Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Carnivorous Butterfly: Harvester

First we will start our story by introducing these fascinating critters-woolly aphids. These cute little bugs look like tiny puff-balls. They float through the air, looking like fluffy cottonwood or thistle seeds.

My friend, John Howard, captured this photo of the miniature beasts. They almost look like little fairies. When you encounter a large group of them on a stem, the whole plant appears to be moving. There are many different species of woolly aphids, all specific to the plants they dine on, and many are considered pests.

Then enters the predator, the Harverster butterfly, Feniseca tarquinius. Oh, it looks innocent enough. They even have a sweet look about them, with their little upturned "nose". The adults are fairly friendly, sometimes lighting on ones finger. I was able to get really close to this one before it decided to fly away. Adults will hang around woolly aphid colonies and lay their eggs amongst the aphids.

When the caterpillars hatch, they ruthlessly snack on the aphids. The scientific name, Feniseca tarquinius, alludes to this behavior. Feniseca means "harvester" and Tarquinius was an evil king who ruled in Rome from 534 to 510 BC and was expelled for his cruelty. Ah, I love scientific names! Here is a picture of the "cruel harvester" from Bugguide. The Harvester is the only known carnivorous butterfly caterpillar in the United States.

Some of the Harvester caterpillars will cover themselves with the carcasses of the woolly aphids they have eaten. They attach the bodies to them with caterpillar silk. The aphids woolly exterior makes them distasteful to most predators, and protects the caterpillar from its enemies. It also works to fool the ants that guard the aphids and keeps the caterpillar from being attacked. Many different species of ants will guard aphids. They protect them in exchange for honeydew, a sweet substance the aphids produce from the plant juices they consume. The ants will stroke the aphids with their antennae and the aphids will release the honeydew. If anything threatens the plant the aphids are on, the ants will come running to bite the would be intruder.

The adult Harvester has a short proboscis, so it cannot reach the nectar in flowers. Instead they feed on aphid honeydew, dung, carrion and mud. Because of this, Harvesters are rarely seen. We do have records of them here in Indianapolis, so keep your eyes peeled and you might be delighted to see this beauty with the interesting life-cycle.



Linsi said...

Awesome! Violence, betrayal,and sneaky tricks are what I look for in a good butterfly story and this one has all three! Thanks for all the great info!


Eva Lyford said...

Thank you for your detailed post on the harvester butterfly, and the detail on the wooly aphid! I just moved and saw some of these fluffy white bugs hovering about - I had no idea what they were! Thanks to your post I could identify them as wooly aphids. Now perhaps I can try and spot a harvester butterfly too. FYI my pic of (what I think is) the wooly aphid - http://twitpic.com/8f6wi the ones on my property look like mini-albino-peacocks with long plumage.

Adrienne in Ohio said...

I wish I could get some eggs of this butterfly. We have beech trees that get absolutely infested with these aphids every summer. The honeydew that drops to the ground attracts yellow-jackets. Sure would be nice if a harvester would take care of that for us!

Simone said...

I'd like to know whether John Howard would allow me to use his excellent pics of the Woolly aphids in a butterfly field guide I am working on. Any way I can get in touch with him?

Janet Creamer said...

Hi Simone,

Please e-mail me privately and I can get you John Howard's contact info.


Untapped Mind said...

Hi there, I've seen them here in Galesburg, Illinois just recently! They're all over my yard. :D I thought they were faeries too when I first saw them but I looked close and they were cute little fluffy bugs! Thanks for the article and the picture is grand!