FIELD GUIDE: Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History by David Wagner
We can’t possibly rave about this book enough. If you’re interested in caterpillars, you must have a copy! The guide opens with a section of information about caterpillar biology—reading that section is a required first step in our staff and volunteers’ training. Next, hundreds of Eastern caterpillar species are sorted by family and described. Wagner describes characteristics not only of individual species, but also of caterpillar families. Each species entry includes a beautiful photograph of the caterpillar (as well as a small photo of the adult butterfly or moth); identification, range, habitat, and food plant information; and a remarks section.
The remarks sections, located at the bottom of each species account, are where this field guide outshines any other we’ve encountered. Wagner writes about getting a flannel caterpillar’s hair in his eye and ending up in an emergency room. He fancifully describes the camouflaged looper as “A Mardi Gras caterpillar that is out of costume only after a molt.” He details the interactions between certain species and their parasitoid predators. This might just be the first field guide you read from cover to cover, just for the joy of it!
We maintain an active and exciting Facebook page for those with the caterpillar bug. Our page regularly updates with new original videos and images from the lab and we try and keep you all up to date on our latest show and event schedule. Much of the material we post is produced here at the lab though we like to post new and exciting caterpillar related stories as well. Recently, Liz Kautz, our education director has posted detailed information on swallowtail osmeterium -- you never know what you are going to see in our feed! Facebook is also a great place to come and post a story of your own, share a sighting with us, or just ask a question. We are hoping to build a global community. You DO NOT have to be a Facebook member to access the resources on our page.
WEBGUIDE: BugGuide - Identification, Data, Community - www.bugguide.net
For Identification: BugGuide.net has become a standard first step in searching for an insect ID online. The site is best used in concert with a regular print identification guide - work as far as you can towards an ID in a printed guide and then visit the corresponding page at BugGuide.net. Narrowing down your options first will help you avoid an endless search over thousands of web pages, but when you do turn to BugGuide.net it should yield a higher level of species-level detail than most printed works can.
Although beginners and seasoned researchers alike use BugGuide.net to get a sense for what organism they are working with, it must be cautioned that BugGuide's information and classification should NOT be treated as infallible and all IDs should be confirmed elsewhere. The very thing that makes BugGuide.net such a wonderful resource, its spirit of community and citizen science, makes its accuracy imperfect. Use BugGuide.net, love it, but understand its limitations.
For Data: BugGuide.net is useful beyond just searching for an ID. Looking at the data section for a species to see when and where photographs were taken can give you a great idea of when an organism is active in your specific area. Looking at species pages can also provide you with links and citations so you can continue researching your find. Search BugGuide.nets various pages at species, genus, and family level to try and find a next step in your quest.
For Community: This is where BugGuide.net excels in my mind. Behind every image posted, there is a photographer and naturalist. Behind every comment and ID made, there is someone to reach out to for more information. You can connect to a vast community of naturalists and amateur entomologists just brimming with knowledge to share. You can also interact directly with the website by posting images of your own, conversing through comments and eventually, helping organize the pages of the guide yourself.
WEBGUIDE: Moth Photographers Group - Identification, Data, Accuracy - http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/
Identification: Part of working at The Caterpillar Lab is setting out lights for moths every night from April through September. Female moths are identified and collected, placed in containers to lay eggs, and then released back into the wild. During these nightly rituals, Moth Photographers Group is a constant companion. There is no better single online resource for adult moth ID on the web and it has a reputation of accuracy beyond other resources. It is easy to spend hours browsing the pined specimen images and then get lost again with the ever-growing library of living moth photographs. Moth Photographers Group is a window into the astounding diversity of Lepidoptera that exists in our area and beyond.
Even the great Lepidopterists use MPG as a key first resource out in the field. Still, inaccuracies exist on MPG, and our ever-changing understandings of Lepidoptera phylogeny thwart any effort to be truly up to date. It is troubling but not surprising to see identification mistakes made on one or another web page propagates throughout the Internet to a point where a correct ID is contradicted and argued against based on the available resources. After you exhaust all the online resources and need to confirm a difficult ID, it is time to identify and reach out to the expert in the field.
Bill Oehlke, who can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org, offers livestock (eggs/pupae/cocoons) of many North American Saturniidae species. His public website with linked access to rearing articles, articles on how to successfully overwinter cocoons, how to rear Actias luna and many other species can be accessed from http://www.silkmoths.bizland.com/cocoons.htm
Bill has brought together a huge volume of valuable information and his web sites are a great place to search through as you explore how best to take care of a newly found caterpillar. Every year Bill Oehlke increases the scope of his pages and now you can learn all about the giant silk moths, sphinx, underwings, tiger moths, and others that live nearby and far afield.
REARING RESOURCE: “Raising Giant Silkmoths” Page on Prairie Haven Blog
Prairie Haven blog was created by a landowner in the process of restoring an old farm to its original prairie and savanna state. Author Marcie O’Connor is tremendously interested in insects, particularly moths. On this page (which includes links to other relevant Prairie Haven blog posts), Marcie writes about her experiences with and techniques for raising giant silk moths. The life history information is easy to understand, accurate, and full of lovely photographs Marcie’s taken. Marcie’s caterpillar-rearing techniques aren’t the exact same techniques we use in the lab, but we’re still confident you’ll experience success if you follow them. Although this page is specifically about rearing giant silk moth species, much of the information and techniques are generalizable to other species.
This site is a well-developed resource for beginners seeking general information on caterpillar life cycles and rearing caterpillars, for anyone interested in learning about the needs of particular butterfly caterpillar species, and for experienced lepidopterists to explore new rearing techniques. Information is geared towards Western US butterfly caterpillar rearing. However, much of the content—particularly information about caterpillar life cycles and general rearing techniques and setups—is generalizable to the Eastern US and to moth caterpillars.
Facebook is blossoming with new pages that can help you learn about caterpillars and most importantly, help connect you to other people who are passionate about these creatures. There are also many pages devoted to specific localities: check if your country, state, or even town have groups devoted to insects on Facebook!
Here are a few pages that we regularly explore:
Mothing and Moth-watching: https://www.facebook.com/groups/137219092972521/
A great place to catch the backyard moth-lighting bug! You will find dozens of posts a day from all over the world by people who are addicted to moths and caterpillars. Learn from experts and see whats out there to be discovered.
Caterpillars of the World: https://www.facebook.com/CaterpillarsOfTheWorld
A post from this page is always welcome in my newsfeed. Every few days a new fantastic caterpillar from somewhere on planet earth is featured.