Having an interest in butterflies and moths keeps me searching for caterpillars from summer till fall, and for the cocoons of moths throughout the winter. Caterpillars can be quite difficult to find as many species are masters of disguise mimicking leaves, twigs and tree bark, while other species conquer the game of hide and seek. Finding the cocoons of moths is also challenging as many species remain hidden beneath rocks and fallen logs or behind the bark of dead trees.
My favorite caterpillar and cocoon searches happen to be in silk moth family, which includes the promethia, polyphemus and cecropia moth. Fortunately, these silk moth caterpillars and the cocoons they make are impressively large, so finding one or two in the field and forest makes the search a little bit easier.
Likewise, was the ease in finding two brave young girls waving outstretched arms and smiling, “Pick me! Pick me!” after I asked for volunteers to take a picture holding not a caterpillar or cocoon, but a colossal cecropia moth during a recent animal presentation at Skytop Lodge.
Cocoon hunting this winter was quite rewarding as I found a variety of silk moth cocoons which resemble wilted leaves dangling from the leafless branches of shrubs and small trees. In fact, during a short walk along Dutch Hill Road at Skytop, I found seven cecropia moth cocoons.
My goal is to place the cocoons in mesh rearing cages and overwinter them the outdoor shed. When the caterpillars emerge from the cocoons as adult moths in late spring, I intend to release them back into the wild so they can mate and lay eggs.
The cecropia moth Hyalophora cecropia is a very large insect inhabiting deciduous forests of eastern North America.
The full-grown cecropia moth caterpillar is a fleshy hunk of green with a 4-inch long body armed with blue, white and yellow-colored gladiator spikes. Its grotesque face displays knobby tubercles reminiscent of bright red lady beetles guarded with sharp black spines.
During their final instar stage in late summer, the caterpillar spins a cocoon on the branch of a shrub or small tree. The finished product is a weather-resistant, tan-colored sleeping bag that is rough to the touch and mimics a large dead leaf. The caterpillar overwinters inside the cocoon and metamorphoses in late spring the following year.
The terrestrial caterpillar is an imposing creature, but the adult cecropia moth is something extraordinary. At a glance, the adult's 6-inch wingspan fluttering against a moonlit sky can be mistaken for a bat.
When found at rest during the daylight hours, the cecropia moth is very stunning. Its chunky body is colored burnt orange with white stripes. Its broad brown wings are marked with light tan crescents, dark brown eyespots and reddish bands. The outer edge of its wings is bordered light tan. Males sport a pair of brushy antennae used for long-range pheromone reception while the antenna of the fat-bodied females are noticeably less plume-like.
An amazing fact about cecropia moths is that while the chunky caterpillars have dynamic appetites, the extremely large adult moths do not eat as they do not possess mouth parts. The sole purpose of the adult’s brief two-week lifespan is to mate and lay eggs. Females deposit hundreds of tiny eggs on the leaves and branches of its host plants in late spring. From egg to adult, including the over-wintering process takes nearly eleven months… unless someone messes up the metamorphosis.
Unfortunately, I resemble that remark. Upon collecting seven cecropia moth cocoons last week, I thought I had placed all seven cocoons inside rearing cages in the backyard shed, but accidentally left one cocoon inside my heated reptile display room at Skytop Lodge. Guess what was fluttering inside the display room this past weekend?
The heat and humidity inside the room accelerated the development process of the pupae several months ahead of schedule. Fortunately, my Saturday surprise happened to be on the same day of my reptile and amphibian presentation later that evening. So, I intended to use the beautiful cecropia moth as an educational exhibit.
After the show, I asked if any of the children in the audience would like to have their picture taken holding the large moth, which will be featured in this week’s Out & About article. Before I could finish my sentence, the hands of eager volunteers waved high above their heads.
That was until I continued, “Perched on your nose.” In a blink of an eye, all hands went down except for two brave young girls named Taylor and Caroline. “Are you sure?” I asked. They confirmed with nodding smiles.
I then asked their parents for permission in which they agreed with mumbling, “I can’t believe our daughter volunteered!”
It takes a lot of courage for even an adult to touch and hold a colossal creature sporting a body as fat as their nose armed with six scratchy legs and a pair of wings as wide as their heads, but to have it cling onto your nose was unthinkable.
Not for Taylor and Caroline as they stood stoically in line for the scare dare. At first, the girls flinched and cringed, but admirably conquered the challenge, which left their proud parents in awe.
Many thanks to Taylor and Caroline as your smiles – perhaps hidden by wings- were the highlight of the evening.