Pablo and Dave have both recently posted pictures of Mayapples on their blogs. The photos triggered this memory.
Ron Panzer is my mentor in all things involving entomology on natural areas in Illinois. Sometime in the winter of 1990-1991, Ron mentioned to me that I should keep an eye on Mayapple plants while I was out and about. He was working with moths in the genus Papaipema (pa-puh-PEEM-uh). These are stem borers, and very fastidious about their host plants. Many species that are used are characteristic prairie and savanna plants, and so the moths are of interest. P. cerina uses Mayapples. Ron had been searching for this species unsuccessfully for a long time, and wanted to get some other folks out looking for it.
Fast-forward just a few months. Steve Packard, my mentor in all things involving ecological restoration, wanted Leon and I to take a look at a small plot of woodlot a couple of miles north of Bluff Spring Fen. The woodlot was slated for development, and he wondered if there was anything worthy of plant rescue.
Mayapple clone. Photo from the University of Southern Indiana website.
Memorial day weekend of 1991, several of the Fen volunteers stopped by the woodlot. It had a really nice plant community, and we did, in fact, do some plant rescue that included sharp-lobed hepatica and white trillium. There were lots of Mayapple clones on the site. I noticed several yellow or brown plants scattered in the clones of healthy green plants. I took my pocketknife and cut one off at the base. There was a small round hole about an inch from the bottom. I very carefully slit the stem open and found a stripy caterpillar inside.
I called Ron that evening. His first response was to get mildly upset. “I’ve been looking for that moth for ten years. What do you mean you found it the very first time you went out looking?” He came over the very next afternoon, and agreed that it was a Papaipema larva. We decided to rear up a half dozen caterpillars to confirm that it was indeed P. cerina.
Papaipema larva in a drilled carrot. This is not P. cerina, but a different species of Papaipema. P. cerina is striped from end to end, and does not have the unstriped brown band.
Photo by Ron Panzer.
Photo by Ron Panzer.
Rearing Papaipema is fun. Ron worked this technique out with P. eryngii, a species that was thought to be extinct until he re-discovered it. It feeds on rattlesnake master, which is in the carrot family. Ron began using carrots to rear the moths on. He’d drill a hole down the length of the carrot and coax the caterpillar inside. Coaxing a caterpillar inside of a carrot turns out to be as hard as it sounds. The technique worked with multiple species in the genus, including cerina.
I spent the summer of 2001 feeding carrots to the larvae. When the adults emerged in September, we confirmed that they were indeed cerina. That winter, we applied for, and received, permission to translocate the species from the woodlot to Bluff Spring Fen. The whole project was described nicely in the chapter Transanimaling in the charming book Hunting for Frogs on Ellston by the late Jerry Sullivan. We are still able to find damaged Mayapples at Bluff Spring Fen, so the new population lives on. It’s a good thing, too. The woodlot is now a housing development.