Tag Archives: bird cherry

Data I am never going to publish – A tale of sixty trees

In 1981 I spent a lot of time trudging through snow, cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing my way across the snowy wastes of Finland to snip twigs off bird cherry trees.  This was part of my post-doc which was to develop a forecasting system for the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi.  On returning to the lab I then spent many a happy hour counting how many aphid eggs were nestled in between the buds and the stem on each twig.  It was while doing this that I noticed that some of the twigs were infested with the overwintering larval shields of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus.  Of course I then started counting them as well 🙂  I noticed that trees with lots of aphid eggs didn’t have very many larval shields and I wondered why. Some later observations from marked trees in Scotland appeared to provide evidence that the aphids and the moths tended to either prefer different trees or perhaps excluded each other.

Negative correlation between moths and aphids – more moths equals fewer aphids and vice versa

Based on these data I hypothesised that the two insects were indirectly competing for resources by altering plant chemistry and/or architecture thus making the trees less or more suitable for egg laying in the autumn (Leather, 1988).  I tested this experimentally when I was working for the Forestry Commission in Scotland using potted bird cherry trees that I defoliated to a lesser or greater extent to see if I could induce changes in foliar quality and tree growth rates that might influence subsequent colonisation by the aphids and moths. As predicted, those trees that had been defoliated, albeit by me and not by moth larvae, were less attractive to aphids in the autumn (Leather, 1993).  These effects were still apparent five years after the beginning of the experiment (Leather, 1995) when I had to desert my trees as I moved to a new position at Imperial College’s Silwood Park campus.

Given that apart from the location, the SE of England, this was my idea of a dream job for life (colleagues at the time included John Lawton, Mike Hassell, Bob May, Stuart McNeill, Mike Way, Brad Hawkins, Shahid Naeem, Mike Hochberg, Chris Thomas to name but a few), I decided to start up two long-term projects to see me through the next 30 years, one observational (my 52 sycamore tree project), the other experimental, a follow up to my bird cherry defoliation experiment.

I went for a simplified design of my earlier experiments, just two defoliation regimes, one to mimic aphid infestation (50%), the other to mimic bird cherry ermine moth defoliation (100%) and of course a non-defoliated control.  I also planted the trees in the ground to better simulate reality.  Using potted plants is always a little suspect and I figured that I would need to do rather a lot of re-potting over the next 30 years 🙂

The grand plan!

I sourced my trees from a Forestry Commission nursery thinking that as the national organisation responsible for tree planting in the UK I could trust the provenance of the trees.  Things didn’t go well from the start.  Having planted my trees in autumn 1992 and established the treatments in the spring of 1993 I discovered that my bird cherry, rather than being from a native provenance (seed origin) were originally from Serbia! Hmm 🙂  It was too late to start again, so I decided to carry on.  After all, bird cherry although widely planted in the SE, has a native distribution somewhat further north and west, which meant I was already operating close to the edge of ‘real life’, so what did an extra 1600 kilometres matter?

The mainly ‘natural’ distribution of bird cherry (left, Leather, 1996) and the current distribution including ‘introduced’ trees https://www.brc.ac.uk/plantatlas/index.php?q=plant/prunus-padus

Next, I discovered that my fence was neither rabbit nor deer proof.  I almost gave up at this point, but having invested a lot of time and energy in setting up the plot I once again decided to carry on. On the plus side, the trees most heavily defoliated and bitten back were mainly from the 100% defoliation treatment, but did give me some negative growth rates in that year.

My original plan was to record height (annually), bird cherry egg numbers (every December), bird cherry ermine moth larval shields (annually), bud burst and leaf expansion once a week, leaf-fall (annually), and once a month, defoliation rates in two ways, number of damaged leaves and an overall estimation of percentage defoliation.  This was a personal project, so no grant funding and no funding for field assistants.  It soon became clear, especially when my teaching load grew, as Imperial started replacing whole organism biologists with theoretical and molecular biologists, and I was drafted in to take on more and more of the whole organism lecturing, that I would not be able to keep both of my long term projects going with the same intensity.  Given the ‘problems’, associated with the bird cherry project, I decided  that I would ditch some of my sampling, bud burst was scored on 21st March every year and defoliation only measured once, in late summer and egg sampling and height recording came to a halt once the trees grew above me (2005)!  This allowed me to carry on the sycamore project as originally intended*.

I kept an eye on the trees until I left Silwood Park in 2012, but by 2006 I was only monitoring bud burst and leaf fall feeling that this might be useful for showing changes in phenology in our ever-warming world.  One regret as I wandered between the then sizeable trees in the autumn of 2012 was that I had not taken a before and after photograph of the plots.  All I have are two poor quality photos, one from 2006, the other from 2012.

The Sixty Tree site April 2006.

The Sixty Tree site April 2010 with a very obvious browse line

 

So, after all the investment in time, and I guess to a certain extent money (the trees and the failed fencing, which both came out of my meagre start-up funding**), did anything worthwhile come out of the study?

The mean number of Rhopalosiphum padi eggs per 100 buds in relation to defoliation treatment

As a long-time fan of aphid overwintering it was pleasing to see that there was a significant difference not only between years (F= 8.9, d.f. = 9/29, P <0.001), but also between treatments with the trees in the control treatment having significantly more eggs laid on them than the 100% defoliation treatment (F= 9.9, d.f. = 2/ 29, P <0.001 with overall means of 1.62, 1.22 and 0.65 eggs/100 buds).  This also fitted in with the hypothesis that trees that are defoliated by chewing herbivores become less suitable for aphids (Leather, 1988).  I must admit that this was a huge surprise to me as I had thought that as all the trees were attacked by deer the year after the experimental treatments they would all respond similarly, which is why I almost gave up the experiment back in 1994.

Bud burst stage of Prunus padus at Silwood Park on March 21st 1996-2012; by treatment and combined

When it came to budburst there was no treatment effect, but there was a significant trend to earlier budburst as the trees became older which was strongly correlated with warmer springs, although as far as spring temperatures were concerned there was no significant increase with year.

Mean spring temperature (Silwood Park) 1993-2012 and relationship between mean spring temperature and bud bust stage on 21st March.

Mean date of final leaf fall of Prunus padus at Silwood Park 1995-2012; by treatment and combined

At the other end of the year, there was a significant difference between date of final leaf fall between years but no significant difference between treatments.  In retrospect I should have adopted another criterion.  My date for final leaf fall was when the last leaf fell from the tree.  Those of you who have watched leaves falling from trees will know that there are always a few who are reluctant to make that drop to the ground to become part of the recycling process.  Even though they are very obviously dead, they hang there until finally dislodged by the wind.   I should really have used a measure such as last leaf with any pigment remaining.  I am sure that if I could be bothered to hunt down the wind speed data I would find that some sort of correlation.

Mean height (cm) of Prunus padus trees at Silwood Park 1993-2005 and Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) (cm) at the end of 2012

Except for the year after the deer attack, the trees, as expected, grew taller year by year.  There was however, no significant difference between heights reached by 2005 or in DBH at the end of 2012 despite what looked like a widening gap between treatments.

Defoliation scores of Prunus padus at Silwood Park 1993-2004; % leaves damaged and overall defoliation estimates

My original hypothesis that trees that were heavily defoliated at the start of their life would be more susceptible to chewing insects in later life, was not supported.  There was no significant difference between treatments, although, not surprisingly, there was a significant difference between years.  Average defoliation as has been reported for other locations was about 10% (Kozlov et al., 2015; Lim et al., 2015).

Number of Prunus padus trees with severe deer damage

That said, when I looked at the severity of deer attack, there was no effect of year but there was a significant effect of treatment, those trees that had been 100% defoliated in 1993 being most attractive to deer.   In addition, 20% of those trees were dead by 2012 whereas no tree deaths occurred for the control and less severely defoliated treatments.

I confess to being somewhat surprised to find as many significant results as I did from this simple analysis and was momentarily tempted to do a more formal analysis and submit it to a journal.  Given, however, the number of confounding factors, I am pretty certain that I would be looking at an amateur natural history journal with very limited visibility.  Publishing it on my blog will almost certainly get it seen by many more people, and who knows may inspire someone to do something similar but better.

The other reason that I can’t be bothered to do a more formal analysis is that my earlier work on which this experiment was based has not really hit the big time, the four papers in question only accruing 30 cites between them.  Hardly earth shattering despite me thinking that it was a pretty cool idea;  insects from different feeding guilds competing by changing the architecture and or chemsitry of their host plant.  Oh well.  Did anything come out of my confounded experiment or was it a total waste of time?  The only thing published from the Sixty Trees was a result of a totally fortuitous encounter with Marco Archetti and his fascination with autumn colours (Archetti & Leather, 2005), the story of which I have related in a previous post, and which has, in marked contrast to the other papers, had much greater success in the citation stakes 🙂

And finally, if anyone does want to play with the data, I am very happy to give you access to the files.

References

Archetti, M. & Leather, S.R. (2005) A test of the coevolution theory of autumn colours: colour preference of Rhopalosiphum padi on Prunus padus. Oikos, 110, 339-343. 50 cites

Kozlov, M.V., Lanta, V., Zverev, V., & Zvereva, E.L. (2015) Global patterns in background losses of woody plant foliage to insects. Global Ecology & Biogeography, 24, 1126-1135.

Leather, S.R. (1985) Does the bird cherry have its ‘fair share’ of insect pests ? An appraisal of the species-area relationships of the phytophagous insects associated with British Prunus species. Ecological Entomology, 10, 43-56.  14 cites

Leather, S.R. (1988) Consumers and plant fitness: coevolution or competition ? Oikos, 53, 285-288. 10 cites

Leather, S.R. (1993) Early season defoliation of bird cherry influences autumn colonization by the bird cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi. Oikos, 66, 43-47. 11 cites

Leather, S.R. (1995) Medium term effects of early season defoliation on the colonisation of bird cherry (Prunus padus L.). European Journal of Entomology, 92, 623-631. 4 cites

Leather, S.R. (1996) Biological flora of the British Isles Prunus padus L. Journal of Ecology, 84, 125-132.  14 cites

Lim, J.Y., Fine, P.V.A., & Mittelbach, G.G. (2015) Assessing the latitudinal gradient in herbivory. Global Ecology & Biogeography, 24, 1106-1112.

 

 

*which you will be pleased to know, is being analysed as part of Vicki Senior’s PhD project, based at the University of Sheffield.

**£10 000 which even in 1992 was not overly-generous.

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Mellow Yellow – Not all aphids live on green leaves

I have written before about aphids and how their quest for the ideal food plant may explain the evolution of host alternation; we find that most aphid species tend to be associated with rapidly growing meristems, or newly flushing leaves (Dixon, 2005). Some aphids are so keen on young plant tissue that they ‘engineer’ youth in their host plants, injecting salivary compounds and forming leaf–rolls, pseudo-galls and galls, all of which act as nutrient sinks and lengthen the time that the modified leaves stay green and nutrient-rich

leaf roll Rhopalosiphum

 Leaf-roll caused by Rhopalosiphum padi on bird cherry, Prunus padus.

Leaf roll Myzus cerasi

Pronounced leaf roll pseudo-gall caused by Myzus cerasi on Prunus avium.

Non host-alternating (autoecious) aphids, such as the sycamore aphid Drepanosiphum platanoidis, the maple aphid, Periphyllus testudinaceus, or the birch aphid, Euceraphis punctipennis, have no such escape route; they are confined to their tree host for the year, albeit, they can, if they ‘wish’, fly to another tree of the same species, but essentially they are held hostage by the their host plant. As the season progresses, leaf nutritional and physical properties change; going from young tender green leaves, with high nitrogen and water contents, to mature, tough leaves, low in nitrogen and water to yellow senescing leaves with again, higher nitrogen levels (Awmack & Leather, 2002) and finally of course, dead brown leaves of no nutritional value.

Seasonal changes

Sycamore and maple aphids, enter a state of suspended animation ‘summer aestivation’ (Essig, 1952; Dixon, 1963), whilst birch and poplar aphids, whose hosts plants often produce new growth during the year, ‘track’ these new leaves (Wratten, 1974; Gould et al., 2007). As far as these aphids are concerned young tissue is their best food source, with senescent tissue being second best and mature leaves being least favoured. During the summer they will, however, take advantage of mature leaves that are prematurely senescing, such as those attacked by leaf diseases such as tar spot. I have often found sycamore aphids feeding and reproducing on these infected leaves whilst those aphids on neighbouring mature leaves remain in aestivation.

Tar spot 2

Effects of tar spot on sycamore leaves

Host-alternating (heteroecious) aphids on the other hand are somewhat different. As their life cycle includes a programmed migration back to their primary tree host in autumn, those autumn morphs (oviparae) are adapted to senescent tissue (Leather & Dixon, 1982, Kundu & Dixon, 1993, 1994). Similarly, the spring morphs (fundatrices and fundatrigeniae) are adapted to young leaves and find it difficult or impossible, to make a living on senescent leaves.
Morphs and host age

There are yet other aphids, such as the green spruce aphid Elatobium abietinum, the pine aphid, Eulachnus agilis and the black pecan aphid, Melanocallis caryaefoliae, that are senescence specialists. In contrast to the flush specialists, these aphids engineer senescence, also using salivary compounds,  and are unable to survive on young foliage (Bliss, 1973; Fisher, 1987; Cottrell et al., 2009).

Elatobium in action

Elatobium abietinum ‘engineering’ senescence on spruce needles and avoiding young flushing tissue.

It is interesting to speculate that perhaps these tree-dwelling non host-alternating aphids are secondarily derived from the autumn part of the life-cycle of host-alternating aphids. After all, if non host-alternating aphids on herbaceous host plants are off-shoots of the summer part of the host-alternating life-cycle why not the other way round. There is just so much more to learn about aphids. Yet another reason why I love aphids so much 😉

References

Awmack, C.S. & Leather, S.R. (2002) Host plant quality and fecundity in herbivorous insects. Annual Review of Entomology, 47, 817-844.

Bliss, M., Yendol, W.G., & Kearby, W.H. (1973) Probing behaviour of Eulachnus agilis and injury to Scotch pine. Journal of Economic Entomology, 66, 651-655.

Cottrell, T.E., Wood, B.W. & Ni, X. (2009) Chlorotic feeding injury by the Black Pecan Aphid (Hemiptera: Aphididae) to pecan foliage promotes aphid settling and nymphal development. Environmental Entomology, 38, 411-416.

Dixon, A.F.G. (1963) Reproductive activity of the sycamore aphid, Drepanosiphum platanoides (Schr) (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 32, 33-48.

Dixon, A.F.G. (2005) Insect Herbivore-Host Dynamics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Fisher, M. (1987) The effect of previously infested spruce needles on the growth of the green spruce aphid, Elatobium abietinum. Annals of Applied Biology, 111, 33-41.

Gould, G.G., Jones, C.G., Rifleman, P., Perez, A., & Coelman, J.S. (2007) Variation in Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides Bartr.) phloem sap content caused by leaf development may affect feeding site selection behaviour of the aphid, Chaitophorous populicola Thomas (Homoptera: Aphididae). Environmental Entomology, 36, 1212-1225.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1993) Do host alternating aphids know which plant they are on? Ecological Entomology, 18, 61-66.

Kundu, R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1994) Feeding on their primary host by return migrants of the host alternating aphid, Cavariella aegopodii. Ecological Entomology, 19, 83-86.

Leather, S.R. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1981) Growth, survival and reproduction of the bird-cherry aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi, on it’s primary host. Annals of applied Biology, 99, 115-118.

Wratten, S.D. (1974) Aggregation in the birch aphid, Euceraphis punctipennis (Zett.) in relation to food quality. Journal of Animal Ecology, 43, 191-198.

 

Post script

A lot of what I describe comes from a talk I gave in 2009 at a workshop in Oxford on autumn colours (the output of which was Archetti, M., Döring, T.F., Hagen, S.B., Hughes, N.M., Leather, S.R., Lee, D.W., Lev-Yadun, S., Manetas, Y., Ougham, H.J., Schaberg, P.G., & Thomas, H. (2009) Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 166-173. I always meant to write the talk up as an Opinion piece but procrastination set in badly. I was somewhat annoyed with myself when earlier this year this excellent piece by the legendary ecologist and entomologist, Tom White, appeared; I have only myself to blame, six years is a very long bit of procrastination 😉

White, T.C.R. (2015) Senescence-feeders: a new trophic sub-guild of insect herbivores Journal of Applied Entomology, 139, 11-22.

 

Post post script

This post is dedicated to my eldest son, Sam, who died quietly in his sleep, at a tragically young age, December 23rd 2010.   It would have been his birthday on the 21st May.  Despite being a molecular biologist, (he worked at the Sanger Institute), he was as green as you can get, a great naturalist and conservationist, with an incredibly gentle soul. He strongly believed in conserving the World’s natural resources and amused colleagues by sticking up signs in the toilets at the Sanger, which read “If its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down”.

Sampsa

 

He is sorely missed by us all. He also had more Nature papers than me 😉

Parkhill, J., Achtman, M., James, K.D. et al., (2000) Complete DNA sequence of a serogroup A strain of Neisseria meningitides. Nature, 404, 502-506

Parkhill, J., Dougan, G. , James, K.D. (2001) Complete genome sequence of a multiple drug resistant Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi CT18. Nature, 413, 848-852.

Parkhill, J., Wren, B.W., Thomson, N.R. et al., (2001) Genome sequence of Yersinia pestis, the causative agent of plague. Nature, 413, 523-527.

Parkhill, J., Sebaihia, M., Preston, A. et al., (2003) Comparative analysis of the genome sequences of Bordetella pertussis,   Bordetella parapertussis and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Nature Genetics, 35, 32-40

Wood, V., Gwilliam, R. Rajandream, M.A. et al., (2002) The genome sequence of Schizosaccharomyces pombe . Nature, 415, 871-880

 

 

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Not all Aphids are Pests

Unfortunately when you mention the word aphid most people’s first thought is PEST!  It is true that they are perhaps the most important insect pests of crops

Larson             Punk aphid

in temperate regions of the world, and that in the UK they are serious pests of cereals, sugar beet, beans, vegetables and glasshouse crops.  It has been estimated that crop losses due to feeding damage and/or virus transmission exceed £100 million per annum http://www.scri.ac.uk/research/pp/pestanddisease/insectmiteecology/virusvectorinteractions .  On the other hand this is down to only about 250 species which out of a total of 5000 described species is not very many (about 5%).  Not only are most aphids playing useful roles in ecosystems acting as food sources to other insects, arthropods and dare I say it, vertebrates 😉 . They also play an important part in the decomposition cycle (Choudhury, 1985).  The thing that most people don’t realise is that some aphids are incredibly rare. Some are rare because of their close associations with rare plants, others rare because of a complex relationship with ants https://simonleather.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/not-all-aphids-live-on-leaves/ and some for no apparent reason at all.  For example, there are two aphid species that live on bird cherry (Prunus padus),  Rhopalosiphum padi, an extremely common aphid, host-alternating between bird cherry and grasses, and a major pest of cereals in temperate countries (Leather et al., 1989) and Myzus padellus, host-alternating between bird cherry and members of the Labiatae (Galeopsis spp. (Hemp nettle)) and Scrophulariaceae (Pedicularis spp. and Rhinanthus sp., members of the snapdragon family).  In all my many years of sampling bird cherry I have never seen Myzus padellus, yet their life-cycles and habits are strikingly similar, so why is the latter so rare?  No one knows.

Similarly, on birch we find, not very often because it is so rare, Monaphis antennata , which unlike most aphids, lives as a nymph (immature) on the upper side of birch leaves, possibly

Monaphis

to escape natural enemies as the much more common species of birch aphids, Euceraphis punctipennis and Betulaphis quadrituberculata like the majority of leaf-feeding aphids, both live on the underside of leaves, which is where aphid predators normally forage (Hopkins & Dixon 1997). I have seen this aphid once, shown to me by the late Nigel Barlow http://newzealandecology.org/nzje/free_issues/NZJEcol30_1_1.pdf  when he visited me at Silwood Park in the late 1990s.  Despite repeated visits to the same trees that we found Monaphis on, I have never seen it again.  So far no one has been able to explain why it is so rare (Hopkins et al., 1998).  Interestingly enough, apart from keys and identification manuals, it has rarely been written about; Web of Knowledge reveals only four research papers on it.

There are many more rare aphids hiding out there, a number of which have only ever been seen by the entomologist who first described them and no doubt even more who have not yet been found, as is the cases with many more insect species  – not enough insect taxonomists, not enough funding.

Choudhury, D. (1985) Aphid honeydew – a re-appraisal of Owen and Wiegert’s hypothesis. Oikos, 45, 287-289. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3565718?uid=3738032&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21103382740253

Hille Ris Lambers, D. & Rogerson, J.P. (1946) A new British aphid from Prunus padus L.  Myzus padellus sp n. (Hemiptera, Aphididae). Proceedings of the Royal Entomological Society of London, 15, 101-105 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-3113.1946.tb00833.x/abstract

Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (1997) Enemy-free space and the feeding niche of an aphid. Ecological Entomology, 22, 271-274. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2311.1997.00075.x/full

Hopkins, G.W. & Dixon, A.F.G. (2000)  Feeding site location in birch aphids (Sternorrhyncha: Aphididae): the simplicity and reliability of cues.  European Journal of Entomology, 97, 279-280 http://www.eje.cz/pdfs/eje/2000/02/19.pdf

Hopkins, G.W., Thacker, J.I., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1998) Limit to the abundance of rare species: an experimental test with a tree aphid. Ecological Entomology, 23, 386-390. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2311.1998.00163.x/full

Leather, S.R., Walters, K.F.A., & Dixon, A.F.G. (1989) Factors determing the pest status of the bird cherry-oat aphid, Rhopalosiphum padi (L.) (Hemiptera: Aphididae), in Europe: a study and review. Bulletin of Entomological Research, 79, 345-360. http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FBER%2FBER79_03%2FS0007485300018344a.pdf&code=8d6d2144666846ebb5d589f01343f27c

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Silk- not just a spider thing

Mention silk and most people will, I guess, immediately think of spiders and cobwebs.

Pressed a bit further, some may mention silkworms, and some might even know the word sericulture and that the common silkworm feeds on mulberry bushes.   What they may not know, is that the silk worm is the larvae of the moth Bombyx mori and that there are actually four species of lepidopteran larvae commonly used in silk production.  These are pictured below in the lovely illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon; next to the picture are some B. mori larvae.

Silkworm larvae Silkworms

Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, 4th Auflage, Band 14, Seite 826a (4th ed., Vol. 14, p.826a)

Four of the most important domesticated silk moths. Top to bottom: Bombyx mori, Hyalophora cecropia, Antheraea pernyi, Samia cynthia. From Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885-1892

Silk production is of course not just a feature of spiders and lepidoptera.  It is a widespread feature of insect life, being used for pupal cases, as a mode of transport (ballooning) as shown by larvae of the gypsy moth and other species of Lepidoptera,

ballooning gypsy moth            ballooning gypsy moth drawing

protective cases as in larval caddis flies or also, by some caddis fly larvae, as fishing equipment.

 caddisfly_larva  Caddis fly net

But in my opinion, the most dramatic use of silk is that seen in a genus of micro-moths, belonging to the Yponomeutidae, the small ermine moths, Yponomeuta.  They and their relatives, are silk-producers extraordinaire.  Collectively, they are known as small ermine moths; so called because of their adult colouration which resembles the ermine worn by nobility and small, because of the existence of several larger moths with ermine in their names.

Yponomeuta_evonymellus

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yponomeuta_evonymella-02_(xndr).jpg#file

The larvae are less attractive and are the web/silk producers.

Yponomeuta_evonymella_caterpillars

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yponomeuta.evonymella.caterpillars.jpg

My particular favourite is the bird cherry ermine moth, and not just because the bird cherry is my favourite tree.  (My eldest son’s middle name is bird cherry, albeit in Finnish). The adult moths lay their eggs in August, in clusters of up to 100 or so on young twigs of the bird cherry Prunus padus, cover them with an egg shield and then die (Leather, 1986).  The eggs hatch shortly afterwards and the larvae spend the winter under the egg shield until the following spring.  When the buds begin to burst in spring, the larvae emerge from beneath the shield and begin to feed gregariously on the newly emerging leaves, spinning a web that protects them from natural enemies  and may also help in thermoregulation and as a trail indicator (Kalkowski, 1958)  http://edepot.wur.nl/201846 .  It is possible to have great fun by selecting a lead larvae to act as a trail blazer and watch the rest of the colony follow them to a destination you have chosen.

Every three to four years or so, populations of the moths get so high that they exhaust their food supplies, defoliating entire trees and covering  them with a tough coating of silky white webbing (Leather, 1986; Leather & Mackenzie, 1994).  In fact, in Finland, I once saw three neighbouring trees totally enveloped in a silken tent caused by the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymellus, that you could enter and shelter inside from the rain.  Once they really get going as spring progresses, the landscape, particularly if in an area where bird cherry is common, begins to take on a somewhat wintry look, which for May is a little odd.  Those of who you, who have travelled north of Perth in Scotland, on the A9, will be familiar with this phenomenon.  It frequently makes the Scottish newspapers and generates headlines such as “winter wonderland” or “ghostly landscape”. As they run out of trees, the larvae begin to migrate in a desperate search for trees with leaves still on them, and by now, have become less fussy about what they eat.  It is at this wandering stage of their life that the true extent

Yponomeuta webbing  bird cherry emrine moth webbing

of their singlemindedness (I have seen a trail of thousands of larvae marching along a railway line; they didn’t survive the passing of the 0850 from Helsinki) and their ability to produce silk becomes startlingly apparent.

Ermine moths on car    Ermine_moth_larva_on_a_Swedish_army_bike

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ermine_moth_larva_on_a_Swedish_army_bike.jpg

Truly, silk is not just a spider thing.

Kalkowski, W. (1958). Investigations on territorial orientation during ontogenic development in Hyponomeuta. Folia Biol Krakow 6: 79-102.

Leather, S. R. & Mackenzie, G. A. (1994). Factors affecting the population development of the bird cherry ermine moth, Yponomeuta evonymella L. The Entomologist 113: 86-105.

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