Ragwort; the most popular choice at any Cinna- barbeque

The Cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobeae) is a brightly coloured  beauty, common across the UK and Ireland from May-August. With wings of striking red against inky black, its colouring is a powerful indicator of its poisonous taste. However, in some circumstances, Cinnabar moths are considered to be an invaluable element of natural pest control

– and it has everything to do with poison.

Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) is a weed native to Europe, that has also successfully spread to many other areas. Although it can provide several benefits for wildlife in natural or remote regions, ragwort can be highly dangerous in areas where livestock are kept, such as cattle or horses, due to its highly toxic qualities. Ingestion of the plant can have serious or even fatal consequences, especially when repetitively ingested over a long time. As a result, a control measure is sometimes required. Cue Cinnabar moth…

Once a female Cinnabar moth has reached maturity, she can give birth to a host of eggs. Unlike most other creatures, the newly hatched caterpillars like nothing more than to chomp on the underneath of ragwort leaves in the near vicinity. The larvae quite happily ingest the toxic substances from the ragwort; as a result they become poisonous and unpalatable to other predators themselves. Until they have reached maturity, the Cinnabar caterpillar continues to consume not only the leaves of ragwort, but also the flowers, seeds, shoots and stem covering. After being ravaged in such a way, the ragwort can rarely recover and proceeds to decay.

A key benefit of using Cinnabar to eliminate ragwort is their specificity; ragwort is the only plant that Cinnabar will consume, meaning that commercial crops or endangered wild flowers are safe from their gargantuan appetites. As a result, particularly in regions such as New Zealand where the ragwort is considered to be a foreign invader, the Cinnabar has been used to protect livestock by removing the potentially life-threatening ragwort plants. These craving caterpillars, ravenous for ragwort, are being successfully used as biological control measures and thus are able to save the day!

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