In some ways insects are more adaptable than large mammals. Insects are capable of evolving in response to environmental change much more rapidly than large mammals because several generations can reproduce within the timespan of just 1 growing season, while some large mammals take decades to produce a single generation. The presence of humans has obliterated 70% of North America’s large mammal species, but it hasn’t put a dent in insect populations. I will never see a mammoth or saber-tooth in my backyard. However, thousands of interesting species of insects invade my property, and they are active almost year round, though the coldest days of winter relegate most of them to dormancy. Most of the insects I find on my property are likely the same species that inhabited this space during the Pleistocene. Insects suffered few known extinctions at the end of the Ice Age but instead experienced shifts in range distributions. (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/using-fossil-beetle-assemblages-to-determine-temperature-ranges-during-the-late-pleistocene/). Climate in my neighborhood (Augusta, Georgia) remained relatively stable during this transition, and the change in insect species composition has probably been minimal since then. Recently, I’ve encountered 2 species of insects that have occupied my homestead space for hundreds of thousands of years. Maybe, I should change the title of this essay, and call it “humans invading moth and wasp territory.”
Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia)
This woolly bear caterpillar is the larval stage of the giant leopard moth.
The giant leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) is a large species with a wingspan of nearly 3 inches. It has beautiful teardrop-shaped spots on its wings. That is the description I googled to help me identify this species. I found a dead specimen near my wildflower bed but didn’t take a photo. (I ripped off the above photos from google images.) It probably died after depositing fertilized eggs on 1 of the species of flowers growing in my garden. Their larva are known as woolly bears (as are the larva of many other species of moths), and they feed on a wide variety of plants including but not restricted to violets, mustards, basil, trumpet vines, sunflowers, mulberry, magnolia, and locust.
Red paper wasps (Polistes sp.) nesting between my screen door and side door. It’s a door we never use, so I let them stay there. Though manmade, it mimics a hollow tree stump or log in scarce supply in modern young forests.
A nest of red paper wasps (Polistes sp.) lives in the space between my side door and screened-in door. There’s a hole in the screen, allowing access to this sheltered area. Before humans built structures, paper wasps built their nests in hollow tree trunks, but there are few den trees in the young 2nd growth forests surrounding modern day suburbia. I’m letting the wasps live in the doorway because: a) we never use the side door, b) they are not aggressive, unless defending their nest, and c) they are beneficial predators, destroying the kinds of caterpillars that like to eat their way through my garden. Each cell of the wasp’s nest contains a wasp larva with a paralyzed caterpillar upon which it feeds.
There are 28 species of wasps in the Polistes genus that live in the southeast, and I’m not enough of an expert to identify the exact species to which my housemates belong. I admire these little monsters–they invented paper millions of years before the 1st humans evolved.