Caterpillars: Life Beyond Moths


A Pale Edged Selenisa Moth at adulthood

I was introduced to new-to-me terminology this past week: “web of life partners”. I’ve written about the role of plants in the “food chain” a phrase pretty much interchangeable with the term “web of life”. I’ve always given thought to the interactions between various species…partnerships, so to speak. But finding a database under development that contains web of life partners listings (Taxapad) really made it all hit home.

I ran across this database while researching what I saw in a single photograph that I would have missed, had it not been for the ability to enlarge photos on a computer screen.

That’s quite some jewelry she’s wearing

The photo was of a Selenisa sueroides (Pale-edged Selenisa Moth) caterpillar. While cropping it, I noticed a ring of pale green “pearls” around its neck. Was the caterpillar making a fashion statement? More likely it has potential parasitic wasps or similar species making use of its body as a host for their young. I did some research and began to monitor the progress of this natural phenomenon.

Two days later, the larvae grows

This description sums up the lifecycle in graphic detail:

“Parasitoid wasps lay their eggs on or in other insects. Their life cycle is gruesome – the egg hatches and the parasitoid larva eats the host alive before emerging as an adult. “

One day later, the cocoons begin to develop

So, back to my caterpillar. Seems Selenisa (I’ll call her by her first name) is indicated as a hostfor several parasitic wasps as listed in the Taxapad database:

  1. Ichneumon Wasp – Gambrus ultimus (2 listings in Bugguide both are located in the Northeast)
  2. Chalcid Wasp – Brachymeria ovata, (2 listings in Bugguide located in California).
  3. Chalcid Wasp – Brachymeria flavipes (I couldn’t find this species in the Bugguide listings)
  4. Chalcid Wasp – Euplectrus comstockii (1 listing in Bugguide, located in Missouri)

The list seems a little skimpy and the locations are all off, so I checked over at the Moth Photographers Group Website and they have Braconid Wasps listed as well.

The larvae becomes quite fuzzy, as seen in this closeup

Maybe my little find will add some information to Bugguide and/or the Taxapad database…that is if I can witness the hatching of my wasps.  I love this “Citizen Scientist” stuff.  I check faithfully each day. I suppose that the Shyleaf (Aeschynomene americana), a plant native to Florida could also be added as a web of life partner given that it is one of the larval hosts for the Selenisa Caterpillar.

This wasp was zeroing in on a butterfly caterpillar as a place to lay eggs

This is not my first encounter with parasitic wasp behavior. Another time I caught a photo of some species of ichneumon wasp zeroing in on the caterpillar of the Barred Yellow Butterfly (Eurema daira). Quite honestly, I never would have spotted the caterpillar had it not been for the wasp flying in. Oddly, this also was on Shyleaf (A. americana). Must be my lucky plant.

Unidentified caterpillar lays eggs. What’s up with THAT? the larvae may be from Braconid Wasps in the Microgastrinae Subfamily

About a year ago, I also found a caterpillar laying “eggs”, but since caterpillars aren’t the stage that is suppose to lay eggs, it was a little weird. That’s when I learned that they play a major roll in the web of life supporting larvae for other insects.

Unidentified caterpillar covered in cocoons gave its life for another species

Shortly thereafter I found an unidentified caterpillar covered with fuzz. Again, I didn’t know at the time, but it was at the cocoon stage of a parasite. Dang I wish I had collected those to see the final results. At any rate, I’m now collecting and learning about this facet of nature and I’m grateful to my caterpillar friends for increasing my knowledge and I am hopeful to see the rewards of my latest capture.

Rest in peace Selenisa, you gave your all. Perhaps a more accurate title for this article would have been “Death before Moth”.

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  1. says

    I will admit, the phrase “web of life partners” made me think of a polyamory dating site, but nevertheless, I can see its utility! I am always amazed at how complicated life in a plant gall gets, for example–you get the plant, the thing that made the gall, the thing that eats the thing that made the gall, the thing that eats the thing that eats…well, you get the idea.

    It’s a bit wrenching to see the life cycle, but still–if there was a parasitic wasp fan club, I’d be a charter member, given how thoroughly they protect my tomatoes!
    UrsulaV recently posted..Skipper on Climbing Aster

  2. Cindy says

    Yes, I’ve blessed the parasitic wasps on the hornworms, but next time I’ll try to watch until the end.. I did attempt that once but the “specimen” disappeared(?) Something eats everything. You go “citizen scientist”

  3. says

    Very cool! Both the “web of life partnership” database AND the closeup of the eggs on the Selenisa moth caterpillar. When I was looking for photos to use in my book, I went through digital photos on my computer and it was amazing what I could see when I started zooming in the flowers….tiny pollinators and things that I hadn’t noticed at all in the photos before I got a big computer screen…good digital camera lenses have made insect ID a whole new hobby for the eco-geeks such as ourselves :)
    Ellen Sousa recently posted..Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

  4. says

    Great photos. These parasitoids are hard to notice sometimes and you found quite few. It is always fascinating to follow their life cycles as far as one can do it.

    The web of life encompasses all sorts of interactions, not just those involving food or partnerships. For instance a tree provides habitat for many creatures. Birds nest on its branches, mice hide under their roots, wasps scrape strips of cortex to build their paper nests, mosses and orchids take advantage of any little soil that accumulates on branches. All these are beneficial to one species and neutral to the other. More interesting are the partnerships in which both members benefit from the interaction, for instance, that same tree nourishes mycorrhizae and, in return, gets valuable water and minerals.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..My Metallic Green Bees


  1. […] Caterpillars play an important role in the Web of Life, not only to grow into moths, but to provide a place for wasps to lay their eggs.  […]

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