Category: Projects

Angle Shades larva "Angie", 29 March 2013

And hopefully I’ll be a good steward as I feed her up to mothhood!


Merry Easter!

The retreating snow unburdens the lawn

The retreating snow unburdens the lawn

Merry Easter everybody!

It may be the last week of March, but in the UK and particularly here in Nornia and in Scotland, the white dragon of winter has mounted a late attack, making it more like Christmas than Easter, and even then not very festive for the hundreds of families suffering power outages, 16ft snowdrifts and huge losses of livestock.

The snow fell about half a foot to a foot in my garden but a few days of sunshine is thawing it well. The daffodils got a bit flattened by the weight but are mostly OK, with the petals pushing through and not far off blooming. Leafburst has been well underway on the elder and the roses for weeks, and are both now awaiting the onslaught of aphids. The black aphids which came to the elder last year provided a good amount of honeydew which the moths went mad over, including a Peach Blossom, so I’m hoping this year is a repeat!

There’s a bit to catch up on from this past month, and this will probably be my longest post for a while – or should be, since it’s That Time Of Year again, when exams take over and lepidoptery takes a hit. Most of my major exams are over by the second week of June, but anyone who follows this blog knows how hollow some of my promises to write-buckets-when-I-have-the-time have been! So we’ll see how things go.

Big changes are happening in my life this year, most notably I’m moving to St Andrews in September to take a four-year biology degree (with a bit of physics and chemistry on the side). Before that, I’m going to Switzerland. For a two-week mountaineering expedition. In July, when it could well be total lepidopteran overload. It hasn’t quite sunk in yet…

Back a bit… my first macro of the year

A few weekends ago I was in Ballintoy at our school Christian Union weekend. As we were leaving the hostel on the Sunday morning our guest speaker Sam Scott called me over to see something on the wall…

Pale Brindled Beauty

Pale Brindled Beauty

Here's lukin at ye

Here’s lookin at ye!

It was a moth!! My first macro moth of the year, and one I had never seen before – a beautifully-marked Pale Brindled Beauty!

Another pretty special mothy moment.

Back a bit further… Projects 29A and 31A

In one of my posts last year, “Where was I?“, I gave a short taste of what I was doing for about a week in August – going out early to inspect moth traps with recorder Andrew Crory in Murlough, then spending a few hours looking around bushes for leaf mines and larger caterpillars. It was the maddest, mothiest time of my life and I made 351 records in August alone! Only a few found their way onto The Caterpillar. But there were two caterpillars in particular that got much less attention on the blog than they should have.

After helping inspectthe traps one morning, I started out on my walk. I found two little Stigmella confusella caterpillars in a birch leaf, which I collected (but in the end had no success rearing), and then further up the path I dislodged a tiny caterpillar from a hawthorn bush:



On closer inspection, it was not only tiny but very funky indeed. So that’s what I called him.

Later on in my walk, I dislodged another tiny caterpillar from another hawthorn bush…

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 10 Aug 2012


On closer inspection, it was not only tiny but very smiley indeed. So that’s what I called him!

It took me a while to figure out what they were, but Funky turned out to be a Brimstone Moth while Smiley was a Coxcomb Prominent. Safely in a pot, they ate a lot of hawthorn and by September had turned into…

Funky... and big!

Funky… and big!

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 6 Sep 2012

Smiley, and big… but lost his eyespots!

These very impressive caterpillars then pupated for the winter, and here they are now, in the insect cage I borrowed from school (and will have to leave back at some point because I’m leaving in under 3 months…)

Funky and Smiley!

Funky and Smiley!

Funky (the Brimstone Moth) spun a cocoon under a leaf above soil level in the jar, while Smiley (the Coxcomb Prominent) burrowed into the compost and made a cocoon there. And there they pupated. You can just see Smiley’s red-brown abdomen showing through where I opened the cocoon.

Of course, I’ll need to re-bury Smiley’s cocoon as the moth will probably need a good struggle on his way out to get the haemolymph flowing. Hopefully the weather will warm up soon and they’ll be out! Whether they’ll make it back to Murlough is another matter.

And back to the present

Today, I went into the back garden primarily to take that photo of the cocoons, but also to have a look for any lepidopteran life on the rose bushes. And whaddya know?

Who is it? Who is it?

Who is it? Who is it?

The unmistakable bright banded green of a caterpillar peeked out from behind a newly-unfurled rose leaf. It was déja vu, an Angle Shades caterpillar on the same plant on which I had found my very first Angle Shades caterpillar (“Rosebud”, project 3A) three springs ago.

So what’s this one going to get called? Well, quite simply, “Angie”.

Say hi to Angie! Angle Shades ~ Phlogophora meticulosa

Say hi to Angie! Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa).

The first project of 2013 begins.

Ongoing projects:
Project 29A: Brimstone Moth in pupation stage
Project 31A: Coxcomb Prominent in pupation stage
Project 3B (New!): Angle Shades in larval stage

Pale Brindled Beauty and Angle Shades caterpillar bring the year list to…
2013 MOTHS: 2, 2e, 1t 

And finally, a shout out: huge congratulations to Alastair Herron (a friend of mine from right here in Nornia) who just got offers from Harvard and Princeton. Some of you American folks mighta heard of them… 😀

A Smiley Caterpillar

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 6 Sep 2012

The spectacular Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar

After all the mad leafmining caterpillars I adopted over the summer, with varying success, it was nice to get back to the much simpler macro caterpillars. This is a Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar, which I collected from Murlough less than a month ago. It’s grown very fast since then (compare 10 Aug, below, with 6 Sep, above), moulting at least twice, and is probably still munching his hawthorn leaf as I type.

I called him Smiley as soon as I saw him. Why?

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 10 Aug 2012


That’s why. 🙂

[Project 31A: Coxcomb Prominent]

Where was I?

In July – too busy with work to have any energy for blogging… in August – at a caravan with basically no internet access. But now I’m at the library at good ol’ Newcastle, County Down, and I’m in the mood for bloggingood!!! (well, I had to make it rhyme somehow)

I’ll start off with a bang…

Lesser Swallow Prominent; Murlough NNR; 5 August 2012


This, my dear readers, is a Lesser Swallow Prominent moth. Over the past week I’ve been joining a friend of mine, Andrew Crory, a volunteer who regularly puts out UV light traps at Murlough NNR near Newcastle. The light traps attract moths by the dozen (and flies by the million as well as ichneumons, bees and beetles) and in the morning – bingo, you get a box full of beauuuuuuuuuuuutiful moths like this one.

My moth year list is over 240 now and my life list must be approaching 270. It’s getting ridiculous now!

A few more nice pics from the traps before I start typing again:

Antler Moth; Murlough NNR; 6 Aug 2012

Antler Moth

Scallop Shell; Murlough NNR; 6 Aug 2012

Scallop Shell

That’s just a taste – there were loads more and once I get home Flickr will be duly bombarded with all the photos.

A technique that’s also been very useful for finding new stuff is looking for leaf mines. These are distinctive squiggles/blotches/blisters made on the leaves of many different plant species by many different insect species. One of the most common leafminers has to be Stigmella aurella, which I mentioned at the start of the year:

Stigmella aurella larvae mining Rubus sp.; Murlough NNR; 5 Aug 2012

Stigmella aurella larvae, mining some kind of Rubus (Blackberry/Raspberry) cultivar

Well, we knew THAT one was in Murlough, but Andrew and I think we’ve found about 6 new moth species for the reserve in the space of about three days. Noooooo joke.

So you can see the attraction.

Incidentally, I’ve collected some of the tenanted mines (ones with the larvae still in them, as opposed to vacated mines that the larvae have left) and am rearing them. Those three caterpillars above have now all exited their mines and are pupating in tiny brown cocoons on the leaves.

I also have 1 Phyllonorycter coryli (pupated), 1 Ectoedemia minimella (which has left the mine but might not pupate – it’ll be a difficult one as it has to overwinter) and 3 Apple Leaf Miners, Lyonetia clerkella (all pupated). Bringing them into the warmth seems to make them go into pupation mode pretty much immediately. They must know to take advantage of warmf.

The Apple Leaf miner has the coolest pupation technique – it doesn’t make a cocoon. It makes a hammock.

Apple Leaf Miner (Lyonetia clerkella) larva in pupation 'hammock'; Slidderyford, Newcastle; 1 Aug 2012


Well, brethren, my time is short so I must fly. But at some point… I’ll get round to talking about those cute tern chicks I think I mentioned. If I can bring myself to. Working during the summer holidays, even paid work, even for the RSPB… really demands motivation. But it’s been very good and I’ve loads of photos, which mostly look the same from a distance.

You’ll see what I mean.

EDIT 04.01.2013: I should have said, actually, to do him justice, that Mr Crory is a volunteer warden at the reserve, and its principal moth recorder.

EDIT 28.03.2013: In fact, he has now been appointed Macro-moth Recorder for Northern Ireland!

Checking on my pupae on the morning of 21 June, I was delighted to find a perfectly-formed male Buff Ermine!

Buff Ermine male, emerged 21 June 2012

Who’s looking at you?

I waited a few days to release him in case the other moth would emerge and I could release them together or see them mate. After two nights on 23 June, with no signs of the other pupa making a move, I released him on our geranium.  I kept an eye on him I did some dusking, searching for moths in the garden that night. He buzzed off around a quarter to midnight.

Unfortunately, the other Buff Ermine wasn’t so healthy. It emerged a week later on 28 Jun… or at least tried to. I found it in the morning, half-emerged from its pupa, but when I checked on it later in the day it had made no progress. It was actually stuck. It had also secreted a black fluid from the sides of its head (I think this is a defensive/stress reaction in moths of this family).

Buff Ermine female, emerged 28 June 2012

Unfortunate little moth.

This obviously meant that something was wrong – the moth must have had some deformity. Plus, the wings had dried out unexpanded so it would never be able to fly. At this point I knew that the only way to give it a chance at surviving to mate was to peel the pupal case off its abdomen. (Normally one should never interfere with emergence but this was an exceptional case.) I did this without injuring the moth, but even with the pupal case removed the moth seemed unable to walk. Its legs could move vigorously enough, but the back ones were translucent and seemed too weak to pull the moth along.

I released it in the garden anyway. It probably didn’t survive.

Why? Well, I suspect it may be due to the fact that the caterpillar pupated on a flat surface. As the pupal case is initially soft, turning hard, this meant the pupa gained some flat surfaces – and this may have harmed the development of the moth. Actually, I think the crippled Cinnabar moth’s pupa had the same problem.

Not the most uplifting blog post, I know. But hey, I released one healthy moth into the wild and I learned another lesson. So it’s OK. 🙂

Absolutely extraordinary

This photo will take some explaining.

Ruby Tiger male and Cinnabar female; Murlough NNR; 9 June 2012

A Ruby Tiger… and a Cinnabar. WHAT???!!!

The good news is – both my Cinnabar moths emerged from their pupae on the 4th (“Cindy”) and 8th (“Cecelia”) of June!

The bad news is that when the first one emerged I didn’t realise the critical importance of giving the moth peace and quiet to pump up its wings. The wings of butterflies and moths begin as small sacs which have to be pumped up to full size, flattened and dried over the course of some hours before the moth can fly.  And if you make them feel threatened, which I probably did by coaxing it onto a stick, they stop concentrating on their wings and go into survival mode, staying still or running away.



And so Cindy never pumped up her wings. It may not have been completely my fault – she struggled to get the exuvium (chrysalis case) off her wing, the abdomen seemed to be lacking most of its black scales and there seemed to be dents on the thorax, suggesting she was deformed anyway. Nevertheless, a wakeup call.

What a depressing story. But you’ll be pleased to know that four mornings later it was a perfectly-formed Cinnabar that emerged from the second pupa!



On 9 June, I returned to the spot where I had collected the original four caterpillars last July, to release Cindy and Cecelia. And this is the part where I explain the photo above.

I had released Cindy and was just about to release Cecelia when a male Ruby Tiger moth came whizzing into the vicinity. Never ceasing to buzz his wings, he landed on my hand started crawling over my sleeve. The strange thing was that his genitals were extruded… obviously he was very excited indeed! Then he began crawling over ragwort plants near where Cindy was, before flying off over the hill and away – just as I managed to clear space on my SD card!

A bit galled at not getting any good photos, I went on with releasing Cecelia… and then the Ruby Tiger returned! This time I caught it to get some photos. When I released it, it got very excited again… and mounted the crippled Cinnabar moth!!!

Ruby Tiger (male) mounting crippled Cinnabar (female), 9 June 2012

Male Ruby Tiger (left) and female Cinnabar (right)

Two moths of different species shouldn’t be doing this. The only explanation for this behaviour is a chemical one. The Ruby Tiger detected a pheremone given off by the female Cinnabar moth, which must have been changed by the moth’s deformity (or the honey water it had been drinking) to be similar to the scent of a female Ruby Tiger moth.

Weird or what?

Ruby Tiger (project 2B), Murlough, 13 Jul 2011

I usually name my children. (!!!) Say hi to “Ron” 🙂

For those of you who haven’t been following this blog and/or don’t know me, one of my favourite hobbies is rearing caterpillars. It all started when I was primary school age: during the summer the nasturtiums in our garden would become infested with Large White butterfly caterpillars. One time I decided to collect three of them, put them in a container which was supposed to be used as a wormery along with some nasturtium leaves, and see what would happen.

Unfortunately I never got to see what happened – they all escaped (I suspect my sister had a hand in it, but I’m not sure) and the two that we found crawling around upstairs were promptly placed back outside.

Although nothing came of it and although I never made any notes and although I haven’t even the foggiest idea what year it happened, I consider it such a pivotal moment in my life that I called it “Project 1A”.


Since then, I’ve worked with more or less 22 species of butterfly or moth. The projects may be rearing projects like Project 1A should have been – I find the caterpillars full grown, young or sometimes not even hatched out of their eggs, and take them home. I feed them leaves and keep them in sheltered containers as they grow, pupate (enter the ‘crysalis’ stage of metamorphosis) and eventually emerge as butterflies or moths. Then I release them exactly where I found them.

My first major project, when my ‘inner butterfly’ at last fluttered into live in late 2009, was my ‘Brown Furry Caterpillar Experiment’ (project 2A). I described this project in detail in my post last year “My caterpillar rearing projects: Ruby Tiger“. It involved 8 Ruby Tiger caterpillars which I collected from Murlough NNR – half I kept outside over the winter where they hibernated, while the other half I kept indoors. In the warm conditions the latter four began the pupation process. I hoped that they would all turn into moths, that they would mate and I would be able to release lots of eggs in the spring! Sadly two had parasites, and another died for no apparent reason, leaving only “Ruby-wan-kanobe” – she emerged from her pupa as a beautiful little red-brown moth but had no-one to mate with.

Happily one of the outside caterpillars, “Ricky”, successfully pupated and was released back where I found it in Murlough in the springtime.

Since then the Ruby Tiger caterpillar has become the figurehead of my blog.

Blog Figurehead: Ruby Tiger caterpillar (project 2A), 20 Feb 2010

Recognise him?

Not all of my projects are so extensive as that one. Sometimes I just collect pupae and give them a bit of safety in a jar until they emerge. In some cases the project just consists of keeping an eye on a particular species in an area (eg. the Marsh Fritillary, project 6. In this case it would be illegal for me to collect the caterpillars as it’s an endangered species).On one occasion I collected sawfly larvae (related to wasps, bees and ants) by accident (project 14A). Another time I collected a dead Knotgrass caterpillar, thinking it was alive (project 10A)!

Unfortunately the living ones don’t all make it – disclaimer: this is usually not my fault. Oftentimes they’ve been parasitised by ichneumon ‘wasps’, Tachinid flies or had fungal infections.

But I admit, I have had some ‘haemolymph on my hands’ (that’s insect blood, spot the entomological metaphor-hijack). It’s never intentional – last summer I collected a whole batch of Cinnabar moth eggs by accident (they were on a Ragwort leaf which I collected to feed my Garden Tiger and Ruby Tiger, projects 5B and 2B). It is incredibly hard to muck out a jar with twenty-six tiny caterpillars in it, and in the unsanitary conditions I lost them all (project 15A).

Cinnabar caterpillars (project 15A), 27 Jun 2011

Lovely things caught in unfortunate circumstance


But “what about now, what about today?

The story is…

Project 13B: Mother of Pearl (Pleuroptya ruralis)
Sadly this caterpillar, which I collected from the nettles in my neighbour’s garden a few months ago, has died while preparing to pupate. I don’t know what killed it.

Project 15B: Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)
After the disaster with the batch of 26 eggs, I collected four large, healthy caterpillars from Murlough, two of which successfully pupated and are still pupae at this very moment in time. As with all my other pupae, they are in soil in a jar in my back yard, and when they emerge it’ll be a matter of taking lots of good photos and releasing them back where I found them.

Project 16A: Buff Ermine (Spilosoma luteum)
This is probably one of my most successful projects: I found two of this species of caterpillar in my back garden (they were quie young) and fed them various weeds as they grow from 25mm to over 40mm. Like the Cinnabars, they have spent the winter as pupae, and appear to be still healthy.

Project 17A: No-one has the foggiest idea what this one was.
Five large plain green caterpillars on a very distinctive scented herbaceous plant, and I don’t know what either of them are. I posted pictures on Back Garden Moths to see if anyone on this forum could identify the caterpillars – but to no avail. One of the larvae, “Pippin”, I collected and it pupated but unfortunately died. This was the pupa I described in my posts “Gutted” and “Ungutted” – I thought it was dead, then I thought it moved (as pupae of the Noctuid family can). Now I’m sure it’s dead – it appears to be decomposing. Yuk.

Projects 18A and 19A: Garden Carpet and/or Flame Carpet (Xanthorhoe sp.)
A green ‘looper’ caterpillar I found on the wall in my back yard is now a pupa – this is project 18A. I don’t know whether it’s the same species as the five loopers I had on a wild plant in my back yard around the same time (project 19A), two of which I collected for pupation but which died. Hopefully the pupa has survived the winter and should emerge soon and shed some light on this identification mystery.

Project 21A: Lesser Yellow Underwing (Noctua comes)
The pupa, which I found as a caterpillar in my back yard earlier this year, is still healthy – it wiggles when I touch it! It will probably be the last of my pupae to emerge.

Project 22A: Wood Tiger (Parasemia plantaginis)
This project began and ended last weekend at the family caravan at Murlough. I collected one Wood Tiger caterpillar from Murlough on the Saturday and it began pupation prep: spinning a silk pad on its container as a base for a cocoon to pupate in. I decided to release it the next day as I already have too much on my plate! Besides, it will be much happier to emerge in the place where it belongs, and not have to endure a car journey from Newcastle to Belfast and back!

This has probably been the longest post I have ever written! Please don’t tell my teachers I spent two hours doing this when I should have been revising!!

Metamorphosis begins

Lesser Yellow Underwing caterpillar (project 21A), 7 Apr 2012

A face that only a moth-er could love!

In an earlier post I introduced “Lesley”, the Lesser Yellow Underwing caterpillar I found in my back yard last month. Since I brought him indoors he’s been devouring elder leaves, growing to an impressive 47mm!

Lesser Yellow Underwing caterpillar (project 21A), 8 Apr 2012

Part moth, part ostrich.

On 8 April I found him with his head buried in the compost I had put in the bottom of his container! The caterpillars of many moth species pupate underground, and this is exactly what Lesley was preparing to do. In the following 9 days he completely buried himself, and made a small ovoid cocoon of silk and compost which he diligently repaired each time I made a hole to look inside! On the evening of 17 April I had another look inside, and rather than a pale caterpillar it was a dark red pupa that I saw!

Lesser Yellow Underwing pupa (project 21A), 18 Apr 2012

Lesley's Makeover

And so, after this photo shoot, I moved him back outside, in a peanut butter jar with compost, a twig to climb on when he emerges as an adult moth, and the all-important Holes In The Lid.

That makes seven pupae in jars under the cotoniaster bush. I am going to be one busy father some day soon.

Project 21A: Lesser Yellow Underwing

‘Twas Aprillig

I’ll let the slithy toves do the gyring and gimbling. Here are some photos from my weekend jabberwocking.

Our front garden

Kiss my tulips.


Hebrew Character (released from trap), 1 Apr 2012

I put the trap out again over Saturday night and got another two Hebrew Characters, both fresh specimens, and both actually inside the trap!


Speckled Wood, Murlough, 1 Apr 2012

My first Speckie of the year, in Murlough on Sunday.


Small Tortoiseshell, 1 Apr 2012

Finally - a decent Small Tort photo. None of this faffing around in trees business.


Shoulder Stripe, Murlough, 1 Apr 2012

I had my net with me this time when I went dusking in Murlough, and found a few of this species: Shouder Stripe. A new tick for me. Double-striped Pugs as well... all the Stripes.


Mother of Pearl or Small Magpie caterpillar (captive, project 13A), 1 Apr 2012

Ah yes. As well as Lesley, I've got a nettle leafroller that I'm keeping inside as well. It's most likely Mother of Pearl, but possibly Small Magpie.


2012 MOTHS: 6, 2L
  2012 new ticks: 4
  life list: 140 

Species study 13, project B: unidentified Pyralid

Lesser Yellow Underwing caterpillar, 01 Apr 2012

LESser YELlow Underwing... Lesley!

My latest caterpillar rearing project is a caterpillar I found in my back yard last Wednesday — a Lesser Yellow Underwing. It’s a moth I’ve never seen before so I’ll be taking very good care of it to make sure it reaches adulthood this summer.

Lesley, as I’ve called it, is a bit like a Weeping Angel (out of Doctor Who). It does move around and eat quite a bit, but every time I go to look at it it’s stock still. This is probably its response to light and/or movement (it’s a nocturnal caterpillar so every time I turn off the light to look at it it stops  what it’s doing).

It moulted a few days after I collected it – the photo above is post-moult. I’m not sure what instar it’s at — probably last or penultimate as these caterpillars  reach around 40mm and it’s currently 32mm. It’s very fond of elder leaves.

I’m keeping it indoors in an ASDA lemon yoghurt tub with airholes, 1.5cm of compost in the bottom, a pine twig to climb on, and the all-important vegetable matter.

And that’s project 21A in a nutshell.

Species study 21, project A: Lesser Yellow Underwing (Noctua comes)