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Defenseless moths do flying impressions of scary bees and wasps

Faking that erratic bee flight or no-nonsense wasp zoom might save a moth’s life

7:05pm, May 1, 2018
two species of clearwing moths

FAKERS These two species of clearwing moths may discourage predators via airborne trickery, flying much the way that some of their feistier Southeast Asian bee neighbors do (Heterosphecia pahangensis (left), Pyrophleps cruentata (right)).

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Clearwing moths may not look all that dangerous, despite having largely see-through wings like bees and wasps. But some fly like fierce insects best left well alone.

Four clearwing species from Southeast Asian rainforests aren’t perfect mimics of local bees and wasps. Yet the resemblance looked much stronger when entomologist Marta Skowron Volponi of the University of Gdansk in Poland and her husband, nature filmmaker Paolo Volponi, spent days at a time poised with a video camera on riverbanks to capture the flight patterns. Four clearwing species occasionally showed up, including a shaggy Aschistophleps that turned out to be a species new to science.

That newly named A. argentifasciata and two other species flew in slow, zigzaggy paths that resembled the meanderings of local stingless bees. (This kind of bee is not great for snacking birds because it bites fiercely.) Another clearwing moth flew distinctly faster with broader turning sweeps instead of zigzags, much like a wasp.

Behaving like something that stings or bites may be an advantage for moths that forgo the cover of night and fly in daylight with its abundance of hungry birds and other predators that hunt by sight. Even imperfect body mimics get convincing in the air, Skowron Volponi and her colleagues report May 2 in Biology Letters.


M.A. Skowron Volponi et al. Moving like a model: mimicry of hymenopteran flight trajectories by clearwing moths of Southeast Asian rainforests. Biology Letters. Published online May 2, 2018. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2018.0152

M.A. Skowron Volponi et al. A new species of bee-mimicking clearwing moth (Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) from Thailand, with description and video of its behaviour. Journal of Asia-Pacific Entomology. Vol. 21, March 2018, p. 279. doi: 10.1016/j.aspen.2017.12.007

Further Reading

S. Schwartz. Stinky seeds dupe dung beetles. Science News Online. October 5, 2015.

S. Milius.  Amazonian bird may act the part of its hairy caterpillar disguise. Science News. Vol. 187, January 2, 2015, p. 32.

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