Oak moths return to Cal campus

Oak moths return to Cal campus

Eggs, caterpillars, pupa, and adult of Phryganidia californica.

The California oakworm or oak moth (Phryganidia californica), returned to the UC Berkeley campus for the second year in a row.

In June 2019 the Essig Museum received a call from a reporter at the Daily Cal asking about moths flying around oak trees on campus. Normally people do not notice the moths, but they certainly notice the onslaught of caterpillars eating the leaves of coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), and occasionally other oak species. By August many trees on campus were stripped bare. But by the end of October they recovered. In May-June 2020 we are witnessing the return of the oak moth.

The same tree at Sproul Hall: defoliated (August 15, 2019), recovered (October 3, 2019)

Oak moths typically have two generations per year – one in the spring and one in the fall. As of June 2020 we are seeing the spring caterpillars emerge as adult moths and laying eggs. These eggs will turn into caterpillars that will continue to defoliate trees in August and September. The caterpillars seem to focus on individual trees, rather than attacking all trees equally. This probably has to do with where the females lay their eggs, but the defensive chemistry of the oak trees may play some role.

This chemistry may also play a role in protecting the caterpillars and moths from birds and other predators. Many non-toxic moths and caterpillars hide during the day and feed at night. But oak moths and their caterpillars are very active during the day and do not seem to attract flocks of birds. Their main predators seem to be parasitoid wasps.

Feeding damage by Phryganidia caterpillars.

Once finished feeding on a tree, the caterpillars lower themselves by silk threads that can blow them to another tree to continue feeding, or two the ground where they will wander in search of a place to pupate. In nature these caterpillars would find a crack in the tree bark or side of a rock to anchor their pupal case (which looks more like a butterfly chrysalis). On campus these caterpillars can form masses on the sides of buildings, and sometimes crawl  into utility access tubes.

Masses of caterpillars at Campbell Hall in August 2019.

As if the oak trees are not suffering enough, this year is looking like a big year for tussock moths as well. Females of the western tussock moth are flightless and crawl a short distance from their cocoon to lay large masses of eggs. Caterpillars have distinctive tufts of white or cream hairs that can sometimes irritate skin. 

Tussock moth caterpillar and cocoons on coast live oak. 


Ascend with Bay Area Insects

Ride, walk, or jog along the Greenway in Emeryville and you will be greeted by a swarm of Bay Area “bugs”. Commissioned by the city of Emeryville, Joey Rose created two murals, titled “Ascend”, depicting some of the Bay Area’s most important inhabitants – the insects. Part of Emeryville’s park system, this green space cuts through the heart of Emeryville connecting Oakland to Berkeley. “The Greenway hopes to connect people with nature and serves as an “escape” in a historically industrial city,” says Rose. “My murals reflect this ideal. The intended audience is anyone who may happen to see them. It’s important for people of any age or demographic to feel connected to nature and see the importance of preservation.”

For inspiration, Joey visited the Essig Museum to photograph and sketch his subjects. I asked him why insects for this project. “Insects are an often ignored part of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, there is a stigma against insects. They are usually portrayed as being disgusting or scary. I wanted to show the true beauty of insects. This is a sight-specific mural, so I wanted to highlight local and native Bay Area insects. I hope people will be reminded of my painting when they see these insects around the Bay and vice-versa.”

The murals were unveiled on May 10, 2018 at 5768 Peladeau Street in Emeryville to an enthusiastic crowd. “The two figures in the murals are literally being carried by these insects,” says Rose. “I think that is really the core of what I want people to come away with. It’s not so important that they can identify each and every insect. What’s important is to get people thinking about how essential every creature is to not only our ecosystem, but to us (humans) as fellow members of that ecosystem. Even the little guys are important!”

by Peter Oboyski