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A beautiful bad bug. June 7, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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After months of battling the hideous, tank-like brown marmorated stink bug here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home I share with Silence Dogood in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, our friend Ben was thrilled last night to head to the bedroom and discover a really beautiful bug on our coverlet. It was a gorgeous small green moth, one I had never seen before.

The moth itself was small, about the size of one of the little blue butterflies we see outside in summer. But it looked bigger because of the shape of its wings, which were more oval than triangular, and the way it held them out horizontally when at rest on the coverlet, my hand, or the closet door. Because it obligingly flew up onto my hand, I was able to hold it to the light and get a good look at it. Its slender body was a pale sea green, and while the wings appeared to be the same color, under the light I could see slightly darker emerald green separated by white striations.

The last I saw of the moth, it had left my hand and settled on the closet door for the night. Even Silence was awed by how beautiful it was, and, of course, by the endearing fact that it hadn’t tried to get on her.

This morning, the moth was nowhere in sight, but our friend Ben was determined to ID it and headed for my good friend Google to seek assistance. There, on a helpful site called BugGuide (http://bugguide.net/), my beautiful little green moth was waiting. And there too was the reason this post about a beautiful and harmless little moth is called “A beautiful bad bug.” It’s because this moth, Dyspteris abortivaria, bears the bizarre common name of “Illinois Bad-Wing.” 

Why? Its wings looked perfectly good to our friend Ben and Silence, and gorgeous besides. I had to know more. Backtracking a bit on BugGuide, I found the motherlode of info on this little green moth, which apparently is better known simply as “The Bad-Wing,” since its range is throughout Eastern North America from Quebec to Florida and west to Texas and Manitoba. And it’s the only species in its genus in all of North America.

Whew! That explained why an Illinois moth had turned up in a Pennsylvania cottage, but there’s a better reason it was here: Its preferred habitat is near edges and woodlands, and its larval host plants are grapes and Virginia creeper. We have both in abundance here at Hawk’s Haven. (The site noted that adults “likely do not feed,” which sadly means that their lives are probably measured in hours rather than days. No wonder we’d never seen one before.)

Other facts provided by the site (along with plenty of photos) are that the adults fly from mid-April to August, produce two generations a year, and have wingspans of 20-28 millimeters. (Thanks for the U.S.-friendly data, guys; that would be .79-1.1 inches for us metrically-challenged types.)

But what about that wacky name? Oh, yuck. The site provided a full explanation of it, and it’s not pretty, unlike the moth itself. No, the moth doesn’t go around sucking the blood of sleeping stinkbugs (unfortunately), setting fire to cats’ tails, or sending photos of its unmentionables over the internet. It’s completely harmless. Instead, let me quote the awful explanation of how this poor, maligned creature got its name:

“Called ‘The Bad-Wing’ because the small hindwings are difficult to pull into position for pinning. The name of the genus also means bad wing—from the Greek dys (bad, difficult) + pteron (wing). Even the specific epithet abortivaria doesn’t sound good [our friend Ben could not agree more], perhaps suggesting that various attempts or methods of pinning the wings have been aborted.”

In case you’ve never seen an old-style insect case and can’t imagine what “pinning” means, in the bad old days, after insects were killed by stuffing them in a jar with a chloroform-laced sponge (these days, apparently nail polish remover or ethyl acetate on cotton balls is the method of choice, though I also found advice for freezing them in canning  jars), they were removed and pinned into position on a display board. Butterflies and moths were typically pinned with their wings extended, while beetles could be pinned either way, with their wing-covers closed or open with the wings extended.

Our friend Ben thinks The Bad-Wing moth should sue entomologists for defamation of character. But I digress.

Let’s leave this dismal topic and look on the bright side (in the immortal words of Monty Python). Our friend Ben and Silence were treated to the sight of this gorgeous creature for two reasons.

First, we’re organic gardeners, so we’re not dumping pesticides on our grapes and killing off caterpillars. And second, we know how important it is to wildlife of all types and stripes to encourage landscape diversity. We allow milkweeds and Virginia creeper to grow in our gardens and on our trees and trellises, and we have a grove of pawpaws because we know that, besides providing beauty for us, they provide shelter for birds and food for caterpillars (monarchs in the case of  milkweeds, zebra swallowtails in the case of pawpaws) and other creatures (including us in the case of the pawpaws). 

Thank you for visiting us, little green moth. You’ve enriched our lives. We hope to see many of your relatives in the not-too-distant future.

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