Masters of Deception - Handmaiden Moths
Handmaiden moths are not your ordinary fly-by-night Heterocera. For starters they are diurnal. Secondly, they are highly attractive insects with colourful shimmery wings and striped bodies.If you know what to look for, it is easy to spot a handmaiden moth during your South African safari. They tend not to fly particularly fast or for long distances at a time and you will usually see them resting up on a branch or other suitable surface.
Unlike most of their dull-coloured relatives, handmaiden moths have brilliant black wings. Each wing has eight transparent patches arranged on it and it's this reflection of light off fine ridges and grooves on the wings that gives them their shimmering appearance. In some species the patches are yellow or white.
The forewings are much larger than the hind wings. So much so, that the hindwings are totally concealed, giving the moth a two-winged appearance. The body of the moth is boldly striped with bands of iridescent blue-black and red. This wasp-like veneer repels predators.
Handmaiden moths also closely resemble the poisonous Burnet moth, another day-flying species common in South Africa. This type of deception, where one species imitates another unpalatable one, is called Batesian mimicry. From the reaction of any animal that does try to eat a handmaiden moth, they aren't particularly tasty either.
It's all in the interests of looking unappetising and it works.
Handmaiden moths flourish throughout South Africa, China and India. Their preferred habitat is bushlands, wetlands and subtropical forests. Here, like all moths, they feast on sap, nectar and any other liquids they come across.
The Circle of Life
The lifecycle of the Ctenuchidae (a subtribe of moths) is about 46 days. During this time they undergo a textbook metamorphosis.These leaf-eating caterpillars hatch, moult several times, conceal themselves in a pupa and cocoon, and finally emerge as handmaiden moths.
After a few days of feasting to get their energy up, male and female engage in extended mating sessions. They can even fly around during the process. Afterward the female lays her eggs on a food source such as a leaf or twig and the whole procedure starts all over again.
The next time you see a wasp on your South African safari, look again. It could be one of these beautiful daytime moths.