Photo of the Week – November 14, 2014

The praying mantis is an impressive predator, especially when it’s a Chinese mantis the length of a ball point pen.  The ones who live around here seem to have a particular affinity for sphinx moths.  I haven’t yet watched the capture take place, but I’ve seen the mantises (mantes? mantids? critters?) devouring their fuzzy prey several times, including one I photographed last year.  Almost exactly a year later, I took the following photos at the same prairie.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth.  Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

A Chinese mantis feeding on a sphinx moth. Lincoln Creek Prairie; Aurora, Nebraska.

You can see from the photo how well this mantis can hide – it is exactly the same color as the pitcher sage (Salvia azurea) plant it was hunting on, and its shape and texture blend in perfectly.  Other mantis species around the world have even more sophisticated camouflage, which almost seems unfair.



After watching the mantis for a little while, I decided to try out the video function on my camera.  I’ve been trying to do a little more video work lately anyway.  If you’ve always wanted to see watch a mantis eat up close – and who wouldn’t want to?? – here’s your chance.  The barking in the background is from the dogs in the nearby animal shelter who were apparently excited to watch a prairie ecologist take video of a praying mantis…

My favorite shot of the day was this last one.  There is sure a lot of personality in a mantis face…

"Just trying to eat here... do you mind?"

“Just trying to eat here… do you mind?”

Chinese mantises are, of course, not native to the U.S., but as far as I can tell from bug-smart friends, don’t seem to be having any major negative impacts (neither are they providing the kind of “pest control” they are often introduced to provide).  Some introduced species have certainly become major ecological disasters, but it seems the Chinese mantis is just a new predator for prairie insects to watch out for, and for prairie enthusiasts to enjoy watching.

(Now would be the appropriate time for entomologically-savvy readers to correct my ignorance on the topic of the Chinese mantis and its impacts.  Please do.)

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Hummingbird Moths

A guest post by Anne Stine, one our Hubbard Fellows.  All photos by Anne.

I adore hummingbirds, and I sometimes bemoan their rarity in my new home here on the Platte.  I grew up thinking they were better than fairies- they are cute, ferocious, and they migrate long distances despite their small size.  While hummingbirds themselves are scarce in this part of the country, “hummingbird moths” are abundant.  Hummingbird moths are so-named because they hover and fly like hummingbirds, sip nectar, and are approximately the same size as hummingbirds. I never noticed hummingbird moths growing up, so since moving here it is as if hummingbirds dropped out of the system and were replaced by enormous insect imposters.

Hummingbird moths, or sphinx moths, are large, furry, and active in the day.  Their caterpillars are called “hornworms” because they have what looks to be a long horn extending off their rumps.  Most of these larvae have multiple potential food sources.  Around here, likely food plants include four o’clocks, wild grapes, elms, and evening primroses1. While some species of hornworms eat crops like tobacco and tomatoes, they are infrequently a pest requiring treatment.  In fact, with their propensity to eat undesirables like Siberian elms and weedy species like four o’clocks and evening primrose, one could even characterize them as beneficial.


Hornworm larvae, possibly of white-lined sphinx moth?

There are two broods of sphinx moth annually, one emerging in spring and another in fall2.  Hornworms pupate in shallow excavations in loose soil1.  In the past few weeks I’ve encountered hornworms attempting to dig their burrows in our driveway at the crew house. Of the adults, I see the white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) most frequently.  Twice they have been attracted to my brightly colored clothing (pink shirt, orange shirt).  The moths hovered around investigating me for nectar reserves.  I’ve seen them feed on a variety of flowers, so they must not be too picky.

Hummingbird moths are an intriguing substitute for hummingbirds. Hummingbird moths are widely distributed across North America, so it would be interesting to learn if their role as pollinators takes on a greater importance in areas where hummingbirds are absent.


White-lined sphinx moth, front view.



White-lined sphinx moth, side view, proboscis unrolling.


from back

White-lined sphinx moth, back.