Hurricane Hawkmoth has Arrived

July 11, 2017 - 20:25 -- smweil

I get a lot of blank stares and quizzical looks when I try to tell people about my project. 

"You're working with...what?"

"What is that?"

"Did you say...*hot* moths???"

After years of working with seals and sea lions, horses and dogs, and various other mammals, my work this summer has led me to insects. I'm a pre-vet student, but an introduction to research while studying abroad in South Africa last fall led me to write an honors thesis this year. Fortunately for me, my advisor sent me to CBG to work with Dr. Krissa Skogen, Andrea Gruver, and Kat Andrews, and of course, my new favorite insect, the white-lined sphinx moth, or Hyles lineata.


We mark all the moths with letters (for females) or numbers (for males) so that we can tell who's who. Here, we have female moth F green!

These hawkmoths are particularly interesting because of their relationship with the Arkansas Valley evening primrose, Oenothera harringtonii. Adult Hyles are the main pollinators of O. harringtonii, but these plants are also the main larval hosts for Hyles, which means that Hyles is both pollinator and herbivore of this plant. Not a relationship you see every day! 

This system is also interesting because while some O. harringtonii plants produce the scent compound linalool, others do not. This varies across the geographic range of the plant.

So, for my project, we are testing to see if Hyles moths have a preference for plants with or without linalool. If they do, this could possibly explain the variation!


All of our O. harringtonii plants are currently growing in the greenhouse until we're ready to use them in our experiments

It's hard not to get excited about working with these hawkmoths. I mean, they have fuzzy bodies, big eyes, and awesome long tongues--what's not to love! My project also allows me to work with these guys at two different stages of their development, both as neonate caterpillars (as soon as they've hatched from their eggs) and as adults (once they've emerged from their pupal case).  

Hyles neonate enjoying a tasty meal

A close-up view of a Hyles female (photo c/o Andrea Gruver)

Perhaps the only time they're not lovable is when Hurricane Hawkmoth arrives. Almost all of our first batch of neonates hatched on the same day, which was a bit of a shock! After setting about 180 caterpillars up, I still hadn't made a dent in the population. But then...24 hours later, the craziness was over, and it was back to a normal daily routine. Maybe next time, they'll space themselves out a bit better. A girl can hope!

A view of the lab after the first round of neonate assays had been set up

Now, we're just trying to get our adult moths to mate so that we can see if adult females show a preference for certain plants when they lay their eggs. Hopefully, we'll get them to lay a bunch of eggs that we can then use for our next round of neonate assays. Hurricane Hawkmoth 2.0, I'm ready for you!