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Lepidoptera I Have Met

I have to admit I lost interest in butterflies and moths after I learned a little about them in school eons ago. However, I do know a Swallowtail butterfly from a Mourning Cloak, or a generic Sulphur butterfly (there are a bunch of different species of them!) from a Luna moth, but that was about as far as I'd ever taken my knowledge. I have recently discovered that taking photos can lead to cool opportunities to see different kinds of insects and be challenged with trying to capture their images. If I manage to get a decent image, then it's back to the online search engines to try to identify just what it is I've captured. I've located a couple websites where I can upload an image and request a more positive ID, and it's fun to feel like I've even stumped the experts when I don't get an answer back for several weeks, although that lag is most likely because they have limited review capacity.

Photo of a resting Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta)
Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta)

In no particular order, here are a few of the butterflies and moths I've managed to capture (no insects were harmed in the process either, except as noted in the last paragraph).

This nearly black beauty is about three inches long, and was resting/sleeping on the sunny side of a tree in the campground where we were staying at last fall. We watched it on and off for a couple hours, but of course it flew away while we were out on a drive. I submitted photos to a butterflies and moths website a few months ago and just got the identification back. It's a Carolina sphinx moth (Manduca sexta) - the adult stage of the tobacco hornworm. The larvae are large, bright green with white stripes and a long "horn" at their tail end. They especially love tobacco, tomato and potato plants, and can strip a plant of its leaves pretty quickly. When the wings of the adult are open, six (the sexta in the Latin name) orange spots on each side of the adult's abdomen are visible; there's another that's very similar but has just five orange spots. Most common in the eastern US from Massachusetts to Florida, and in the Caribbean as well as southern California, they're occasionally seen throughout the country. The maps I've seen that track various sightings only have about eight positive IDs in Colorado, so I felt pretty fortunate to have seen one.

Photo a small brown moth called a Rannoch looper moth (Speranza bruneata)
Rannoch looper moth (Speranza bruneata)

This tiny brown guy was tough to find any information about. His body is just over an inch long, and even though they often rest with their wings upright like a butterfly, it's a species of moth called a Rannoch looper (Speranza bruneata or Macaria bruneata). They're named because the larvae make a distinctive looped shape as they move. My favorite butterflies and moths website has less than two dozen verified sightings, so again, I felt pretty good about seeing one and getting its picture! The sighting maps show them along the Rocky Mountains from southern Wyoming up to Alaska, and around the Great Lakes. This individual stayed in the shade at the campground with me for at least a half hour before going on with its day.

The moth below found its way into our carport a couple years ago and I was intrigued by how drab it looked in the shade, compared to when it was sunlit. It's a Luciana underwing (Calocala luciana), or Shining underwing in Canada. Its wingspan is about two and a half inches so it would be a little more than double the size of a common miller moth. This is another species

A Luciana underwing (Calocala luciana) moth resting on a screen
Luciana underwing moth (Calocala luciana)
Photo of a Luciana underwing moth (Calocala luciana) resting in a shady place
Same moth resting in shade

that I wish I'd been able to photograph with its wings open. The hindwings have large, bright orange and black stripes. It's considered fairly common throughout the US, but vulnerable in Canada. But like the Speranza, little seems to be known about these moths other than they become more visible between August and October, apparently have a single brood, and can be baited with sugar.

Next, there is the second-biggest moth I've seen, and the largest I've ever managed to photograph. This beauty is a Black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata), only just a little smaller than a Luna moth, with a wingspan of between four and nine inches. As you can see, this one

Photo of a Black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata) on a wall
Black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata)

is resting on a 2x4, and the wood panels were about eight inches wide, so it's quite large. My flash really picked up the shiny scales on the wings, highlighting the prominent comma-shaped "eyes" at the upper edges (these are very noticeable on every photo of a Black witch that I've seen). The overall color can be anywhere from nearly blonde to almost pitch black. The stripes vary in color from gold to a silvery-gray, or green, or purple, probably depending on the angle of light (I saw a photo of one where the stripes and trailing edges of the wings were a marvelous peacock-blue). Females have the lighter stripe through their wings; males don't have it. They're quite common in the US, Mexico, the Caribbean, and as far south as Brazil, along with a few northern sightings even into Canada. The name comes from Brazil, where they are called "bruxa-negra" ("bruxa" literally means ugly old woman, and can also mean witch), because, sadly, many South American and Caribbean cultures viewed them as harbingers of bad luck or death. They're migratory, and like Monarch butterflies, migrate north over the course of successive generations. Each generation lives only a few weeks, so the thousands of miles they travel is pretty impressive (which caused me to think the one I photographed might be fairly young - its wings weren't tattered yet). One of the stopover ranges for these moths is within the southern US, where they feed on various species of acacia (mimosa), mesquite, and locust trees. In the rainforests near the equator, over-ripe fruit such as bananas are favorite foods. The larvae, however, can be agricultural pests, stripping plants of their leaves. It makes me appreciate the Designer and Creator of these small organisms, that each generation "knows" which direction and how far to travel. Computer coders recognize something like this when they write variations of the simple "if x, then y" command, but for this coding to be at the level of DNA is simply awe inspiring.

Photo of a Checkered white butterfly (Pontia protodice) resting on the seedhead of a Western salsifyhite butterfly (P
Checkered white butterfly (Pontia protodice)

So far, I haven't captured many butterfly species - having only two to mention. The one that really started me on this journey of trying to find out more is the Checkered white butterfly (Pontia protodice) pictured here. It was apparently sleeping on this seed head and never moved although I took a number of photos from different angles. These tiny butterflies used to be seen everywhere throughout North America, although they are less common now than historically. They can be found in pastures and fields, weedy or sandy areas, and in disturbed areas like roadsides and railroad beds in the spring and fall. Again, the larvae can be pretty pesky - host plants include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage and turnips. (See? These kids eat their vegetables!!). This particular butterfly was probably a male, as they have fewer spots on their wings than females.

Photo of Sulphur butterflies feeding on chamisa, or rabbitbrush flowers
Sulphur butterflies feeding on rabbitbrush

Finally, there's a reason I mentioned "generic" Sulphur butterflies. Although I submitted photos for identification at the same time I sent in the photos of the Sphinx moth, I haven't heard back on these yet. I suspect they'll be ID'd as Clouded sulphurs, and not Orange sulphurs or Pink-edged sulphurs, but I'm not positive of that. Many Sulphur butterflies look very similar, and it can be the range where they're seen that's the determining factor. For example, some of the sighting maps show Clouded sulphur butterflies in western Colorado, but not Orange sulphurs. Both species are ubiquitous in the US, and in fact, we saw literally millions in motion where we were camping near Grand Junction in early October. Less common are the Pink-edged sulphurs; they are seen most frequently in Washington, Idaho, western Montana, and then skip over to the same latitude of Minnesota and east from there along the Great Lakes.

Photo of sulphur butterflies feeding on chamisa, or rabbitbrush, on a sunny day

I spent nearly an hour near the chamisa, or rabbitbrush, next to the visitor center at the campground trying to photograph these butterflies as they fed. Even though the sun was bright, my shutter speed wasn't quite fast enough to capture some of them. Several interesting facts about sulphur butterflies is their short life-span of three days to three weeks; there are three flights per year; they migrate (from where to where, I have no idea!); they lay their eggs singly on host plants, including alfalfa and various clovers

Photo of sulphur butterflies feeding on chamisa

(apparently some larvae are cannibalistic and will eat each other if too close together); and in some places, late-hatching larvae will hibernate until the following spring. I've seen these or similar butterflies many times over the years, but this was the first time I'd ever seen them in such numbers. It was impossible to avoid hitting them when driving; the grill of a semi we saw was literally yellow from all the butterflies it had hit. The few individuals I got photos of represented only a tiny fraction of the thousands of insects swarming the flowering plants around the campground visitor center, and some fields were just a sea of moving yellow.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this little interlude into science, along with the documentary photos! And I hope you'll explore other pages of my website,, for photo art suitable for your home or office. And a plus! I'm going to be part of a small group show in Manitou Springs, Colorado, in March, so check my blog in the next couple weeks for more information and a preview of some of the images I'll be showing.

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