Much Ado About Moths

I’m not sure how I saw it, it all happened so quickly, but out of the corner of my eye I watched a small green-winged creature ricochet off the tractor-trailer driving in front of me. When it hit the shoulder of the roadway, I knew immediately what it was. A Luna Moth, Actias luna, one of the largest moths in North America and one of my absolute favorites. This sight alone rekindled the excitement of the summer nights of my youth when these giant silkmoths would congregate around a humming barn light. There they would be, sometimes two or three of them, clinging to the peeling paint on the wall-always far above my reach. A few times we’d gotten the ladder out and captured one of the beautiful nocturnal pixies for a closer look. There were even years when I was lucky enough to raise caterpillars that hatched from eggs laid by one of the moths.

It was odd to see one out so early in the morning. It couldn’t have been much past 7:30 and yet here was this quivering Lepidopteron on the side of the road. I don’t know what possessed me but I braked to a stop and looked in my rear view mirror to see if a U-turn was plausible. What caught my eye next was as strange as the out-of-place moth. A brilliantly colored, male cardinal swooped down from a sapling on the side of the road and rapped at the trembling body. The bright red and pastel green forms clashed against the asphalt as if to highlight the throes of this demonstration: predator versus prey. I really wasn’t rooting for one over the other but maybe the fact that the moth had just been hit by a truck made me feel for its plight a little more than for the hungry bird’s. I jumped out of my car and made my way across the road scooping for the moth. She fluttered violently against my loosely clasped hands, I held her long enough to see that her wings were brand new-as yet undamaged- and then she escaped. The cardinal had returned to his perch on the sapling and we both watched as the peculiarly bulky form fluttered off.

I’ve always held a certain fascination for the giant silkmoths. Last summer I was lucky enough to be given a large Cecropia caterpillar-it almost immediately sewed itself into a silk cocoon which overwintered in a glass bowl on my kitchen table. When the moth emerged in early May she measured 7 inches from wingtip to wingtip with a 2-inch-long body, 3/4 of an inch thick. A beauty.

When a giant silkmoth emerges, it can’t simply fly off. Its large wings are not capable of flight until they have been pumped full with blood, and that can take a few hours to complete. The stubby wings hang wrinkled from the swollen abdomen and the moth usually clings to a tree trunk or branch until the process is complete. The Luna Moth I tried to save had more than likely emerged the day before or even very early that same morning and had been ousted from its hiding spot by the hungry cardinal-only to be hit by a truck and stranded in the bright morning sun. Bad luck. I doubted very much that the large moth would survive out in the open; this was yet another lesson I had learned in childhood. A Polyphemus Moth had gotten stuck inside a mechanic’s shop during the night, more than likely attracted by the bright light in the garage. I was more than happy to capture it and take it home with me. When I got it home I was concerned by its weak state-it had nothing to eat. I decided the best thing to do would be to let it go outside to find some food. It was mid-morning when I released the moth in my backyard. It was five minutes later when the colorful wings came drifting down from high above, landing in an ironic pile in my front lawn-bodiless.

What I wish I would have known before I released the poor creature, besides that I should have waited until it was dark outside, was that the giant moths don’t eat. As adults they live for about a week. They use that time to find a mate and further the species. Then they die. In the case of the Luna Moth, eggs are laid (a total of about 200) on the bottom of leaves in small groups. The caterpillars hatch in about 10 days and won’t stop eating for up to four weeks! They are ideal for classroom observation. As long as there is a ready food source, the green larvae get bigger and more colorful, reaching 2 1/2 inches before they finally spin a silk cocoon with a leaf covering. The moth will usually emerge two or three weeks later but-as was the case with the Cecropia Moth this year-if the caterpillar doesn’t enter the cocoon until the late fall it will overwinter, waiting until spring to emerge.

If you’re interested in seeing one of these impressive specimen, a barn light or street lamp on a warm night is a great place to start. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what it is about light that attracts the moths-some theories suggest that the insects aren’t so much attracted as disoriented by the brightness in the otherwise dark out-of-doors-but this time of year your chances of spotting one of the Giant Silkmoths by night lights are very good. It’s important to note that their wings are extraordinarily delicate, as are their bodies. You could easily render them flightless by handling them. The moths can also do irreparable damage to their own wings trying to get out of an ill-sized container. If you want to learn more about how to care for or raise moths and butterflies with your kids, come talk to one of our naturalists here at Audubon!

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. Call 569-2345 or visit our website at jamestownaudubon.org for more information about programs coming up like the Monarch Butterfly Festival.