The life of the Cecropia Moth

  • These caterpillars are in their first phase and often  gather near each other when eating. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • Sometimes something goes wrong and the the moth dies before leaving the cocoon. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman—

  • Caterpillars on a leaf: the black one is in its first instar (phase) and the yellow one is in its second instar. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The male and female moths are mating. A female is waiting below for her turn. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • The Cecropia moth is the largest native moth in North America measuring 5 ro 7 inches across. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

For the Recorder
Published: 7/6/2020 9:13:37 AM

The importance of pollinators in our own gardens and in public gardens like those at the Energy Park and the John Zon Community Center cannot be over estimated. Pollinators are vital to a healthy environment.

That being said, there are other insects that aren’t pollinators that are beautiful and important in their own right. For example, I am now learning about a beautiful moth, Hyalophora cecropia, which is not a pollinator.

The Cecropia moth is the largest native moth in North America. It is a member of the giant silk moth Saturniidae family. They get their name from the silkiness of their cocoons. Like many creatures, they are endangered; it is important that we all become aware of the importance of protecting native creatures, and plants.

I was introduced to these beautiful moths by my friend Susan. She knows an expert, Cecropia-loving friend who mailed her approximately 25 Cecropia eggs in late May of last year. Most of those eggs hatched and the tiny caterpillars began the cycle of eating apple leaves from a tree in Susan’s yard and growing through five stages of development called instars. I was fascinated when Susan told me Cecropia caterpillars are called “gregarious.”

“Sometimes three to five caterpillars may feed closely on the underside of a leaf. They seem to seek each other, to be close to each other,” she said.

She invited me to visit with my husband this June.

We started at a screened wooden box that her son made. The box was built to keep the caterpillars safe from predators. We saw several branches with cocoons that were attached to the inside of the box. I was confused because I thought the cocoons were dried leaves because of their irregular shape and color. They had been there all winter. The Cecropia moths were hatching, a few every day — first the males, mostly, and then the females. Male moths emerge in the morning and early afternoon and by dusk are ready to take flight. One cocoon had just hatched and we saw the new Cecropia moth pumping up its wings.

Susan explained that in the fall, Cecropias go into the cocoon phase which is called diaphase. Inside the cocoon, which is constructed to hold on a thin branch or other support. A change occurs that morphs the caterpillar in a pupa. The cocoon, which has three layers, protects the future moth from the brutal temperature and weather (winds and ice) of winter.

One cocoon had just hatched and we saw the new Cecropia moth. I had never seen a Cecropia, which has such beautiful and unusual coloring of white and gray and reddish brown. I was surprised by how fuzzy it seemed.

Then we went to her special hardware cloth mating cage and saw a female moth. According to Susan, the females are docile.

“They will emerge from the cocoon, pump up their wings and wait patiently for a male, sometimes for more than a day,” she said.

The female moth’s pheromones, emanating from a retractable protrusion at the end of her abdomen during the dark hours from dusk to dawn, attract a male who fertilizes her eggs. Males have large antennae that sense pheromones. Males usually arrive near dusk or before dawn. When they arrive, they connect onto a female for up to 24 hours and then they will leave.”

By mid-August, each caterpillar reaches a point where it finishes eating plant material and starts to construct a cocoon from which it will emerge as a moth the following spring. The sole purpose of the adult stage is to mate and lay eggs. Adult moths cannot eat, so if a bird doesn’t scoop them up, they will die within two weeks.

Susan is very aware of her surroundings, the plants she tends and the creatures that visit her garden. She does not use chemicals of any kind. She mentioned that other caterpillars, such as black swallowtails, may be found on parsley and dill in the garden, but they do little damage and should not be killed. I understand her reminder. Swallowtail butterflies are so beautiful that I have always been willing to share my parsley and dill with their caterpillar form.

Since people are becoming more interested in pollinator plants and pollinator insects, I think we will become more aware of the benefits and the beauty that many insects bring to our gardens and to our environment.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her w ebsite: commonweeder.com.


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