of nearly 3/4 inch long and are mostly orange with black patches on the wings and body. Going through “simple metamorphosis” (technically, they’re paurometabolous), the juveniles or nymphs look similar in body shape to adults (although smaller) and are also orange with some black. In more mature nymphs, the developing blackish wing pads are quite noticeable. When you see a group of nymphs and adults hanging out on milkweed in the fall, it’s easy to recognize that they’re all the same species.
Large milkweed bugs specialize on milkweed plants and are one of the many creatures that can be found in and around milkweed patches. When they feed, large milkweed bugs use their sucking-type mouthparts to sip fluids from plants; they’re especially fond of the developing seed pods and are often spotted on pods. While home gardeners hoping to rear monarchs might be concerned about competition, these insects generally cause little harm to plants and are more of a curiosity than a pest.
Large milkweed bugs have a very seasonal pattern in the upper Midwest. They can’t survive the winter at more northern latitudes, so they must migrate northwards each year. Here in Wisconsin, you’d be hard pressed to find large milkweed bugs in spring, but by July they’ve often arrived in low numbers. Large milkweed bugs can become quite common by late summer and early fall as it typically takes 40+ days for a new generation of adults to appear from eggs laid in our area.
In much of Wisconsin, we’re just starting to see foliage change to reds, oranges, and yellows, but as you’re out enjoying the fall weather, keep an eye out for these festive-looking insects around milkweed patches.
If you’ve spotted small, crunchy beetles in your home this summer you aren’t alone. Broad-nosed weevils (Curculionidae: Entiminae) have been a surprise this summer at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. While I see cases of these insects every year, things have been a bit more intense this summer with a flood of reports from around Wisconsin.
What’s a weevil? Out of the 100+ different families of beetles, the weevils (Family Curculionidae) are extremely diverse with over 50,000 species in this group alone. In terms of their appearance, most weevils might remind you of Gonzo from the Muppets with their very pronounced “snouts”. A great example of this in Wisconsin is the genus Curculio (the “nut and acorn weevils”). Some species in this group can have a snout (technically “rostrum”) as long as the rest of their body.
On the other hand, some members of the weevil family lack the pronounced snout . One such group, the subfamily Entiminae, is commonly referred to as the broad-nosed weevils. Our common broad-nosed weevils tend to be small (around ⅛ – ¼ inch-long) and have pear-shaped bodies with very hard, crunchy exoskeletons; they also have “elbowed” antennae similar to ants. The color of the broad-nosed weevils can vary by species, but many are blackish or grayish.
When it comes to broad-nosed weevils, we have over 100 species in the Midwest alone. In general, these are “outdoor” species associated with plants. The larvae tend to feed on the roots of plants while the adults often chew small notches out of the edges of foliage. Interestingly, a few species in this group have the habit of sneaking indoors during the summer months. Once inside, these insects are completely harmless but can be a minor nuisance as they seem to mindlessly wander on walls or floors.
Conditions in Wisconsin over the last year and a half must have been just right for some of these species, since I’ve had a flood of requests to help identify broad-nosed weevils in homes and other structures during the summer of 2022. Often when I see “weevil” cases it’ll be a handful of weevils indoors, but this year I’ve also seen plenty of reports of large numbers of weevils (hundreds or thousands!). The top three species I’ve been seeing in Wisconsin have been the strawberry root weevil (Otiorhynchus ovatus), the imported longhorn weevil (Calomycterussetarius), and the black vine weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus). There are a number of other species in this group that can invade structures as well. Due to the similar appearance of these beetles, it’s often necessary to get a sample under the microscope to help confirm the exact species. If you come across broad-nosed weevils in your home and want to know the exact type, feel free to send in a sample to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab: insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/samples.
While these weevils can be a bit of a nuisance, there usually isn’t much of a need to spray (especially indoors). In the grand scheme of things, good physical exclusion (i.e., sealing things up better with caulk, expanding insulation foam, better weatherstripping, etc.) can go a long way to help prevent broad-nosed weevils from getting indoors in the first place. For the weevils that do make it indoors, insecticide really aren’t necessary and sweeping or vacuuming up these slow-moving pests is the best course of action.
Heading into the growing season, spongy moth (Lymantria dispar, formerly known as the “gypsy moth”) was poised to have a big year in Wisconsin.That prediction has held up and I’ve seen an influx of reports of spongy moth caterpillars and damage at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab (IDL) this spring.In some areas, these caterpillars are causing conspicuous damage, which has also led to a flurry of questions from the public on what to do about them.Let’s take a look at how this season has shaped up, how the next few weeks could turn out, and what can be done.
What’s happened so far (as of mid-June)?
After a cool start to spring, we saw some unseasonably warm temperatures during the second week of May, which jump-started a lot of insect activity.I saw a distinct increase in diagnostic requests at the IDL around this time as well as my first reports of spongy moth caterpillars.
Initial sightings of small caterpillars mostly involved larvae dangling from trees and structures from silken threads—a dispersal mechanism down as “ballooning”.In other cases, thousands of tiny, dark caterpillars stood out against light-colored siding of homes. At first, these tiny caterpillars couldn’t cause much damage—with their small size, they simply don’t eat much.It isn’t until caterpillars are larger and more mature that they really start to chow down and damage increases dramatically. It’s estimated that 80-90% of the damage caused by these caterpillars is from the final two larval substages (instars). Reports of notable damage started to pop up a few weeks later in early June.
Based on the reports coming in to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, the heaviest spongy moth activity in 2022 spans from southeastern Wisconsin (Lake Geneva area) west through Rock, Green, and Dane Counties, and north to Sauk, Juneau and Monroe Counties.Overall, Dane and Walworth Counties stand out for the number of spongy moth sightings and reports of damage that I’ve received.
What will the next few weeks be like?
The end of caterpillar activity is in sight—but we’re not there yet.I’m still getting reports of spongy moth caterpillars and likely will for a few more weeks.In many cases, the caterpillars being spotted are now pretty large (1¾– 2 inches), meaning that they’re feeding voraciously and causing lots of damage to plants. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that these large caterpillars should also be pupating in the near future—putting an end to their damage for the season. However, I’ve been receiving reports of mixed caterpillar sizes, with some caterpillars only measuring ¾ – 1 inch long.These smaller “stragglers” will continue to feed and cause damage into July, meaning we’re not entirely out of the woods yet.
Another variable that could be at play this year is a beneficial fungus known asEntomophaga maimaiga.This disease can specifically infect and kill spongy moth caterpillars and can play an important role in regulating their populations over time.Last year’s drought likely helped set the stage for 2022 by suppressing this beneficial fungus. This spring we’ve had pretty regular precipitation in many parts of the Midwest, which could help put a dent in spongy moth populations if this pathogen kicks in.
What can be done about spongy moth?
This has been one of the commonest questions I’ve been getting recently and have seen plenty of posts on social media sites like Facebook and Nextdoor asking this same question. Management of spongy moth really depends on the life stage of the insect. The UW-Madison Division of Extension Spongy Moth website has an excellent month-by-month discussion of management approaches.
For small numbers of yard trees, the burlap band method can be a way to remove larger caterpillars from the equation.However, it’s important to understand that this method can be time and labor intensive as you need to check bands daily and brush caterpillars into a container of soapy water to maximize effectiveness. [Note: don’t touch the caterpillars bare-handed, it hurts!].For large trees, there’s not much else that an individual homeowner can do other than discussing chemical treatment options with an arborist. Many of the online posts I’ve seen have had an element of panic, but it’s also important to keep in mind that trees that are in otherwise good health can generally tolerate defoliation and will push out another batch of leaves later this year.I start to worry more about plant health when trees are defoliated repeatedly, as that can lead to secondary issues over time.
I’ve also seen a number of questions about aerial sprays for spongy moth.This year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) has been coordinating aerial spraying in the western parts of the state to slow the overall spread of this invasive species.The treatment used in early-season aerial sprays (Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki) is most effective against small caterpillars. Later spraying will focus on disrupting the ability of adult moths to successfully find a mate. In theory, members of the public could band together to coordinate aerial spraying in their local area, but the planning process for this can take months.By the time folks were posting on social media expressing a desire for aerial treatments in their neighborhood, that option was no longer feasible.
One key thing to pay attention to later this summer will be the egg masses laid by adult female spongy moths. Each egg mass can contain upwards of 1,000 eggs, so surveying for egg masses can give insight into what the spongy moth situation could be like in 2023. Those egg masses will also remain in place for roughly nine months until they hatch next spring, which gives lots of time for a search-and-destroy scavenger hunt in your yard.
For additional information on managing spongy moths, check out the updated UW-Madison Division of Extension factsheet on this insect and the Extension spongy moth website with month-by-month recommendations.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared April to be Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month. To support this effort, the University of Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab recently launched a new Wisconsin invasive insect mapping page to help track invasive insects in the state.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll notice that quite a few of my posts focus on invasive insects. Why? In part, it’s because these non-native insects tend to be new or emerging issues and a key role of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is to help identify and track new and trending insects in the state. In addition, these invasive insects can sometimes cause significant damage or capture our attention for other reasons. In a typical year, I see 2-3 new non-native insects show up in Wisconsin, which really adds up over time. For every species that has arrived here, many more are making progress towards the state (e.g.,spotted lanternfly). In other cases, non-native insects show up completely out of the blue.
What’s the big deal with non-native insects?
Non-native insects can cause harm in many different ways:
Be an aesthetic or nuisance issue (e.g., European earwigs, German yellowjackets, etc.)
Introducing the new mapping page:
Because of the impacts mentioned above, it’s helpful to track invasive species so we can better understand where they may be having impacts, and also to get the word out about new detections and allow folks to take appropriate action. To help in this regard, the IDL’s new invasive insect mapping page hosts a series of maps showing the known county-level distributions of a select list of invasive species.
These particular species have been included due to their relatively recent arrival in Wisconsin, and the ability to track them on a county-by-county basis. Keep in mind that many other non-native insects can be found in the state, but some of these have been around a long time, are now widespread, and tracking on a county-by-county basis is no longer feasible or helpful (e.g., Japanese beetle, European paper wasps, German yellowjackets, European earwigs, and many more).
The maps on this page will be updated when new detections occur, and additional species maps will be added over time. If you believe that you’ve observed one of the listed insects in a county where it has not been documented or a new invasive insect species, please collect evidence (physical specimens and/or digital images) and contact me to work on officially confirming the detection. An example entry from the map page can be found below:
Despite the season, there’s a surprising number of insects and related arthropods that can be found on the snow during the winter months here in the Midwest.Such creatures have fascinating life histories and special adaptations (such as natural “antifreeze”or cryoprotectants) that allow them to not only survive, but remain active at low temperatures.Even these adaptations have limitations and winter insects generally aren’t active if temperatures are below ~20˚F (-7˚C).Most activity occurs on mild winter days when temps close to or just above freezing.
If you’re curious to learn more about the stories behind these winter creatures and others, I’d encourage you to check out Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Read on to learn about some of our commonest “winter” insects in Wisconsin and nearby states:
Snow Fleas: If you follow this blog, you might recall the example of snow fleas from two winters ago.These dark-colored springtails (Collembola) can sometimes be abundant enough to give large swaths of snow a sooty appearance.Snow fleas can be common on mild winter days and if I’m out cross-country skiing in the Northwoods, I’m often more surprised if I don’t spot any.
Snow Flies: One of the weirdest examples of a “winter” insect would be “snow flies” from the genus Chionea. Despite their spider-like appearance, snow flies are actually a type of wingless Limoniidcrane fly.Being wingless and generally slow moving might sound like an easy target for predators, but by being active at cold temperatures these insects can actually avoid the many predators that feed upon related flies during the warmer months.Interestingly, their physiology is so specialized, that these unusual insects can be active between about 20˚F (-7˚C) and 32˚F (0˚C), but if it’s a warm winter day with melting snow it can actually be too hot for them!If you’d like a more detailed look at these insects, check out J.R. Schock’s article in The Kansas School Naturalist.
Winter Crane Flies: I occasionally get reports of “swarming mosquitoes” on winter days, and perhaps you’ve bumped into a cloud of tiny delicate flies out in the snowy woods or on a mild fall or spring day.What you’ve likely encountered are winter crane flies (Family Trichoceridae).These delicate flies are related to mosquitoes but have no interest in blood.The adults are simply trying to mate and the larvae are scavengers.
Snow Scorpionflies: In my mind, one of the more elusive winter insects is the snow scorpionfly.Despite having “scorpion” in the name, these aren’t scorpions (or true flies for that matter).Rather, they belong to a small order of insects (Mecoptera), which includes some bizarre examples, such as the common scorpionflies, hangingflies, and earwigflies.Like the snow flies, the snow scorpionflies are also flightless and simply wander about on the snow when conditions are right.In the Midwest, we only have two species from this group Boreus brumalis and Boreus nivoriundus, and both species are associated with mosses.
Aquatic insects: If you’re near open streams or rivers during the winter months, certain aquatic insects can sometimes emerge and be found on the snow. Caddisflies and stoneflies are two of the commonest examples. I recall ice climbing one winter’s night at Governor Dodge State Park west of Madison and reaching the top of a frozen waterfall only to spot dozens of adult “aquatic” insects active on the snow.The conditions must have been just right that evening, as I also saw hundreds of tiny Cynipid wasps (from oak galls) on the snow as I descended the access trail from the climb.
Spiders: Hexapods aren’t the only arthropods getting in on the winter fun.Species from at least a half-dozen families of spiders can occasionally be spotted on the snow on mild winter days.They might be pretty lethargic, but it’s still interesting to see creatures like that out-and-about on the snow. The video clip below shows a spider I spotted on the snow in Northern Wisconsin on New Year’s Eve a few years ago when the air temperature was right around 30˚F (-1˚C).
What a year it’s been. Things seemed like they were getting back to normal this past summer, only for the Omicron variant to pop up and say—not so fast. Despite all the ups-and-downs, services have carried on at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in one way or another through the second year of the COVID pandemic. Things have changed a bit and these days I’m on campus much more than a year ago. Throughout the pandemic, demand for services at the IDL has remained high with over 2,400 ID requests in 2021.
Since COVID first popped up, there have been some subtle shifts in lab statistics—an increase in the percentage of samples solely involving digital images (vs physical specimens) and an overall increase in the proportion of cases coming from the public. Considering the pandemic, this makes sense. Over the last two years, campus buildings and the IDL have been closed to visitors at various points, meaning that clients couldn’t drop off samples. In other cases, it might have been tough to make it to a post office or the UPS store to ship a sample in. Likewise, with many folks working from home, it likely led to more time out in yards and gardens, or visiting local parks or hiking trails—and more time to notice insects.
Looking back at the cases from this last year, 2021 was a unique year due to our unusually hot and dry weather conditions in Wisconsin. Based on data from the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, Madison was quite warm and saw an extra ~500 growing degree days in 2021, but was down about 15 inches of precipitation for the year. Some parts of the state were even hotter and/or drier than Madison and most of the state was categorized as either unusually dry or in some stage of drought during the year [US Drought Monitor].
The weather conditions this year led to some shifts in the insects and related arthropods seen at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. A pest that had been relatively quiet the last decade, Lymantria dispar (formerly known as the “gypsy moth”), thrived with the dry conditions this past spring. In “rainy” years, a beneficial fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) can “kick in” to help keep their numbers in check. If 2022 is another dry year, we could be in store for even more problems from this invasive species. Certain mites also thrived this year and I saw a large number of cases of eriophyid mites causing damage to plants ranging from coneflowers to garlic. Springtails weren’t necessarily more abundant (they feed on decaying plant matter and thrive under damp conditions), but I suspect the hot & dry conditions sent them looking for any place darker, damper, and cooler. This led to lots of reports as they were trying to invade structures.
We’ll likely continue to see the impacts of the 2021 drought for some time. Plants, including established trees and shrubs, also suffered from the drought and this will likely lead to an increase in reports of “secondary” insect pests in the next few years. Certain insects can be generally “well behaved” and leave healthy plants alone, only to attack stressed and weakened plants. As an example, cases of the two-lined chestnut borer (a notable pest of oaks) often increase 1-3 years after a drought, and I’m expecting to see more cases in the coming years.
In the realm of medical entomology, it was a good year for ticks both in Wisconsin and other parts of the US. Black flies (Family Simuliidae) had another strong year in many parts of the state, although calls about these were shifted a bit earlier than in previous years (likely due to an “early” spring). If there’s a silver lining to the drought, it’s that mosquito pressure was down in Wisconsin for much of the summer. As we received a bit more rain in the latter half of summer we saw some late season activity, but disease pressure remained low (only three West Nile Virus cases in Wisconsin, compared to 50+ in a “bad” year). As recreational and work-related travel increased a bit more in 2021 compared to 2020, I did see an uptick in reports of bed bugs.
With the Asian giant hornet garnering attention in the news for the second year in a row, I continued to see lots of reports of cicada killer wasps, pigeon horntails, great golden digger wasps, and other large insects. Unfortunately, with the sensationalized hype about “murder hornets” (ahem—New York Times…) I had plenty of reports of other large harmless insects that were killed simply because they “looked big and scary” (one particular photo of a tomentose burying beetle comes to mind…). Overall, the Asian giant hornet story was really pretty quiet this year, with a limited amount of activity in a small part of the Pacific Northwest. As of December 2021, the Asian giant hornet has not been found in Wisconsin or anywhere close to us.
I had plenty of reports of social wasps (yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and paper wasps) as well as bumble bees this year—including three reports of the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee in the same week in early August! We missed the Brood X “cicada craze” here in Wisconsin, but I still had plenty of questions about them from reporters. We will, however, see some periodical cicadas (Brood XIII) in 2024 in southern Wisconsin.
On average, I see 2 – 3 new, non-native insect species show up in Wisconsin every year through my work at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab (3 so far in 2021!). I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts, but humans make excellent accomplices in moving species from one spot to another on the globe. This last spring, I saw one of the most interesting cases of my career which highlights this point exactly.
Like any good globetrotting adventure, this story involved a rugged, adventurous mode of travel—a Jeep. This particular Jeep had been imported in late 2020 and after a period of time in the eastern US, it eventually wound up in a small town in central Wisconsin. Unbeknownst to the owner of the vehicle, this Jeep also contained unexpected insect stowaways.
These insects managed to survive for months sheltered within the Jeep and would become active when the vehicle was in use—unexpectedly wandering out of nooks and crannies, much to the displeasure of the driver. Obviously, this isn’t something a new car owner wants to see, so a pest control professional was consulted about the insects and they got in touch with me at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab to figure out what the specimens were. In the initial conversation, the mystery insects had been described as “stink bugs” and I figured that overwintering nuisance insects like the brown marmorated stink bug might have been involved. The photos, however, hinted at something far more puzzling.
By this point, I had been running the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for six years and hadn’t seen anything quite like the insect in the photo. I requested a sample to get to the bottom of this mystery under the microscope. I handle so many cases at the diagnostic lab (~2,500 annually), that I can generally identify most specimens to family (or perhaps even genus or species-level) with a quick peek. In this case I was utterly perplexed, meaning I had to run it through a general family-level taxonomic key for the true bugs (Order Hemiptera). In Borror and DeLong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects the specimens keyed out to the Family Heterograstridae.
An asterisk is always a surprise when you encounter it in a taxonomic key. It generally means one of two things: you either took a “wrong turn” in the decision-making process (and misidentified the specimen) or it’s something rare or highly unusual. Something seemed amiss, so I consulted a few other keys to further confirm the Family Heterogastridae. In North America there’s only a single genus (Heterogaster) from this family and three species known from the west coast of the US. The specimens in my possession looked markedly different. Because the Family Heterogastridae is mostly a footnote in the western hemisphere, it’s hard to find information on this group of insects.
This is why geographic clues can be so important in diagnostics and why I request this information with every sample at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. Knowing where a specimen was collected and/or originated helps tremendously in learning more about it. Through follow-up conversations, I learned that the Jeep was manufactured in and imported from Melfi, Italy—meaning there was a good chance I was looking in the completely wrong hemisphere for the information needed to identify it.
This led to many evenings of armchair sleuthing. During this process, I’d like to imagine myself as Jason Bourne tracking down members of an international conspiracy while a suspenseful soundtrack blared in the background, but in reality I was mostly just locating pdfs of scientific papers and using Google Translate. Such work could have taken months or even years a few decades ago, but was now possible in the matter of a week or two.
Thanks to Interlibrary Loan and other online resources, I tracked down manuscripts from a half-dozen European and Middle Eastern countries in multiple languages and spent hours pouring over posts on Italian and French insect forums looking for clues. I finally found my answer in a scanned pdf version of Jean Péricart’s Hémiptères Lygaeidae euro-méditerranéens, vol. 1., which identified the specimens as Platyplax inermis—a species associated with Salvia spp. plants in the Mediterranean region.
Wisconsin is home to roughly 150 species of butterflies. Some of these, like monarchs (Danaus plexippus), are well-known and easily recognizable. Other species can be more subtle in appearance (such as the “skippers”) or may not be particularly abundant. Nonetheless, we occasionally see localized “booms” of certain butterfly species from time to time. This year, the hackberry emperor butterfly (Asterocampa celtis) has taken the stage in some parts of the state.
In the last month, I’ve had more reports of hackberry emperor butterflies at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab than any other butterfly species. These reports have primarily come in from southcentral and southwestern Wisconsin. In some cases, hackberry emperors have been spotted by the thousands as they covered rural roads or transformed backyards into temporary live butterfly exhibits. Hackberry emperors primarily occur in southern parts of the state where the food plant of the caterpillars (hackberry trees) can be abundant; they’re also known from parts of central and west central Wisconsin.
Hackberry emperors are mid-to-large sized butterflies with a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. Their brownish-orange and black wings are somewhat similar to certain other butterflies (such as the “Satyrs”), which can make identifying them a bit more challenging to the uninitiated. Luckily, there’s a distinctive row of black spots on the wings—one distinctive spot on the topside of each forewing and seven slightly smaller spots on each hindwing. When the undersides of the wings are viewed (such as when the wings are folded upwards at rest), these black spots are bordered with a bit of yellow, giving them an “eyespot” appearance. A close relative and look-alike, the tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton), lacks the large black spot on each forewing.
Adults butterflies often serve as pollinators when they visit flowers for nectar, but hackberry emperors have slightly different behaviors. They prefer to head to oozing tree wounds for sap or decaying plant materials in compost piles. They’re also fond of salts and can readily be spotted at puddles (a phenomenon simply known as “puddling”), at dung or carrion, lapping sweat from humans, or on roadways.
After overwintering as partially-grown caterpillars, hackberry emperors complete their development in late spring with two broods (batches of adults) in southern Wisconsin. We see the first batch of adults in June, with the other in August, so we may see more of this species later this summer. If you’re located in southern Wisconsin, keep an eye out for these abundant butterflies in 2021.