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2nd, 3rd, and 4th instar of Cercropia larvae

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The Life Cycle of a Woolly Bear

Close up of small white eggs – about 250

June 27. While gathering leaves for the cecropia larvae, (discussed in a separate post), I happened upon a huge clump of pearly white, round eggs, each about a millimeter big, on the underside of a leaf. My first estimate was that they numbered over 250. I believe they are Woolly Bears (Pyrrharctia isabella), but I am not entirely sure. They look freshly laid, might be a week before they open.

June 30. The eggs have faint black dots in their middles…a good sign.

July 2. Definite black spots, eggs will be opening soon. Can almost see the little larvae curled up inside. I am going to be really busy. At my dad’s house, I hope he has ash near by, I’m going to need a lot!

Feeding pattern of larvae – with left over of eggs

July 3. So the 250+ white eggs opened. I had an insane time trying to get them all sorted into their petri dishes and counted. I counted 260, plus or minus a few. They are barely 3 mm, grey, with a hint of fuzzy-ness. Very cute and hyper when “tickled” with my paint brush. Running around like crazy when prompted. Started them out with a mixture of oak, apple and maple leaves because I couldn’t find ash. The larvae ate all of their eggs shells, leaving just a fine layer where they had been attached, then started “moving out”. Started with dishes numbered 40:40:40:40 and 25:25:25:25. Took me two complete hours to do all this.

July 4. Too busy to spend the necessary time feeding, hope all is well.

July 5. The larvae are too small for my camera! My lens does not focus on that small, even through a magnifying glass, grrr.  I will get pictures of them as soon as they are big enough. They are very hyper and hungry. They eat by scraping off the bottom layer of the leaf instead of chewing from the edge inward.

July 6. They expanded overnight, and now the leaves look like the picture on the right, with only the veins left. Counted 254 larvae, they are blacker, and still eating like crazy.

July 7. Larvae appear even darker today, and numbers are down to 250. I am slowly getting faster at changing all these petri dishes, but it still takes me a good hour or more. Otherwise, nothing has changed.

July 8.  First molt has started, and the result are simply larger fuzzy grey/black larvae, who are once again ravenous. Started using tally marks to count them, got 249 today, in dishes of 18:22:24:24:40:40:40:41.  Still eating by scraping.

July 9. Same as yesterday.  I should note that before the molt, their hair was not very thick, and the body underneath was an almost shiny  grey-ish brown. Now they are fully covered in fuzz, can’t see the larva under the hair.

July 10. Too tired to spend all the necessary time, so just sliced up some leaves and added them to the dishes. Everyone looked fine.

July 11. All molting is complete. Larvae are now about 5 mm long. Counted 241.

July 12. Larvae are still growing, they are starting to eat holes in the leaves now, instead of just scraping. Average length is 6 mm.  counted 237, but might have miscounted.

July 13. Fed, but starting to get annoyed at this whole cleaning process.

July 15. Moved them to a two gallon container with large leaves spread across the floor in layers. This should give them more room, more food and I will have an easier time of feeding them. Counted 241 larvae, all of which fit nicely in this new “jar/home” of theirs. They are still about 6 mm, dark grey/black, and very hungry.

July 16. Everyone is eating and growing well, though some insist on climbing the walls, so I have to keep the lid on. Thank fully there is not enough moisture to fog the thing up…I will have to keep an eye on that though.

July 21. Took some days off writing notes, but have been feeding/adding leaves every day. They have grown considerably and filled out, might molt again soon. They are striping every leaf I put in with them, leaving just the veins. They have expanded to about one centimeter long. I can tell when they need to be fed because they start climbing the walls in search of food, which they are doing now, I shall feed them.

July 22. So, I opened up the container, and the first thing that crossed my mind was that they look like mini woolly bears. So, despite the fact that I named this post “Life Cycle of the Wooly bear”, I had no idea what they were until now. After having my mom and brother look at them, they confirmed my thought. I am raising 227 woolly bears! What am I going to DO with them all? If I let them all go as adults, I am going to have a population boom on my hands. If anyone wants any, or knows of any programs that could use about 200 larvae, I would be happy to know.

I will be adding pictures soon. 🙂

About the Author

I am a self made entomologist, and I am entering my sophomore  year at Cornell University for a major in entomology, after transferring from a year at the University of Maine, Orono. I graduated from Lee Academy in 2012.  I love pretty much anything to do with the outdoors, though specifically insects(duh), running, swimming, biking and Frisbee. I have raised larvae from their eggs since I was 7, and been fascinated with arthropods for as long as I can remember. I am creating this blog so that (1) I can better organize all the information I have gathered over the years, and (2) share my knowledge with others. I have always assumed I would write a book/identification guide at some point, and I see this as my first step. Happy reading!

Life Cycle of the Promethia Moth

Hello everyone!

Longhorn beetle on my window

So, in case you were curious, and even if you aren’t, the reason this blog has come to life is so that I can share my knowledge of the arthropods in Maine with you…And so I have a place to put all my knowledge, instead of just note books that clutter the shelf.  I have been collecting insect specimens, documenting their behavior, their life cycles, their everything that I can think to jot down in the notes I take on them after their daily feeding, since I was about 7. Many people ask me why I love insects. The best answer I have found so far is that they are simply a source of endless fascination. I love to tell the story of the “frog” in the bathtub, which ended up being a giant scarab beetle covered in cat hair. The next day, he had rolled all the hair that was on his back into a nice, neat little ball. I believe that was one of the first times I remember being curious about insects. After watching the movie Microcosmos – here is the link to it Microcosmos – From Netflix, I was totally enthralled. I highly suggest this movie to anyone, whether they like insects of not, it is simply a superb film, set in France I believe, it uses microscopic cameras and super sensitive microphones to pick up the sound and movement of various insects as they go about their normal lives.

So, I’ve had enough of the intro stuff. Lets get down to business.

Callosamia promethia moth adult

Early this summer, my mom and I were sitting on the porch one evening, marveling at the what a beautiful day it was, as well as the super fast, large dark insects that kept flying by too high to catch with a net. Looking up into the trees next to the house, we saw a huge cloud of these large dark insects. At first glance they looked like butterflies, but the coloration seemed only to fit a super dark swallowtail such as a black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or a pipevine (Battus philenor), neither of which are very common in our area. After about a half hour of neck craning and swatting black flies while waiting for one to come down low enough that we could net it, we gave up for the day. We guessed that at least one would get hit by a car in our area that night, and we were right! The next day, walking up the road, we ran across two, that were still alive. To our surprise, they were not butterflies. Instead, we identified them as Promethia moths, (Callosamia promethia).  We had seen at least 30, swarming at the top of a pine and ash tree clump, right before sunset. As a side note, the identification guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, by David L. Wagner is excellent, and what I use for most of my identifications.

Out of the two adults we found, one flew off, and the other, which I brought home intending to add it to my insect collection of which I will post pics later, started laying eggs on my hand. This is not the first time a large moth has laid eggs on my hand. When I was about 12, I found one while running to the outhouse at night, and bringing it inside, it had laid a bunch of eggs on my thumb. However I had wrecked the eggs trying to pry them off after the mother’s egg glue had dried. But this time, I set the moth on a tissue, and got the eggs off before they dried. The next day, that moth had laid me about 43 eggs.  The eggs are creamy white, with purplish blotches on them in random spots. The glue that the mother uses to attach the eggs to a surface is glopped on and dries like a hard brown resin. I have vowed to comment or make notes on these little guys every day such that each new development is noticed for future reference.

Promethia moth larvae right after hatching – about 3 mm

The eggs opened June 27. The larvae, about 3 mm long, were extremely cute. Yellow as the basic color, with tiny black stripes along the whole body, which are more prominent at the thorax and A13. There is a slight suggestion of spiny protrusions along the length of the body. The larvae proceeded to eat most of the egg shells , though avoiding the parts where they were glued down. First feeding was of Ash (Fraxinus nigra), which they began chewing right off, instead of scraping like many small larvae begin with. First head count resulted in 29 hatched, with a few eggs still to go. Using a fine paint brush to move them to petri dishes, where I will keep them until they get big enough for a jar. The ash I feed them has to be cut into small squares in order to fit into the dishes. The whole feeding process is going to be kinda tedious, but hey, it’s in the name of science…and it is fun, believe it or not.

June 28. I counted 41 live larvae, and two dead. Live larvae are lively and have expanded to about 5 mm in length. So far it appears that they are night feeders, and group feeders, as they line up on the edge of leaves and carve it down, with

Underside of larvae – So cute!

all their tiny frass collecting in a pile behind them. I have split them up into petri dishes of 12:12:17, to make it easier to count, and so they are not too crowded. I use a small magnifying glass with measurements in inches and millimeters when taking pictures so that my camera can spot the details.

June 29. Head count is down to 39. Most are visibly longer and thicker, while a couple are still weaklings, looking like they just hatched. Next feeding I will have to divide them up again to even out the numbers, as the dishes are down to 10:12:17. The longest larva is already 6.5 mm. Most are remaining in rows to feed.

June 30. Lost two more last night, hope these casualties slow down soon. The remaining 37 have an average length of about 6 mm, and small spines are visible on the thorax and end of the abdomen. They are very hungry…understatement. They are ravenous! In addition to feeding in rows, they also only feed on the bottoms of leaves. The cool part is that they find the true bottom of the leaf weather it is pointing up or down.

Promethia larvae feeding in rows

In other words, they do not feed based on gravitational pull, rather they prefer the softer underside to grab onto. That is my thinking. I am sure there is some other reason, but I have not yet found it. Changed dish numbers to 12:9:8:8.

July 1. No casualties! Yay! They are still feeding in rows, though consuming leaf area at a much faster rate. It is amazing how quickly these little creatures expand and develop in just a few days after hatching. Coloration is more evident now. Black and bright yellow bands, with the black bands being in pairs, and thicker yellow bands between the pairs, (see picture at right). Some of the yellow bands have two black bumps, placed on the back of the larva, where thin branching spines appear to originate. The head is black, with two horizontal yellow stripes across “forehead” and upper lip area . True legs are black, pro-legs and belly are pale yellow. Largest of the larvae is about 8 mm long and 1.5 mm thick. If jostled or picked up awkwardly, they will spit up brown liquid…I believe it is their stomach contents. Eew.

Close up of patterning and color – Promethia moth larvae

July 2. The larvae are doing very well, still no casualties and holding steady at 37 individuals. Interesting observation: Out of the four dishes of numbers 12:9:8:8, only the dish of 12 still eats in a large group, side by side. The other dishes are eating singly or in pairs. Larvae range from 5-8 mm and still growing, pooping, and eating a lot.

July 3. Now a week old, still 37, no visible size change, though eating a lot more.

July 4. Hope everyone had a good and safe July fourth. Personally, I was too busy to spend the long hours it takes to feed all my larvae (I am rearing more than just the tulip tree larvae), so I simply cut up some fresh leaves and added them to what was already in the dishes. I will clean and properly feed them tomorrow.

July 5. It is late and I’m very tired. I managed to clean and feed the tulip larvae before falling asleep, (needless to say, I am noting all this on the 6th…). Promethia moth larvae are almost all pumping themselves up to shed, or actually shedding, so the whole process of feeding them was very delicate, and I didn’t even bother trying to move them off the old leaves. I just changed the leaves that were bare of larvae.

Larva on my finger…this is the one I squished, oops.

July 6. Everyone is healthy after their busy night of molting. No casualties, (of unknown causes) or complications. However, one did die, due to a very stupid mistake of mine which I will now know never to do again. I was marveling at how large they are getting, and that they can actually hold on to my skin now. But that was the mistake. I picked one up and when I tried to pull him off like I do with larger larvae, his feet and guts stuck while the body moved…it was terrible. I felt really bad too, no deaths in a long time and I have to up and go mutilate one. Oh well, won’t do that again! On a separate note, the dish of 12 is getting crowded again, so I will be dividing it up again soon.

July 7. After their molts, the larvae have grown even more, and now measure 6-13 mm. Had to split up the dishes, now in numbers of 6:6:8:7:9. Might split them up again soon. Some are still molting and soft. So far their coloration and patterning is very similar to the past molt, their spiny protrusions are just a little bigger.

Just a nice picture – shows colors and camaraderie

July 8. Now that they are done molting, they are getting snappish about their space, so I have them in groups of 4 and 5. Still holding on at 36 individuals, I should probably switch them to jars soon. One of them is still at 6 mm, while two are at 14 mm, and the rest are between somewhere.

July 9. All are very healthy. My mom is working an ESL program for Jr. High kids from China, and I brought one of my dishes of larvae in to show them, as they have never seen a caterpillar.

I have tagged the dish so I know which one it was and I am going to show them the larvae again right before they leave, to exemplify how much these caterpillars can grow in just a week. Starting size is still that of July 8.

Molting larva in petri dish – bright yellow is new skin

July 10. Too tired to do a full cleaning. I cut up leaves and added them to jars, will do a better job tomorrow. Everyone looked healthy though.

July 11. Everyone is large, fat, and look like they should molt again. Most are over 10 mm  long, though two are still 6.5 mm. They are all very hungry, and starting to make and use silk wherever they go.

July 12. This is perhaps the neatest day so far. I began cleaning and feeding them right as their third molt began. In addition to some awesome pics, I managed to get 6 or more minutes of good video, which I will try to post later, showing one of the larvae shedding, and his buddy next to him pumping up to burst. Everyone is shedding well and easily, still 36 individuals! So yesterday I had mentioned that the larvae were using silk. Well the reason is that they spin silk pads on which to attach their anal prolegs. Then when they molt, their old skin is actually attached and they can simply pull out of it. Some times I wonder if they actually do have brains because that is a great idea!

Darkening after molt, can see some of later colors

July 13. Took a day off of feeding, as they are still soft, and some are still molting. Very delicate.

July 14. Simply added more leaves…will do a full cleaning tomorrow.

New contraption – can see water, leaves and big bucket

July 15. Today I got fed up with cutting up all the leaves into tiny squares, and then adding them to the petri dishes with tweezers, while making sure the larvae don’t get out with a paint brush…it was all taking WAY TOO LONG. Also, the summer heat keeps drying out the ash leaves before the caterpillars even get around to eating them. So, thanks to the internet, I have devised a much better system. Mom lent me a 5 gallon bucket that is clear and has a good lid, and then we took a smaller plastic container with a thin lid and punched holes in that smaller lid. We then put small branches with clean leaves into the holes, and filled the small container with water, and put the whole contraption into the 5 gallon bucket. Now the leaves won’t dry out, the larvae have a small bush to eat before I have to add more food, and everyone has a ton more room to grow. And I am very happy with my new-found free time. All 36 larvae made it through their molt. Almost all of the larvae are in their third molt, with two still in the first, and two still in the second. All are eating very well. The only problem that seems to be occurring with this new contraption is keeping the humidity down, but they don’t want to leave the leaves, so leaving the lid off is no problem.

July 16. Everyone is quite happy with the new arrangement, humans and larvae both. My mom is also happy because now she can see them, as opposed to when I kept them in little dishes in my room, out of her sight. I believe just over night they have all doubled in weight and almost size. The third instar has different patterning and coloration. The base color is a white-ish/blue-ish/green-ish color, very pretty, but can appear any of those three colors in changing light.

After first night in large container

Their heads are now yellow, with black spots, and about twice the size of the second instar’s head. Spiny protrusions are yellow on the thorax and A12, and have a shape like a  crown. All other segments are dotted with tiny black spines, in pairs of two on the top and side of the larva. Prolegs are yellow and much bigger, while true legs are still black.

After second night in big jar – about an inch long

July 18. I swear that each day they double in size, and get fatter and fatter! All third instar larvae are over an inch long, while the second instar larvae are quickly catching up. I still have two runts that refuse to exit the first instar, however they seem healthy enough. Most of the third instars are preparing to molt. They are still gathering in groups for this activity, which I don’t understand because it just seems to annoy them having something so poky nearby while molting. They are attached to large vein in a leaf, and tuck their

3rd instar before molt

heads under, similar to the pose often seen in pictures of the later instars. They are beginning to pump up the head and thorax region to the bursting stage. This might be a two day process.

Larvae of 2nd and 3rd instar getting ready to molt

July 20. Yup. It is a two day process. The first one popped this morning, and the rest are quickly following. It is a pretty insane to watch. A couple hours before their skin splits open at the head and the head separates, they begin this agitated thorax swinging thing where they drag their head across the leaf like they are trying to relieve an itch. Then their bodies start convulsing to pressurize the thorax and head region, and with each convulsion the old skin can be seen, bag like, sagging to their sides. A little while later, the four yellow knobs on the thorax begin to turn reddish, and a few minutes after that they pop. By pop I mean a cut opens up right above the head, the old head falls off, and all the pressure the larva has built up pushes the old skin back to where the larva simply steps out of it and is free. For the next half day or so, the larva will sit still, expanding to fill the new skin, and getting color to all its parts, as they are bright yellow when they first molt. So far, it appears the four thoracic knobs are going to be reddish-orange, and the one on A12 is yellow. All are much bigger. There are still rows of smaller black spines along the body length. I am going to wait until tomorrow to start changing their food, as they are still touchy.

4th instar right after molt…gaining color

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