Abbot’s Sphinx

Chopped down some grape vines today from a hoary ancient trunk that never gives up no matter how often I take out the clippers. It never makes grapes, just 3-story long vines that climb up and cover utility wires and everything else on the far side of the yard. Now I have blackberries planted over there, so between that and the wires, the grape vine has to go. The job done, I got the saw and walked over to my poor dead serviceberry tree next to the garden for the next phase of my chores when I realized I had a huge moth on my shoulder.

The startle reflex that happens when you realize a very large bug is in contact with your body passed, and I caught the moth on my hand — long, long legs; fat head and body (for a second I thought it was a cicada) and let it climb onto the dead serviceberry trunk. “Come look at this huge moth!” I called, and the kids came running. It must have been three inches across and its colors blended exactly with the tree. The moth’s wings were thin, like a butterfly that had just come from its pupa, and I thought at first that this moth too had just emerged and that we’d get to see its wings expand. I’d have to cut the tree down tomorrow instead.

I showed the kids the moth, including its injured wing; privately I assumed it wouldn’t make it for long. A moth that can’t fly can’t live. Just born, I thought, and already doomed. But maybe as the wings plumped out it would get better. It found a spot opposite the direction of the shining sun and sat motionless. “See the yellow under its wing,” I said. “See the little thing on its tail.” I took a few photos and we went inside for lunch. After the kids were settled in I went back to see if the wings were getting any bigger. I wanted them to be bigger, so I believed they were, but when I looked at my photos I saw that the moth was the same as it had been before.

Abbot’s sphinx moth on dead serviceberry tree

Sphinx moth finally came into my head. Right — that’s what it was. I knew sphinx moths because of the huge green tomato/tobacco hornworm (it’s hard to tell which one) we’d had years earlier in the garden that had turned up with rows of parasitic wasp eggs sticking out of its back. It sat there frozen–and then slowly deflating–as the wasp larvae consumed its body from the inside over the course of several days. Tomato/tobacco hornworms become five-spotted sphinx moths and Carolina sphinx moths.

But this one was neither. I looked it up in the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Abbot’s sphinx. A bee mimic, like the astonishing snowberry clearwings we’d seen hovering around a butterfly bush last summer on Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor. I was sorry I would probably not get to see this one fly. I learned that Abbot’s Sphinx moth mothers lay their eggs on grape leaves; I hoped that I had not just destroyed this one’s offspring. I hoped that I had not been the reason its wing was damaged. The year before I’d planted a lot of flowers for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators — wild flowers, or wild-looking flowers, some native, and this year they were coming in beautifully. The male Abbot’s feeds on nectar after dusk. The female stays hidden until after midnight.

See the yellow under the hurt left wing?

Later we came out to move it back by the grape vine stump, the blackberry brambles. I had been thinking it was a sitting duck for whatever bird liked to eat Abbot’s sphinx moths sitting out there on the serviceberry. Earlier that day I’d seen a grackle flying over with what looked like a snake in its mouth. (If it was a worm it was a really big worm.) We love our little brown garter snakes –there are always several in the yard getting warm under rocks — so I’d already been bummed out by predators once that day. “Hawks gotta eat too,” as my dad used to say, but how often was I going to find something like this?

My oldest asked to carry the moth himself and he gently nudged it onto his hand. This time its wings began beating at high speed, like a hummingbird; it made a buzzing sound but could not rise. We carried it over the five or six steps to the blackberries. Its wings kept buzzing; I could see the yellow. Once again it crawled until found a spot opposite the direction of the sun’s light, under some green leaves, and then went absolutely still. I went out some time later but could not find it again.


by Antonio Machado, translated by Robert Bly (excerpt)

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error! —
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.

And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures



Lawns Are Dumb: Exomala orientalis (Oriental Beetle)

After work today I went out in the yard to see what bugs I might find. Here’s one which my Kaufman field guide (an actual book, with pictures and text and stuff) along with Google search leads me to identify as an “oriental beetle,” also known as the “Asiatic beetle.” This is different from a Japanese beetle. According to, the oriental beetle is an invasive species in the scarab beetle family that first appeared in the United States in the 1920s. Larvae live in the soil and eat the roots of grass and ornamentals, and can become pests on golf courses and such. (We always have lots of grubs living in our yard dirt so it’s interesting to see what they grow into.) The adults emerge in late June and July, so this is probably one that recently hatched. They are sometimes found on flowers — like this cosmos daisy.


(Just a phone photo, my camera batteries were dead.)

Did a little bit of research and according to the work of Henry Facundo, who got his PhD in Cornell’s International Integrated Pest Management program in 1997, when they’re ready to do the deed the females bury their faces in the dirt and the males first hold her to mate, then, as she digs into the soil (presumably to lay her eggs) the male not only continues holding onto her but also proceeds to grab and hold into any other males that come by to see her, sometimes for hours at a time. Also, “the mating sequence was highly stereotypic (stereotypy index, SI = 0.92),” which I only add because wow, there’s such a thing as a “sterotypy index??” Wonder how I might score.

“Based on these behavioral findings, synthetic pheromone traps were used to predict grub densities in a golf course in 1995 and 1996 at Bethpage State Park, Farmingdale, NY. There was a significant positive relationship between trap catches during the peak of the mating season and the grub densities ….” (Henry Tagalog Facundo, “The reproductive ecology of the oriental beetle, Exomala orientalis (Waterhouse) (Coleoptera:Scarabaeidae),” Ph. D. thesis, Cornell University, Aug., 1997)

As you can see, the pest management idea here is that if you attract and trap lots of male beetles during mating season with pheromones, you can reduce the number of grubs created. Facundo’s PhD advisor at Cornell was the famous entomologist Wendell Roelots, who in the 1960s pioneered research in insect chemical communication, “achieving major breakthroughs in the chemical identification, characterization, and biosynthesis of insect pheromones and the ways in which insects perceive and respond to pheromones. This work has important implications for basic and applied biological sciences and the worldwide importance of his work is reflected in numerous awards and honors.” (From his bio on Cornell’s website.) In 1989 he and a colleague published a letter to the editor of the New York Times describing the importance of pheromones to biological pest control and the need to reduce the “regulatory burden” created by classifying pheromones as pesticides.

Me, I don’t have much use for golf courses, at least the chemical- and water-intensive way they are now maintained, other than that they probably prevent the building of suburban houses, parking lots, etc., and that they get people outside walking around. (I’m sure there’s at least one nature essay out there by a golfer.) Also you can sled on them in the winter.

Still, wanting to have perfect lawn grass in a golf course or at your own house not only seems like a big waste of time but also evidence of totally wacky life priorities. In my opinion. Not to mention the enormous quantities of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and fossil-fuel-powered maintenance equipment involved in keeping the grass in this unnatural state. My brother Ray told me about a neighbor who left threatening notes in his mailbox because Ray was the only one on their suburban street who didn’t hire someone with a truck to come out and poison their dandelions every year. (They had about a zillion of them. In blooming season you could pick out their lawn, covered in yellow dots, from blocks away, which helped because in that neighborhood every house looked exactly the same and I always drove past it when I came to visit.) He didn’t mow them all that often either. Fun for the kids though. You can’t make dandelion crowns or test your friends to see if they like butter or blow the puffball seed heads without them.

Lawns. I went down on the train to watch the ginormous climate change march in NYC last summer and took a lot of pictures of the signs people were carrying. (The march went on for hours so I took a LOT of photos.) This was one of my favorites (it’s a 2-sided sign).

First side.
Second side.

Go ahead, Exomala orientales grubs. Eat all the grass. Then when it’s gone we can plant a ton of interesting ground cover plants and the human kids can play on that.

Poem on Tuesday night

by Juan Carlos Galeano, published in ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment), Spring 2014

Spending so much time in cities, the wind can’t help behaving like people

It is not true that

the wind’s


and mine

are so different

Just like me, the wind

dreams of impossible things

and the many things to be done

At the bar the wind and I

exchange stories

as in the olden days

One day when I was depressed, the wind came to tell me that he was also down

As in fairytales, more than …

read the rest here…

I grew up in rural Wisconsin, near the town of Spring Green in the Wisconsin River Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Frank Lloyd Wright built his famous house Taliesin there, as well as his communal architecture school, and Frank knew his aesthetics. Growing up I mostly took it for granted, as any kid will do, but it was only after I had done some traveling many years later that I understood what an unusual place it was. In many ways, I miss living in the country still, even though (with a brief exception) it’s been more than 30 years since my home was miles from the nearest sidewalk. Many times I have grieved the fact that my kids are growing up in the city.

The thing is, though, a lot of what I wish they could have had growing up they actually already do: constant contact with an ever-changing ecosystem and a wide variety of living things right outside their front door. My older son Thomas, for instance, has been a watcher and caretaker of garden snails since he was a preschooler, and he knows all kinds of things about them. Both kids have experienced the delights of finding hidden critters since they were very small, and almost every time we go out I hear: “Let’s look under rocks!”

Rocks. Hi, rocks. You were here a long time before we were, and you’ll be here for a long time after we’re gone. My yard (and everyone else’s around here) is filled with rocks, the good old New England kind people made all those stone walls out of a couple of centuries ago. I have spent years digging in my soil and, even in my little yard, have pulled out hundreds of them. Now they line the flower gardens, and when you lift the big ones underneath are centipedes, millipedes, pill bugs, pill bug eating spiders, other spiders, worms, black beetles of many varieties, ants, salamanders, little brown snakes — all kinds of things, zooming away in the sudden light. Endless entertainment and fascination for the smaller people; I’ve never known a kid who did not want to look.

Baby mantises

Yesterday we started seeing baby praying mantises in the yard. Last year we bought eggs to hatch from the last farm in Boston, which happens to be about 5 minutes away from my house, and had a yard full of them (yes, I know they are the eggs of Chinese mantises). It seems that some of those must have been able to breed and lay eggs themselves — though it is possible they are a native species. In any case, I rescued this one from a spider’s web yesterday. (It must have had some sort of death wish as I actually had to fish it out of the same web twice. Or maybe the spider (a tunnel weaver tucked into a half-rolled-up daylily leaf) was wiggling in a way that made it impossible for the mantis to resist, since they are basically bug-killing/eating robots. When I stare at them (and they stare back) I’m glad I’m a lot bigger than they are.

Daylily in the background. I planted a ton of these years ago when I was a single mom and wanted nearly indestructible landscape plants. Now I kind of wish I had planted something else since pollinators aren't really interested in them. They're pretty though.
Mantis climbing. Daylily in the background. I planted a ton of these years ago when I was a single mom and wanted nearly indestructible landscape plants. Now I kind of wish I had planted something else since pollinators aren’t really interested in them. They’re pretty though.
As you can see by the amputated leg on my finger another bug was not as lucky.
After rescue from the web. As you can see by the amputated leg on my finger another bug was not as lucky.

We found it again today near the same spot.