MARCH
2011

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

03-24-11

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Brown Moths Enliven Spring Break


brown moth
Litocala sexsignata
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Spring break is a weeklong school recess. By definition, a recess is a break in the proceedings. We all are familiar with the idea of recess in elementary schools. Recess was playtime, a time that meant getting away from the business of education. You know, "no books or teachers' dirty looks" for a few minutes each day.

Spring break is designed as a vacation from school. It is a tradition practiced in schools throughout the world. Spring break is especially meaningful to high school and college students. Students of this age relish the opportunity to get away from their home or school. That is especially true if the location holds promise for a beach party.

My wife and I are way beyond the age of the spring break party crowd. But because it was spring break here at Purdue University it was a good opportunity to visit our son in Arizona. So we packed up and went to Phoenix. In the middle of the week it was road trip time, and we headed north toward Prescott. South of Prescott we crossed a bridge with a sign announcing, "Big Bug Creek." Like many Arizona creeks it was a hit or miss kind of deal - no water. We crossed that dry creek bed three or four more times, and each time I grew more curious about the origin of the name.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the first Big Bug Creek sign we began to notice insects fluttering about. Some actually committed suicide on the windshield of our car. Finally, I stopped to retrieve one from under my windshield wipers. It turned out to be a dark-colored moth with three yellow spots on each hind wing.

In Prescott I asked one of the fellows working in a store if he knew the name of the brown insects that we were seeing fluttering along the road. He said he didn't, but if his wife was there, she might know because in his words, "She was an expert on birds and things like that." However, when I quizzed him about the name Big Bug Creek he had an answer: "There are some really large bugs around here, and the early prospectors were so impressed that they just named the creek after them."

The next town on our route was Jerome. Situated a mile high in the mountains, Jerome is an old copper mining town that was once known as "the wickedest town in the West." It is now an artist and tourist town. We encountered a couple of the former and lots of the latter. One of the stores had some nice insect motif art, but the proprietor had no idea what the brown moths were, other than to suggest they were some kind of butterfly.

It was on to Cottonwood, a town named for the cottonwood trees that grow beside the Verde River. Once again the moths were plentiful, but no one knew what they were. Next stop was Sedona, where we did a jeep tour of the Red Rock country. We saw many of the moths on the tour, but the guide didn't know anything about them. However, he did know a lot about the rock formations and was dressed in a cowboy outfit similar to those worn by actors John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Ronald Reagan, in photos proudly displayed on the wall of the tour company office.

Down the road from Sedona we visited Tonto National Monument. It was a beautiful park with a natural bridge. Near the visitors center a flowering tree in full bloom was alive with insects in search of nectar. All kinds of bees and the as-yet-unidentified brown moths were swarming around the tree. The volunteer ranger said he didn't know what the moths were. He was a specialist in geology but did point out that there were four kinds of skunks in the park, as well as a herd of peccaries. So we enjoyed the park, snapped a photo or two of the moth in question, the natural bridge, and the peccaries foraging in the vicinity of the Porta Johns and headed back to Phoenix.

Back home, I identified those moths as Litocala sexsignata. This is a day-flying moth found in mountain habitats from California to Washington. The species name refers to the six yellow spots found on the hind wings. The caterpillars of the insect feed on scrub oak. Nothing like a flock of moths to liven up a trip over spring break!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox