Photos of the Week – September 25, 2020

Last week, while checking on our prairie, I noticed a couple big congregations of ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars. I found several clusters of hundreds, which was impressive. They didn’t seem to be tied to any particular plant species or habitat structure – just apparently random groups. The numbers were impressive.

Yesterday, I was back out at the prairie to catch the sunrise and I saw the caterpillar clusters again, but this time, there was a stark difference. Many of the caterpillars were way up high in the canopy – at the tops of grasses, forbs, and even fence posts. And many of those high elevation caterpillars were dead. Some were still intact, but others were withered or empty-looking shells of their former selves. The calm winds, dewy conditions, and warm-colored sunlight made for some great photography, but I spent much of the time distracted by the mystery – why were all these caterpillars climbing up high and dying?

It was easy to find caterpillars to silhouette against the rising sun. After about an hour, I ended up with over 50 different caterpillar photos I liked well enough to edit/process (including all my caterpillar shots, not just the sunrise silhouettes). I did not include all 50 here, but I was tempted… Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 400, 1/800 sec, f/11.
I count six caterpillars in this photo, including one at the very bottom (center) and two on the right side. There were patches of similar density the size of roughly a quarter to half an acre at a time. Nikon 18-300mm lens at 52mm. ISO 400, 1/125 sec, f/11.
Caterpillars on big bluestem. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/640 sec, f/6.3.

I believe the caterpillars I saw were larvae of the Virginian tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica). The species can be really variable in color, so while I found both pale creamy-colored caterpillars and almost bright orange caterpillars, they could still all be the same species. (It’s also very possible that there were multiple species – I’m not an expert on moth caterpillar identification!)

The climbing behavior reminded me of stories I’ve read and heard about insects that are attacked by parasitoids, fungi, or viruses that alter their behavior before eventually killing them. In the case of some fungi and viruses, insects are compelled to climb up high before dying, which helps the spores of the infecting agent spread widely after the larva dies. It’s certainly possible something like that is at work here, though the appearance/condition of the dead caterpillars I saw didn’t match the kinds of descriptions I found during an online search last night.

Parasitoids seem like a likely possibility – either flies or wasps. Stephen Spomer of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says he has seen similar behavior in the past with tiger moth larvae and has reared parasitoids from them (entomologists are the coolest…). However, neither of us could explain why parasitoids would stimulate climbing behavior. Stephen suggested there could also be multiple factors at work (parasitoids and fungi, for example). If so, that’s pretty rough for those cute little caterpillars.

Here’s one of the more orange-colored caterpillars I found. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/250 sec, f/9.
More caterpillars at the tops of grass stems. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/125 sec, f/16.
Here’s one that is clearly dead – still clinging to the stem, but not with any active muscle power. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/250 sec, f/11.
This dead caterpillar seems to be hollowed out, which I take as likely evidence of a parasitoid insect larva that fed on it. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/250 sec, f/13.

I did see some caterpillars that were still acting normally – crawling around on plants and feeding. They were also down at a more reasonable elevation in the vegetation, rather than at the pinnacle of the highest plant they could find. I hope they escaped whatever afflicted their colleagues and weren’t just in an early stage of infection that hadn’t fully kicked in yet.

I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who knows more about what I was seeing and can provide more explanation. I love a good mystery, but I love fascinating natural history stories even more. There’s got to be at least one good story here and I’d really like to hear it. It’s easy to feel badly for the caterpillars, and that’s certainly a reasonable emotion. At the same time, parasitoids and other possible infection agents also have an important role to play in controlling the populations of insects like this. I think it’s possible to feel bad for individuals while appreciating the broader picture that led to their affliction (even if we don’t yet understand that picture fully).

This one was still alive, but maybe not for long? Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/100 sec, f/18.
And another… Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 500, 1/200 sec, f/14.
This was one of the caterpillars that seemed to be acting normally – feeding on heath aster (Aster ericoides) and not climbing high in the prairie canopy. Nikon 105mm macro lens, ISO 320, 1/80 sec, f/16.

Tiger moths have been around for a long time and are likely to continue existing long into the future. I’m sure they’ve been dealing with whatever parasitoid or other organism is attacking them for a very long time. I’m fascinated by what I saw yesterday and would like to learn more about it. I also wish both organisms luck. The caterpillars that survive have a long winter ahead of them and the mystery organism will also have to get through the winter so it can continue its own life cycle next year. Complex interactions keep prairies healthy and resilient. Carry on, little friends!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

10 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – September 25, 2020

  1. Can you dissect any dead larvae for parasitoid larvae inside?
    Any dicamba or the like sprayed within a few miles? ( farm fields)?
    Our prairie got overspray this year and the insect life drastically reduced and most monarch larvae I was watching just disappeared.

  2. I recently read a column which was about beetles infected with a fungus which had the same behavioral effect of taking over the beetles’ nervous systems and compelling them to climb stalks of weeds and grasses. At that point the fungus extruded through the assorted joints and released its spores into the winds. Really creepy. I have found insects in our tiny prairie plot clinging and dead on tall stems. I have no idea what had taken over their bodies.

  3. I’ve seen grasshoppers sitting dead high up on grass stems.
    I just couldn’t understand it at the time.
    Now a fungi infection seems like a good theory.
    Thanks! :-)

  4. Once, many years ago (mid-90s), I was driving the back roads of Central NY en route to a conference and witnessed something I’d never seen before or since: herds of woolly bears crossing the roads. Plural roads – it wasn’t just one stretch in one location. And all going the same direction. It was very bizarre.

  5. Chris & Rick, if you are not already familiar with Bluestem Prairie, you may want to be.  Sally Jo Sorenson writes about rural prairies and conservation legislation and policy.  Guess what the main topic is today – you!!!  She has a huge following!


    From: The Prairie Ecologist Reply-To: The Prairie Ecologist Date: Friday, September 25, 2020 at 9:16 AM To: laurie schneider Subject: [New post] Photos of the Week – September 25, 2020

    Chris Helzer posted: ” Last week, while checking on our prairie, I noticed a couple big congregations of ‘woolly bear’ caterpillars. I found several clusters of hundreds, which was impressive. They didn’t seem to be tied to any particular plant species or habitat structure -“

  6. Pingback: Photos of the Week – October 9, 2020 | The Prairie Ecologist

  7. Pingback: Dead Bug Chronicles | The Prairie Ecologist


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