Malacomosa Dance

Malacomosa Dance: Caterpillar Distraction Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Caterpillar Distraction
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
My father’s first caterpillar encounter has always been a bedtime favorite. The story goes that a plump fuzzy one was crawling on his picnic blanket one afternoon. I would imagine him watching its five pairs of prolegs innocently undulating along. Then, Dad ate it, hairy bristles and all. My first encounter was almost as tasty but longer-lasting because it came from the pages of Eric Carle’s picture book classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A recent New York Times article reporting the author’s passing reveals that Carle’s interest in crickets, fireflies, and other insects was sparked as a child by peeking under bark or stones walking in the wild with his father.

Western Tent Caterpillars Malacosoma californicum, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Western Tent Caterpillars
Malacosoma californicum
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
There’s nothing like a caterpillar, green or woolly, slinking along in the dirt or hanging by a thread from overhead branches, to distract a group of young outdoor learners. I resist the urge to caution them that there are poisonous caterpillars in the world, and we play. Yet, how many times have I encountered a silky mass in the limbs of a chokecherry, stopped and watched the caterpillars wiggle and twitch, and wished that I knew more about them? The magic for me of being out in the forest meadows this time of year is coming home with more questions than answers. So, becoming a novice lepidopterist, I focused this week on learning about caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. The frenzied dance of this caterpillar, what I think is known by the lyrical name Malacomosa, is not to draw me in for a closer look; the tent caterpillar senses a predator is near and gets the whole gang going. Soon these gorging wigglers will be settling into silky cocoons and emerging as moths. According to Eric Carle’s website, he intentionally had his butterfly come from a cocoon rather than a scientifically-accurate chyrsalis because it sounds more poetic, and my budding readers appreciate being able to more easily stretch and blend cocoon sounds anyway. We do use the word caterpillar, though, for both moth and butterfly larvae, but that is where many of the similarities end.

Drab Moth, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
(Not so) Drab Moth
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Butterflies get noticed because they flutter during the day, while moths are typically more active by night. In fact, when I am outside I turn to my Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies because I never thought to purchase a book on identifying moths. The first thing it says to do is look at the antenna. A butterfly antenna has a club tip, and often a moth has thick and feathery antennae to help it pick up scents flying around at night. Butterflies have names like swallowtail, fritillary, metalmark, and checkerspot, and moths just rhyme with sloths. Compared to butterflies, moths are generally smaller and drab in color. Drab? I met a moth resting on a twig once that was anything but drab. Its chunky abdomen was striped black and the most vibrant tangerine orange imaginable, and I was mesmerized. Moths should get more love, especially when you know that there are so many more kinds of moths than butterflies to enjoy. Consider getting out to notice the wonder of moths with other citizen scientists for National Moth Week 2021 this July 17-25.

Writing from the Central Utah Writing Project, I am Shannon Rhodes and I’m wild about Utah.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & ©
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Brock, Jim. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.

Carmel, Julia. Eric Carle, Author of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ Dies at 91., The New York Times, May 26, 2021.

Eric Carle Official Website.

Florida Museum of Natural History. Butterflies and Moths.

Forest Health Protection. Western Tent Caterpillars. 2011.

National Moth Week.

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes

Monarch Butterflies

Click to view a closer view of Andrea Liberatore's photograph of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Courtesy and Copyright 2009 Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

Click to view a closer view of a Monarch butterfly caterpillar, (Danaus plexippus), Courtesy US FWS, images.fws.govMonarch Butterfly Caterpillar
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy US FWS,

Click to view a closer view of a Monarch butterfly chrysalis (Danaus plexippus).  Courtesy NASA JPL,, Plant a butterfly garden!, Climate Kids: Earth NowMonarch Butterfly Chrysalis
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy NASA JPL,
Plant a butterfly garden!
Climate Kids: Earth Now

Click to view a closer view of Andrea Liberatore's photograph of Gene Nieminen's photograph of Monarch butterflies resting during migration.  Courtesy US FWS, Gene Nieminen, PhotographerA Rest Stop During the
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Courtesy US FWS,
Gene Nieminen, Photographer

One sure sign that the end of the summer is near are the holes that appear in milkweed leaves this time of year. Take a peek underneath and you might find a great treasure – a chubby caterpillar boldly dressed in yellow, black, and white stripes.

We are currently playing host to two of these voracious larvae at the Stokes Nature Center, satiating their appetites with fresh milkweed leaves in the hopes of witnessing their transformation into a Monarch butterfly.

The incredible story of a Utah monarch begins in southern California in spring. After being dormant throughout winter, an adult female will rouse itself, mate, and begin flying. Monarchs are gliders, meaning they don’t flap their wings much when traveling. Instead they rely on thermal air currents to keep them aloft and moving – traveling up to 80 miles per day. The female flies until she finds habitat suitable for reproduction. There she will lay up to 400 eggs, exclusively on milkweed plants, which contain a toxin that makes caterpillars and adults inedible, or at least unpalatable, to predators.

Eggs of the second generation hatch in April or May. Larvae eat, undergo metamorphosis and keep traveling until they find an ideal place to mate and lay eggs. The adults then die within a few weeks. The third generation hatches in June and July, traveling still farther north and east. This group’s offspring, the fourth generation of the year, are the caterpillars and butterflies we are currently seeing. And this fourth generation does things a little differently.

Once in their adult stage, eating is priority number one. As temperatures turn cool, migration is triggered and the butterflies head for southern California, back to the same place from which their great-grandparents set out in spring. These butterflies live significantly longer than their parents and grandparents, for successful individuals will survive the winter, and start the entire four-generation process over again next year.

Much of a monarch’s migration remains a mystery, and not just how they know when and where to go, but also what routes they use, what habitats they need along the way, and how humans are affecting their movements.

A number of citizen science projects have been established to try and answer these questions. The Monarch Program monitors migration in the western U.S. each fall. Adults are fitted with a small, sticky tag on their right forewing with a color code specific to the tagging site. As these butterflies are spotted again either during migration or at their final destination, data is collected that can help us better understand their journey.

Recent declines in monarch populations make this research all the more important. You can help by cultivating milkweed in your garden to provide habitat to resident monarchs. Anyone with information on the location of caterpillars or chrysalises can contact local Monarch Program volunteer Ron Hellstern for tagging. For more information on tagging and how you can help monarch butterflies, visit our website at

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.


Images: Courtesy &
Copyright 2009 Andrea Liberatore
Courtesy NASA JPL,
Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service,
Text:     Andrea Liberatore,
Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.
For Information On Tagging:

The Monarch Program:

To tag butterflies found in Cache Valley, please contact Monarch Program volunteer Ron Hellstern at 435-245-9186. Please note that captive caterpillars or chrysalises are easiest to tag, as capturing adults can harm their wings.

Growing milkweed:

Monarch Watch, Propagation (Growing Milkweeds).


Additional Reading:

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Butterflies, North America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.

Monarch Watch: Monarch Life Cycle.

National Geographic: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

NRCS Partners with Farmers, Ranchers to Aid Monarch Butterflies, Posted by Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, on November 12, 2015, USDA Blog,

NRCS Working Lands for Monarch Butterflies,

Spring’s Earliest Butterflies

Mourning cloak butterfly courtesy and copyright 2010 Don Rolfs
Mourning cloak butterfly (pinned)
Photo by Don Rolfs 2010

Utah’s earliest solar collectors are smaller than a credit card; their carbon footprints are likewise tiny. They convert the sun’s energy to heat, not electricity, and they self multiply. I am referring to butterflies, particularly those that can be found flying on sunny days of late winter while our snow still lingers.

Our earliest butterflies transformed to adults last fall and have spent the winter wedged in nooks and crannies, such as cracks in deadwood or under flaps of bark. The butterflies’ names are generally more colorful than their appearance: red admirals, painted ladies, mourning cloaks, tortoise shells, commas and question marks. Their wing edges are scalloped and irregular, the topsides patterned or banded in tawny browns and muted oranges sometimes edged with yellow or red. Beneath, they tend to be camouflaged with patterns in shades of brown like a moldering leaf.

Satyr Anglewing butterfly
Photo © Jim Cane 2010

Being insects, butterflies generate little metabolic heat, so for warmth they quite literally turn to the sun on chilly spring days. Watch where they land and you will see them with their wings folded over their backs, their stance and tilt perfectly aligning their wings perpendicular to the sun’s rays. The sunshine that they intercept warms their bodies and enables them to fly even when the air is cold. Butterflies of early spring often fuel their flights with the sugars of tree sap where it leaks from a bark injury.

The mourning cloak butterfly is particularly recognizable, it’s rich brown wings edged with gold like gilt paint.

Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

If you see a mourning cloak flying among willows, watch carefully, for the females will be laying their tiny eggs singly on the tips of young emerging willow leaves. Like our migratory birds, the appearance of these early butterflies are living harbingers of the spring to come, a welcome sight indeed.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Pictures: Don Rolfs
Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Painted Lady Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, Robert Michael Pyle, National Audubon Society,

Peterson First Guide to Butterflies and Moths, Paul A. Opler, Roger Tory Peterson, and Amy Bartlett Wright, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

Butterflies on Utah Bug Club web site, Utah Lepidopterists’ Society,

Butterflies of Utah, Butterflies and Moths of North America,

Question Mark Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Painted Lady

Red Admiral

Mourning Cloak

Grey Comma

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell