Saturday, June 13, 2009

Beautiful Moths

Toby made a great find this morning. We were on the third leg of our morning walk when suddenly the ol' pooch perked up and made a beeline to the roadside. There in the grass, barely moving, was a lovely cecropia moth. I picked it up and set it on my shirt - a beautiful living brooch. As we continued our walk, the moth started to shiver and shake - no doubt trying to warm up after a cool night. I noticed that its left hindwing had a tear, but otherwise it looked fine. When I got home, I set it in a box where it would have a quiet, dark, secure place to sit until I got to work. Suddenly it was active - must've warmed up. I could hear all sorts of scratchings and flutterings from inside the box. After about ten minutes it was quiet again. When I got to work, I grabbed the camera and the box and went outside for a photo shoot.

As you can see, the cecropia, which is one of the silk moths, is a large insect.

How beautiful it is with that large, striped furry body!

The large feathery antennae indicate that this is a male. With the silk moths, the males emerge before the females, so they are rarin' to go when the females come out. Like many other moths, he doesn't have functional mouthparts, so he won't be eating. Instead he'll live off his fat reserves, hopefully finding many females with which to mate before the fat supply is gone.

I couldn't resist getting a close-up of the wing - the colors are just stunning.

Next we have a polyphemus, which we found a couple days ago. This male has obviously seen better days:
It was still alive, but the ants were already trying to make off with it. So, I picked it up, blew off the ants, and took it home, where I stuck it in the freezer. This is the humane way to quickly end a moth's life. Like the cecropia above, this is a male - note the large, feathery antennae.

The centers of the wings' eye spots have lost their scales and are transparent. Moths have these eye spots to help deflect the attention of predators. Hopefully the potential predator sees the eye spots and thinks it is looking at something else entirely, like an owl, for example, and leaves the moth alone.

Luna moths, another of our native silk moths, also have eye spots, but the ones on the forewings are small. I found this wing back in early May. It is in pristine condition, except for the fact that it is no longer attached to the moth. "Luna moth green" is one of my absolute favorite colors.

According to my friend Lydia, who is the moth and butterfly guru at the Paul Smiths VIC, we should be starting to see the females silk moths fairly soon. Their antennae are not large and feathery, so you can easily tell them apart from the males. Lydia says that if you find a female silk moth, the odds are very good that she is gravid - heavy with eggs. While it is possible for you to raise her young, if she is not injured you should let her go and complete her life, laying her eggs on the appropriate host plant(s).

If she is lightly injured (say with a torn wing like the cecropia here), you can place her gently in a paper bag, close the top, and set it aside in a quiet place. She will lay her eggs within the bag before she dies. The eggs should hatch about 12 days later (sooner if it is warm). You will then have a bunch of silkworms to raise; be sure you know what species you have so you can provide the right food for them. After they grow up and pupate, you can release the adults to continue their species's survival in the wild.


  1. Oh,Ellen, what beautiful creatures! And what great photos of them! Thanks for showing them to us.

  2. Dear Ellen, it has been 5 days since I found a polyphemous moth with torn wings. She laid eggs in the ice cream bucket I placed her in the very first day I found her. Since then, I've taken her outdoors to enjoy the grass and sunlight. She has flitted a few feet but then collapses on the ground - an easy target for birds and other critters. We have been enjoying this moth so much, she sits on our fingers as we go about our home. I know her time is short and she will probably die within a day or two. She is quivering most of the time, is this normal before they die? Also, is it worth it to try to keep the eggs and help them along, or shall I place the bucket outdoors without the lid underneath a protected bush or tree? Thank you for any information you can provide. This moth is truly beautiful and has been a gift to our family. 6/30/09

  3. Hello, Anonymous - How lucky you are to get a batch of eggs! After consultation with our staff lepidopterist, I have the following info to pass to you.

    You can either try to pull the eggs off the sides of your bucket, or just put a lid on it and move it to a safe location. Depending on temperature, it will be 10-12 days until those eggs hatch (presuming they are fertile, and 99% of the time they are). For the first 12 hours or so after hatching, the larvae (which will be very tiny) will just zoom around, glad to be out of the egg (which they will consume). After that they will settle down to eat. You can then either place them on the appropriate host plant (maple, birch or cherry), which can be tricky since they are so small and fragile, or you can keep them in a container (with air holes - a box made of screening is best, but a jar with a screened lid will also work) and supply them with fresh leaves (sticks are also nice because they give the youngsters something to climb upon). Maple dries out the fastest, and birch and cherry remain viable longer. The larvae will go through six instars, shedding after each. Each takes about a week (depending on temperature). After the 6th, they will spin their cocoons and pupate. After pupation, you will have a bunch of lovely adult polys!!!

    As for the quivering, most likely it is simply because she is cold, and shivering is the way to warm up muscles and get the moth equivalent of blood flowing.

    Good luck!

  4. Dear Ellen,
    Wow, that is fascinating. Thank you so much for the prompt information! Our dear moth died yesterday. Yes, I even shed a tear. I knew I would. My husband says I'm the only person in the world who would get so attached to a moth, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. Believe it or not, I stopped on my way home from work yesterday to pluck a turtle from our 4-lane highway and put him safely in the ditch. What next?

    Now that I have all of this useful information, it may be worth the time and effort to try to keep her eggs safe and help them along their way to adulthood before we release them into the wild. My kids are enjoying witnessing the miracles of nature. I'm grateful to know the kind of trees they need for a food source. I work with some women who can refer me to the correct trees in the area.

    Many thanks to you for your time, expertise and helpful information!

  5. I probably would've shed a tear, too, so you are in good company. And "Hurray!" for saving the turtle! I stop all the time and help them cross the road - fortunately up here we have very little traffic so it isn't too dangerous a feat!

    Good luck with the eggs!

  6. Hello Ellen, thank you for the support - I am very much looking forward to the possibility of "little youngsters." My kids were disappointed I didn't bring the turtle home for them. I'm hoping its sense of direction kicked in so it could find water. I figured I'd have a tough time wading through the tall prairie grass in my work heels in search of water! :)

    I'm so happy to have found your blog, your encounters are dear and enlightening. May you be richly blessed in your endeavors. Thanks for sharing your love of nature!

  7. Hi Ellen,
    I'm the one who asked about the poly moth that laid eggs. Today they hatched and my children and I got to witness the little spiny larvae emerge from their eggs. It was an amazing sight, particularly interesting how they hatched in such a short amount of time . I'm worried because they moved around at first and almost all of them are completely still right now. A few are still crawling around and checking out the 2 gal. aquarium we have them in. We will keep our fingers crossed that they will revive but more than likely several have died already. Hoping to set them loose in the wild this weekend! Very exciting evening at our house!

  8. Hurray! Baby moths! Yes, Lydia said that when they first hatch they will zoom around like mad, and then stop. After they stop they are ready to eat (having eaten their egg cases upon hatching). Chuck some leaves in for them - cherry, birch, etc. That should tide them over until you can release them. Good luck!

  9. Thanks Ellen, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw them moving again this morning. Honestly, it looked like they had all died! So, am not feeling like a complete failure yet. I was worried the leaves I gave them might be coated with insecticide. Maybe when I restock the leaves, I will wash them off with water first. Now I'm hoping to keep them until they get older. I feel such a sense of responsibility to keep them safe now. Far be it from me to let any predator snatch up one of these little babies! Thanks to you and Lydia! Gratefully, Jill

  10. What a fascinating conversation between two very obvious animal lovers. I, too, help turtles across the roads. Today I found a lovely moth on my window. I am enjoying its beauty today, but will not interfere with it...

  11. I found a cecropia male with a torn wing in my back yard this morning. I put him into a container with a stick. He's not flapping around as much as he was when I found him hanging onto the fence. Should I put him in the freezer or let him out tonight?

    1. Cecropia moths don't live very long. They have no mouths, so they don't eat. They exist for a few days to reproduce and then die. If this fellow is already pretty ragged, he's probably near the end of his life. You can freeze him if you want - will do him in a little sooner than if you let nature take its course...maybe.