Dysauxes ancilla — The handmaid

Dysauxes ancilla – the handmaid – is a small species of tiger moth from Europe. Due to it’s tiny size and unremarkable appearance, it often goes unnoticed. Where it is found – which  is presumably in many parts of Germany, France, Turkey, Greece,  Sweden, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia,  Austria, Russia many parts of the Caucasus and Balkans, it inhabits hot and dry micro-habitats. Such habitats include rocks and rocky slopes, dry open grassland and woodland edges. In this environment, the rather polyphagous caterpillars eat many kinds of vegetal organic matter including but not limited to lichens, mosses, dry leaf litter but also herbaceous plants such as dandelion (Taxaracum sp), bramble (Rubus sp.), nettle (Urtica sp.), clover (Trifolium sp.) and almost any kind of plant they encounter.

Dysauxes ancilla female

The caterpillars of Dysauxes ancilla are small and grey, with a black head capsule, yellow(ish) dots and have very small hairy tufts. In the wild, caterpillars almost take a full year to reach maturity – eggs are laid between June and August, and the young caterpillars start feeding and growing, but go into hibernation in winter.  In spring, they wake up and start feeding again, only to pupate in May to June. In the scarce and dry micro-habitats this species seems to prefer, the caterpillars roam the surface area and stay close to the ground around rocks and rocky crevices, open ground, and in leaf litter. During the day, they prefer to hide, and become more active at night. The caterpillars are very polyphagous and seem to be able to eat almost anything that is plant-based, including lichens, algae, moss and most common types of herbs and weeds. Most likely, this very high degree of polyphagy aids their survival in the though, dry and scarce environments they live in, where not a lot of food plants could be available due to dry spells and heat.

Dysauxes ancilla caterpillar

  • Difficulty rating: Very easy 
  • Rearing difficulty: 2/10 (From egg to pupa)
  • Pairing difficulty: 5/10 (Archieving copulations)
  • Host plants: Lichen, Moss, Leaf litter, Algae, Herbaceous plants such as Rubus (bramble), Taxaracum (dandelion), clover (Trifolium), Rumex (Sorrel), Urtica (nettles), 
  • Natural range: Possibly unnoticed in countries where little research was done; recorded in atleast Germany, France, Turkey, Greece,  Sweden, Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia,  Austria, Russia many parts of the Caucasus and Balkans – likely more
  • Polyphagous: yes (but only coniferous trees)
  • Generations:  
  • Family: Erebidae/Arctiidae (tiger moths) 
  • Pupation: Naked pupa suspended by a little silk
  • Prefered climate: Temperate, Palearctic climate but hot and dry microhabitat
  • Special notes: Caterpillars are very though survivors, and can survive being neglected for months
  • Estimated wingspan:  18-24mm
  • Binomial name:  Dysauxes ancilla (Linnaeus, 1767)

In captivity, Dysauxes ancilla is laughably easy to raise for numerous reasons. First of all, the caterpillars are incredibly polyphagous and will even eat dry, old and rotten leaves in some cases. Second of all, they seem to be able to survive without food for weeks, if not months if forced to. A good setup could be a plastic container or a tube, filled with paper towels or rocks as a substrate, and some fresh leaves on top of random herbaceous plants such as Taxaracum sp. (dandelion) or Rubus sp. (bramble).

The early life stages of Dysauxes ancilla – the first instars and eggs – were so incredibly small, that there are no pictures of them on on this website, since my photo camera was not able to make a reasonable photo of them.

Dysauxes ancilla early instars

Even though I am a moth photographer, my camera was inadequate and could not document the smallest life stages. Later however, the caterpillars grew bigger, even up to 1 centimetre in size.

In 2018 I was rearing these moths, until I spontaneously got a job offer to work in Cambodia. I had to leave them behind. While I showed my parents how to take care of most caterpillars, I decided to overwinter the caterpillars of these moths instead in my cool basement (5-10C in winter).
Upon inspecting the container I didn’t see much larvae and decided they must have died. I neglected them, and eventually forgot about them.

Then, to my suprise,  moths started hatching in the container in the summer of 2019!. This means that the caterpillars were able to survive since early Februari to June in a container that has nothing but completely dried out, moldy, dessicated leaves/leaf litter. That’s honestly shocking. I haven’t added fresh leaf at all in about 5 months. These guys must be the tardigrades of moths! And they must be able to feed on random bits of organic matter (and maybe eachother too).

I obtained them in September 2018, and raised many from egg to adult moth between September 2018 and December 2018,  demonstrating that they grow quite fast if provided fresh leaf and room temperature. A life cycle of 4 months in optimal conditions.

I overwintered the remaining larvae that didn’t become moths (some were too slow) ,and these are the ones I overwintered and presumed to be dead, and they went on to grow into moths – a development time from September 2018 (the same brood) to June 2019. A life cycle of 10-11 months in neglectful, dry and almost foodless conditions, including a few months of overwintering too, as opposed to the ‘normal’ 3-4 months in good conditions.  I wonder what the limits of these caterpillars must be. I’m sure it is possible to prolong their lifespan into a year or more under dry and scarce conditions. They must have been eating nothing but a mix of paper towels, mold, and crumbed dried up leaves – and maybe eachother.

Dysauxes ancilla caterpillar

Dysauxes ancilla caterpillar

Dysauxes ancilla caterpillar

In essence, they are very easy to raise. The only challenge is their every long development time if they are overwintered. In captivity, some larvae will not enter diapause if kept artificially warm (room temperature) and turn into moths in about 3 months time. However, if overwintered the development takes about 9 months from egg to moth.

When the caterpillars finally pupate, the moths hatch quite fast, in about 2-4 weeks, from their pupae. Females are bigger than males and have golden hindwings. Males only have brown wings. Both sexes have white spots on their forewings. The moths have a functional proboscis, and do visit flowers to consume nectar. Females are bigger than males.

Dysauxes ancilla female

Dysauxes ancilla male

Pairing and egg laying is possible in captivity, in a small plastic container, with a little bit of ventilation. The adults can be fed a solution of sugar/honey and water, or even better, small flowers can be included in their little habitat. Eggs are laid a bit randomly in captivity.

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Citations: Coppens, B. (2019); Written by Bart Coppens; based on a real life breeding experience [for citations in literature and publications] 

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