Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Imposter in the Garden

The Memsahib and I have been delighted with the backyard paradise installed by Cutters Lawn and Landscape.  I've written about Leon, the Test Fish and my deep ambivalence over some pioneering water striders.

Today, the Mem and I were out back doing a fish count.  All were accounted for except Halloween, a tiny deep red fish with black fins.  (Dear, I've seen her since.)   We were remarking over our pleasure that our garden had become a favored destination of hoards of bumblebees.  We noted the handwringing that goes on over bees' lost of habitat in recent decades, and speculations over whether cell-phone towers and other wavy transmitters were disorienting those salutary insects.  We were pleased, as only homeowners who install fake habitats can be, that we have been able, in our modest way, to tip the balance back their way just a little.

I was watching the bumblebees clouding around our blue salvia, when I noticed one that looked a little different.  At first, I thought it was just a large bumblebee, but upon closer inspection I saw that if it was, it wasn't like any of the others.  It was identically black and yellow-gold, and its wings were completely invisible as it flew, but it had -- well, it had a hairy ass.

I realized after watching it for a few minutes that it wasn't a bee at all.  It had the coiled proboscis of a butterfly or moth.  Because it hovered and floated expertly, at first I thought it was a moth of the sphinx variety, but it had the stick-like club-end antennae of a butterfly. 

Of course, I had to know what it was.

I'd like to pause here to say a few words in praise of Google.  There has recently been some speculation that Google, and the Internet in general, is making us dumber, robbing us of the ability to engage in leisurely reading and thinking necessary for learning.  (See this recent article in The Atlantic.)  Maybe so.  I judge that it's making me smarter.  I know my insect and especially my butterfly-and-moth books inside and out and I've never seen anything like this.  Since I had no idea what I was looking for, I despaired of  devising search terms that would yield useful hits.  "moth black yellow" seemed pretty useless to me, and then I hit on it:  "bumblebee mimic moth." 

I had the answer in seconds:  It is a snowberry clearwing moth

Looking like this on our salvia:

It is indeed a variety of sphinx moth, perhaps better known as hummingbird moths, closely related to the moths (underwings and hawkmoths) that one sees only at night, looking like ghostly hummingbirds (and about the same size), especially favoring petunias and the like. 

I regret to report that their larva can be hell on tomatoes. 

Anyway, we welcome this fake bumblebee to our fake paradise, close on the banks of our fake pond.

Now, if I only knew what a snowberry is.

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