Monday, August 22, 2011

mid-summer gloaming

mid-summer gloaming --
on the pink surprise lilies
 a moth probes for nectar

Coming home in the evening, the cluster of lilies under the shagbark hickory shines in the fading light like a troop of pink trumpets. Grandma called these delicate pink flowers "naked ladies" or "surprise lilies," because it's always a surprise when they shoot up on bare stems in August, months after the leaves have died. I catch some motion above the blossoms. It looks and sounds like a hummingbird, but it's late in the day for them to be out. It's got to be a moth. When I cautiously approach, the moth doesn't seem to be a bit bothered by my presence. It continues to dart from blossom to blossom, probing for nectar with its proboscis. It has pairs of yellow bands on its abdomen, but I can't tell whether it's a Carolina sphinx moth or a Five-spotted hawk moth. The adults look quite similar, as do their larva, fat green caterpillars with white stripes and a horn on the tail. Both larva feed on the same plants: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and tobacco. The larva of the sphinx moth, the tobacco hornworm, has seven diagonal white lines on its side, like little cigarettes, and a red "horn," while the larva of the hawk moth, the tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped markings and a black horn. Both larva are parasitized by the braconid wasp, which lays its eggs on the bodies of the caterpillar. The caterpillar I photographed earlier in the year is nearly smothered in white eggs, while several Asian beetles seem to be feeding on the eggs. What an amazing life cycle, through a series of greatly diverse forms and behavior, from egg to larva to pupa to moth and then all over again.

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