Reflections in Nature:Grapes, caterpillars plentiful

A few weeks ago, while attending a Friends of Mt. Pisgah State Park meeting, Cheryl Hyde showed me several pictures of a hummingbird moth and asked if I had ever seen one. I replied that every year we have a hummingbird moth visit our flower garden.

The hummingbird moth, which is the common name for the common clearwing moth, belongs to the sphinx moth family. Worldwide, there are more than 1,200 species of these, with about 125 species here in North America.

A hummingbird moth shares many traits with its namesake, often causing confusion because their body shapes are similar. The moth also is an agile flyer, being able to fly sideways, backwards and hover just as a hummingbird. One difference is that the hummingbird moth is smaller than the hummingbird.

A hummingbird moth has six legs that can be seen in flight, while the hummingbird’s two legs are inconspicuous in flight.

Because a hummingbird moth does not have a bill, its proboscis is used to sip nectar. The proboscis, which is curled up when not feeding, cannot be seen.

The easiest way to tell the two apart is by their actions. Unless the hummingbird is at your feeder, it usually is alone and, if another hummingbird approaches, the bird becomes very aggressive. Meanwhile, hummingbird moths do travel together and show no aggression toward each other.

Although the hummingbird moth is considered nocturnal, it has the un-moth-like behavior of flying in full daylight and often is seen in cultivated flower gardens.

In early summer, pale green eggs are laid singly on the underside of a leaf. From each egg emerges a yellowish-green caterpillar, with darker green lines along the back and a yellow tail horn, giving the caterpillar the name of hornworm.

In the fall, the caterpillar crawls into the leaf litter, spins a cocoon around itself, pupates over the winter and emerges as a moth in early summer.

During that same week, my friend, Charlie Fox, stopped at the house to show me several bunches of wild grapes. We both agreed that, along with apples and other wild fruits, wild grapes are going to be plentiful this year.

After sailing across the north Atlantic Ocean, Leif Ericson returned home with stories about a new land, which he named Vineland because of the abundance of wild grapes found growing there. Historians now agree that Vineland was the east coast of North America; however, they are not sure of the exact place where Ericson set foot on land.

Grapes were one of the earliest plants cultivated by man. Grape seeds have been found with Egyptian mummies from the Bronze Age in 3500 B.C. In the Bible, there are many references to grapes and wine, including one that Noah had planted a vineyard after the great flood.

Wild grapes can be found growing on either high-climbing or trailing-woody vines, with shredded bark and branched tendrils opposite some or all of the leaves. The leaves are simple and often lobed.

The grapes, which grow in clusters, usually are small and light blue to black in color when ripe. Wild grape vines can grow as large as 8 inches in diameter and live as long as 80 years.

In North America, the colonists found the hillsides covered with wild grapes; however, they were sour.

Because the colonists did not drink the water and the wild grapes did not make good wine, the colonists switched to the apple to make cider, apple jack, apple vinegar and even beer.

An American louse (phylloxera) attacked and killed the roots of the plantings of the grapes that were brought over from Europe. Later, the louse accidentally was introduced to Europe and almost destroyed its grape industry.

The colonists tried many methods to raise grapes; however, attempts failed. Eventually, someone tried grafting European grape vines on wild American grape vines, and this produced good grapes that made a high quality wine.

Although grapes are important to man, they also are important to wildlife, from the tiny mouse to the bear and from the small songbird to the crow. In years such as this, with the wild grapes hanging heavy on the vines, many will dry on the vines, providing food for wildlife throughout the winter months.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.