THE FOREST CATERPILLAR HUNTER, Calosoma sycophanta, IN VIRGINIA
By Arthur V. Evans
In July of 2008, while conducting a beetle survey of the Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve in Fauquier and Prince William counties in Virginia, I found numerous metallic green elytra scattered along a foot trail winding through an oak woodland on a west-facing slope. The area had been heavily infested with larvae of the gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar, as evidenced by thousands of larval exuviae and pupal cases that festooned the trunks of oaks and other hardwood trees.
At first glance, I thought the beetle remains were those of the indigenous caterpillar hunter or fiery searcher, Calosoma scrutator, a common, brightly colored, and widespread carabid beetle found in the mountains and lowlands of Virginia. Closer inspection revealed that the elytra were much brighter and more yellow than those of C. scrutator and lacked the characteristic coppery red margins.
Further searching in the area produced a very fragile, yet nearly intact specimen ensnared in an abandoned spider web. The pronotum of this specimen was mostly black with metallic blue along the margins, rather than bluish with violet or coppery yellow green borders typical of C. scrutator. Of the five other species of Calosoma known in Virginia, only C. wilcoxi has entirely metallic green elytra, but it is smaller and much duller than either C. scrutator or the silk-wrapped remains in question. (Figure 1).
I soon realized that what I had in my possession were the remains of a European species, the forest caterpillar hunter, C. sycophanta. Long known as an important predator of gypsy moth larvae in France, 4,046 of these beetles were imported into the United States between 1905 and 1910, most of which were released in New England to combat outbreaks of two European species of lymantriids: the gypsy moth and the browntail moth, Euproctis chrysorroea.
In the United States, the forest caterpillar hunter is established in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. They have been released in Delaware, Michigan, Washington, and West Virginia, but they have yet to become established in these states. In spite of releases on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, the forest caterpillar hunter does not appear to be a permanent resident in Canada either.
Both the adults and larvae climb trees to attack and eat caterpillars and pupae of gypsy moths and other species. Adult males are more likely to be found on tree trunks, while females tend to remain on the ground. Based on observations in the laboratory and in the field, both sexes are active day and night. Males tend to be more conspicuous as they spend most of their time actively searching for mates. The more secretive females spend much of their time buried in the soil and hidden among leaf litter to feed and lay eggs.
Adult activity coincides with the larval activity of the gypsy moth. Beetles emerge from their overwintering sites in June to search for prey and mates, although some beetles may remain dormant for up to two years. Although adults are strong and agile fliers capable of leaving their overwintering sites behind to search for high populations of caterpillars, their appearance at new outbreaks of gypsy moths is by no means certain. In fact, beetles released as part of biological control programs often remain near their release site.
Forest caterpillar hunters will attack a variety of other caterpillar species, but are most abundant where populations of gypsy moth caterpillars are high. They remain active for about a month, re-enter the soil, and remain there until the following spring.
Adult predation is not this species’ primary impact on gypsy moth populations. It’s greatest impact is through larval production and the voracious appetites of the beetle’s larvae for mature caterpillars and pupae. The ability of adult beetles to reproduce is directly dependent upon the availability of high densities of gypsy moth caterpillars, especially since females require sufficient protein to ensure successful development of their eggs.
Eggs are laid in the soil beginning in early July and hatch in 4-7 days. The larvae climb trees in search of caterpillars and pupae. The remains of pupae attacked by beetle larvae have characteristically large and jagged holes. Mature beetle larvae seek pupation sites in the soil. The entire life cycle, from egg to adult, takes about seven weeks. In Connecticut, adults are known to live three to four years.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that forest caterpillar hunters are potentially important predators of gypsy moth larvae and pupae, but there is still much to learn. Nearly all of the information on the ecology and behavior of C. sycophanta was gathered during the brief period of adult activity that coincides with gypsy moth outbreaks, but little is known about the ecology of this species between outbreaks.
Many thanks to Chris Wirth for the wonderful color plate. This essay is excerpted from Evans, A.V. 2010. The forest caterpillar hunter, Calosoma sycophanta, an Old World species confirmed as part of the Virginia beetle fauna (Coleoptera: Carabidae). Banisteria  34: 33-37. The full article is available at http://fwie.fw.vt.edu/VNHS/banisteria/banisteria.asp.
©2010, A.V. EVANS