Mega-moths in the City

June 6, 2014

Have you see this moth flying around Los Angeles? My friend Kat has. She got up-close and personal with one when it flew in through her balcony window a few months ago. It was a sultry spring evening and Kat was minding her own business until something flew into her Mid-Wilshire apartment. At first she thought it was a hummingbird as they're always flying outside her window, but as she got closer she realized it wasn't a hummingbird at all, but rather a large moth. Being a fellow nature-lover, she captured the creature under a glass jar, snapped a picture, and helped it back outside.

Saving the moth. Photo courtesy of Kat Superfisky. Then, she texted me the picture with this caption: "what is it?" Instead of trying to write a lengthy response, I called her and told her all about hummingbird moths — the bird imposters of the moth world. Hummingbird moths belong to a group of insects in the family Sphingidae, which are also known as sphinx moths or hawk moths. This particular individual was a White-lined Sphinx moth, Hyles lineata, one of Los Angeles' commonest moths. Just like hummingbirds, these moths hover over flowers as they sip nectar. Being similar in size and wingspan to the dainty birds, they are often mistaken for hummingbirds — even when they fly in through your window in the evening. One big reason these moths are so common is their choice of host plants. White-lined Sphinx caterpillars can feed on a huge range of plants including, apple, grape, tomoto, evening primrose, elm, and fuschia. And, like their adult counterparts, caterpillars nearing pupation are large and showy, therefore hard to miss in your garden.

Check out the horn on this caterpillar, Hyles lineata. Photo courtesy of Lila Higgins. But, they're even harder to miss when they're crawling around on your desk at work. Which is exactly what happened to the Museum's Head Gardener, Richard Hayden. It was ten days after a Museum event, for which Richard had graciously provided cut flowers to decorate the cocktail tables. Before composting the Elegant Clarkia cuttings, he brought them back to his office, to brighten up his desk. While responding to e-mails, he noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked closer, and saw a huge caterpillar crawling over the flowers. Looking closer still, he noticed there were lots of caterpillars in various stages of development. Since we share an office, it didn't take very long for me to be marveling over the caterpillars too, and confirming Richard's guess that they were sphinx moth caterpillars! Around the same time, Museum gardener, Daniel Feldman, also reported adults in the garden via my Instagram account. "I've seen more than a few after ten minutes in the garden this morning...They seem disoriented!" But it wasn't just our gardeners finding them, our scientists were too. Lisa Gonzalez and Emily Hartop, Curatorial Assistants for our BioSCAN project, have been taking note. Every time samples are sorted from the 30 insect traps the project has set-up all over L.A, they document what has been found. They tracked the first appearance of a White-lined Sphinx moth back to the week of January 28, from a backyard trap in Eagle Rock. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In early March, the moths showed up in seven more traps — in Glendale, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, Pico Union, and even in the trap at Carthay Center Elementary School. Then in late March/early April the moths were found in ten traps including many of the same neighborhoods, but also including Silver Lake, Jefferson Park, Larchmont, Mount Washington. It was finally in this round of sampling that the moths finally appeared in the Museum's Nature Gardens trap. Now that summer is officially here, you may think you've missed these mega-moths. Don't worry, they stick around throughout the coming months. According to Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, "During the summer, adults often may be caught at rest near the lights of storefronts, even in the metropolitan area." So if you're out and about on nighttime adventure, make sure you keep your camera handy. If you find these moths attracted to lights at night, snap a picture and send it into our L.A. Nature Map. We just love sharing your nature sightings in the city!    

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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