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Wildlife news from the woods

Nessus Sphinx Moth


As we walked along our dusty county road we noticed a weird flying “thing” that looked like a small hummingbird. I took these photos and later did a bit of Googlin’ to find that it was a Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis), one of forty-five species of North American sphinx moths. What caught our attention ,more than anything else, were the two brilliant wasp-like yellow bands across the dark back of its abdomen contrasting with the delicate patters of chocolate brown and cinnamon.


The Nessus has converged to look uncannily like a hummingbird. The Nessus is not only hummingbird-like in the proportions of its short plump body and small propeller-like wings, but it has a most bird-like short tail at the tip of its abdomen, and, unlike most sphinx moths, it is day-active. Another weird feature of the sphinx moth is its super-long “tongue.” Gene Simmons should be humbled.


Most caterpillars are silent herbivores, munching on their vegetation of choice; but members of the hawkmoth and sphinx moth superfamily (Bombycoidea) are much rowdier. When a hungry bird shows too much interest and pecks at one of these delicious caterpillars, the insect lets out a startling cry. ‘This is really remarkable, considering that caterpillars are not considered to be “acoustic” insects’, says Jayne Yack from Carleton University, Canada. the relatively few caterpillars discovered to make noises, the young Nessus sphinx hawk moth hisses when tapped by lab forceps. 




Family: Sphingidae

Subfamily: Macroglossinae


Identification: Body is stout; abdomen has 2 bright yellow bands and a tuft at the end. Upperside of wings is dark red-brown. Hindwing has a red-orange median band and a yellow spot on the costal margin; in some moths the median band ranges from pale to almost absent.

Wing Span: 1 7/16 - 2 3/16 inches (3.7 - 5.5 cm).

Life History: Adults fly during the day and at dusk. Caterpillars pupate in shallow underground chambers.

Flight: . Several broods in Florida and Louisiana from February-September, two broods in coastal South Carolina from March-May and July-September, and one brood in New York and northward from April-July.

Caterpillar Hosts: Grape (Vitis), ampelopsis (Ampelopsis), and cayenne pepper (Capsicum).

Adult Food: Nectar from flowers including lilac (Syringa vulgaris), herbrobert (Geranium robertianum), beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis), mock orange (Philadelphus coronarius), and Phlox.

Habitat: Forests, streamsides, and suburbs.

Range: Nova Scotia and Maine south to south Florida; west to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Colorado, and Texas.

Conservation: Not usually required.

NCGR: G5 - Demonstrably secure globally, though it may be quite rare in parts of its range, especially at the periphery.

Management Needs: None reported.

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Bugs and Such

We get ancient visitors in the neighborWoods.


Snow Fleas (aka Springtails)

 These sturdy, wingless creatures (which are not really fleas) are known as “Springtails” and technically (in Wisconsin) as Hypogastrura nivicola. They are members of a group of acrobatic arthropods called Collembola (kol-LEM-bo-la).

In the winter, when the sun heats the snow, springtails climb through snow layers to congregate on bare spots at the bases of trees or on the snow itself. Most insects cannot survive in snow, but snow fleas actually thrive in it. Whoohoo!

A spring on their abdomens, called a furcula, snaps suddenly when released, propelling the animal into the air. Springing is an effective way to evade predators, such as mites and beetles, but they can't control their trajectory so they look like they’re aimlessly bouncing around. They can crawl too, so its not all chaos.

Ancient Earth Inhabitants

Collembola have distinguished themselves as some of the hardiest creatures that have ever lived on Earth. Over 6,000 species have been described, and their evolutionary success can be attributed to several factors: They eat just about anything, including their own droppings, or nothing at all.

Collembola date back to long before dinosaurs, to the middle Paleozoic era, about 400 million years ago.  During that time, the land began gradually to carry a patina of the first true plants. Their remains were discovered in a glassy rock called chert. The chert had hardened from marshy soils at the edge of a small lake, and with those first plant fossils was found the remains of snow fleas.

Researchers deprived them of food for up to four years in the laboratory and Folsomia candida actually thrived when fed DDT. It was hoped these creatures could be used in decontamination work, but researchers discovered that they were transforming DDT into DDE, which is almost as toxic (Drat!). Collembola can also endure very hot and cold temperatures, with species found in Hawaiian volcanoes and in the Antarctic. 

Do Springtails belong to the massive class of “Insecta”, or should we consider them insects at all? Some scientists think they resemble crustaceans more closely. Perhaps they deserve their own class entirely,,, as many believe.

Life Cycle

Springtails reproduce quickly, going from egg to adult stage in as little as four to six weeks. Mature males leave packets of sperm cells in the soil where they live. These are picked up by females as they lay their eggs, either in packets or singly. Depending on temperature conditions, the eggs hatch within five to ten days.

Nymphs resemble the adults. During the five or six weeks they spend as nymphs, they go through several stages before becoming adults, molting and becoming larger in each. Outdoors, springtails can survive through an entire season, reproducing a number of times. Indoors, they can live up to a year.

Bother or No Bother?

These tiny bugs do not bite or sting and are generally harmless to humans. But they can be unwanted house guests as they are drawn to damp areas such as a basement drains. Their presence indoors can be an indication that moisture, and possibly mold, is present. Remove the moisture, remove the springtails. Springtails do little damage to plants. They will chew roots in the soil and can inhibit plant hardiness, but rarely do major damage.

>> It’s reassuring that in this age of concern for nature, there are creatures so adaptable that almost nothing us humans do bothers them… and they don’t really bother us either. It’s a win-win!

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