Flying Flashy with Massive Moths

Anything and everything different or outside what people would call "normal" to have in and around the house will probably eventually catch my attention, and shortly after find me researching and trying to raise it. After all, the everyday is already common and needing little protection or promotion, but there are so many things people are often unaware of or only passingly familiar with that can be used to display nature in all its glory and usher in greater interest in protecting and preserving it.

These guys, of course, people in some locations are already extremely familiar with, but often even they are unaware that there are localities or other species that are threatened and in need of protection.


Hyalophora cecropia, the largest North American moth species and my first Saturniid guest in the house.

The Saturniidae as a group comprise more than 2,300 species worldwide, all of them famed for possessing broad and typically extremely colorful and vividly patterned wings. Some are small, perhaps only reaching an inch or two across, but this is also the group that houses the largest moth in the world, the Atlas moth (Attacus atlas, which can boast a more than 12 inch wingspan). Some are also among the sources of various kinds of silks The hotspot for diversity of this group is actually in the New World tropics and subtropics (Mexico and Central/South America in particular), and the group as a whole tends to favor more tropical regions, but there are still a staggering 42 different species give or take found north of Mexico here in the US and Canada.

Of those, the largest is the Cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia. Boasting wingspans of up to 6 inches and a bright red and white striped body in addition to the flamboyant wings, it is quite a sight to behold. I was gifted a cocoon of this species early this year, which triggered the interest in these incredible insects, and it hatched out as a huge female. Adults do not live very long, only about 1-3 weeks at most, and are quite active (and thus noisy) at night as I have found. Females also lay dozens to hundreds of eggs during their lifespan (quite impressive for a moth whose body might be 2 inches long).


Cecropia female with my wrist for scale.

Sadly, with only a single cocoon of this species attempting further care and breeding will have to wait until another year, but there were other species I acquired for attempts as well. Only one species has given me caterpillars (and only a handful still seem to be around), but more on that in a little while.


Antheraea polyphemus adult female. Note the eye spots which actually have perfectly clear membrane sections.

The second species to hatch for me was the Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus. All 4 ended up female, so yet another to be tried again at a later date. Quite a different looking species from the Cecropia, but with some similarities that many of the Saturniids tend to share. Defensive eye spots to make the insect look like a much larger animal are one, and the decorations on the tips of the forewings are theorized, especially in species where the pattern there is more greatly expanded, to mimic the face of some dangerous organism like a snake or lizard. Atlas moths may have an exceptionally good example of this in their patterns.

Another much later hatch was the species that I think may well be my favorite among the four; though I managed to get a male and a female, the timing was apparently off as none of the eggs ever hatched:


Actias luna adult male.

Actias luna is one of those species immediately recognizable, unique as it is. A brilliant sea-green to yellow green coloration with surprisingly complex eye spots (clear membranes and at least 6 other colors ringing them) and long tails off the hind wings, no other species, at least as I am aware in North America, looks anything like it. As one of the two species to hatch out at least one of each sex, this is one that lets me demonstrate how one can tell them apart.


Front view of male Luna moth, displaying the large antennae

In many of the Saturniids, coloration and patterning of the two sexes is nearly identical, and only varies either by individual or seasonal batch (ex. the Luna moths, especially in the southern part of the US, may produce two hatches in a year rather than just one, and summer moths tend to look very different from the moths hatching from overwintered cocoons). However, as seen above, males all possess very large, broad and feathery antennae, while females (below, sadly one of hers seems to not have formed right) have smaller and more slender antennae.


Female Actias luna, more slender antenna (and her poor crooked one) visible

The broader antennae of males permits them to follow the pheremones of females, something they need to do efficiently as both sexes of course only live a short time (males shorter even than females), and the females, if they are not courted within a day or two of their hatching by a male, will begin to reduce the pheremone production and lay infertile eggs instead.

The one species of which I had the most cocoons is the one that I may yet manage success in raising to another generation as well (5 males hatched, and one female who was courted by several of the males). It is also a species that differs drastically from the above three in that the two sexes differ not only in antennae, but the entire wing pattern as well.


Callosamia promethea adult male

Callosamia promethea adult female

There are several species in the genus Callosamia, all of which look fairly similar (as with many insects some of the major differences are likely best seen under a microscope). They all however share the same tendency for the different sexes to be distinguishable from each other at a glance. As seen above, the Promethea moth male is shockingly dark, most of the intricate pattern restricted to the outer edges of the wings, while the female is decked out in brilliant rust and cream shades edged in black and white.


A Promethea pair, in full color and health.

This species finally got the timing right and provided me with fertile eggs, and the chance to watch caterpillars grow. The Giant Silk Moths, as with many other species, hold a particular challenge here though: every species has its own set of host species that it prefers or can only survive on, and to raise the caterpillars you need that particular plant. Some, like the Promethea, may feed on several different species (spicebush, ash, sweetbay, and lilac among others), while others may only be restricted to a single species (a relative to this one C. securifera, will only eat sweetbay magnolia leaves). Some caterpillars may also be a challenge, such as Buckmoths and Io moths whose caterpillars have not only unusual colors but are also decked out in stinging spines.

Luckily, the Promethea caterpillars are decorated only in bright stripes and little fuzz tufts, and I have them happily munching on a lovely lilac bush. More than 50 eggs hatched, but now I seem to only have count of around 8 caterpillars still alive and well on the plant. There may be a few more hiding away somewhere, but of course one plant can only host so many caterpillars too. When young, they feed gregariously, hanging out in fuzzy little groups on the undersides of the leaves, but as they get older and larger, they begin to go solo which makes them much harder to track.

With any luck, these little stripey sausages will survive and cocoon, and I can store them to hatch out for another round next year.


A Callosamia promethea caterpillar hiding under a lilac leaf. They are just getting big enough now to being feeding solitarily, which makes it all the harder to track them (at least until they get big enough to turn green and begin pupating).