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Pipkin's Nature Notes
According to Wikipedia, Polyphemus Moth caterpillars eat 86,000 times their weight in less than two months. I believe it!
Last year, during a hot summer night, a large moth took its soft erratic flight to a Serviceberry (Amelanchier) bush in my backyard. She laid a few tiny eggs on the underside of a leaf and then fluttered away to live the remainder of her short adult life. I missed most of her story.
As late summer approached there was a noticeable slow defoliation of the Serviceberry. I took a quick look, but did not observe anything obvious. Soon after, it was suddenly and completely bare, except for, it seemed, two unusually large green leaves. A closer look at those “leaves” revealed two beautiful corpulent green caterpillars. They were each three inches in length, and as wide as sausages. Although these two larvae had been eating voraciously for up to 5 weeks, they were still searching for more edibles.
After an Internet search, I was able to identify them as Polythemus Moth caterpillars, larvae of a type of giant silk moth native throughout most of the U.S. A list of host plants included oaks ( Quercus.) I relocated the caterpillars, which were conspicuous on their leafless perch, into a terrarium. I then filled their new home with leaves from the Pipkin’s Garden Center oak trees. The caterpillars began eating happily again. Within 24 hours they started to produce strands of silk and tugged the big leaves around them like capes. They were soon cocooned in bullets of almond colored silk, tightly layered with leaves. They would emerge the following May, if all went well.
The terrarium was kept in an enclosed back porch where the temperature dropped, but did not freeze. In late April, it was moved to a kitchen countertop so any moth activity would be noticed. On the last day of April, as my husband was making coffee, he saw some movement. An impressive five-inch Polyphemus moth had emerged during the night! It was lovely, tawny and grey with big blue and yellow eyespots on the hind wings. Its antennae were large and feathery! I placed the moth outside on a hidden bed of moss, protected from possible rain.
The remaining cocoon was placed in the newly green Serviceberry bush, so the other moth might emerge unhindered in the next night. I was anxious for them to get a good start. As adult moths they have less than a week to find a mate and lay eggs before expiring and leaving the world to the next generation.
As diurnal gardeners, all of us are tuned into butterflies. Nocturnal moths, also members of the Lepidoptera Order, become active while we sleep. On a warm summer night, hang out a white sheet close to a light source. Moths, attracted by the brightness, will alight on your sheet. You can learn to identify them or just enjoy their amazing diversity!