A while back I started seeing some Instagram posts about mothing. People raising moths. Eggs. Caterpillars. Cocoons. Glorious winged creatures were emerging, people were holding them on their finger tips and documenting it all.
I was fascinated by seeing these experiences and wanted to become a "moth mom" myself. I could not stop thinking about it actually. I was bitten by the bug bug. No surprise really, since I worked in the entomology department during my studies in college. During that time I raised seven different species of mosquitos, as well as cockroaches, in the basement of the entomology science lab... lab coat and all!
The Death's-head Hawkmoth and the Luna Moth really piqued my interest and I began to research more about them in the fall of 2015. I learned that the Death's-head was not an option for me, as it is not a legal species to raise in the United States. So I moved on to la Luna. They are a native species of Lepidoptera in North America and are in decline in Pennsylvania, so I decided that my long term mission would be to help restore the local population.
That September I ordered three Actias Luna moth cocoons from a biological supply company I found online. They arrived that October with instructions to place them in a tall container with a lid and include a stick or something for them to crawl up. The wings of the Luna moth are quite large (up to 4.5 inches!) and in order for them to properly form the moth needs to climb; gravity pulls them down as they uncurl and dry.
Luna Moths are in the Saturniidae family, also known as Giant Silk Moths. The cocoons I received were woven of brown silky fibers and wrapped in dried green leaves.... charming little fairy houses, really. They wiggled when I held them and I could hear them moving around in there. I was pretty excited!
In December, under a full moon on Christmas Eve, my first female eclosed from her cocoon. I had gone outside to watch some fireworks my neighbor was lighting off and when I came back inside her bright green wings immediately caught my eye. After months of waiting, there she was in the container on the stick, unfolded in all her mimicry glory "staring" back at me. She was perfect. She also squirted moth poo all over me when I picked her up; the adults need to empty their guts after months of being enclosed in the chrysalis.
I could tell it was a female right away because of the size of the body, and her behavior. Females are quite plump with eggs when they eclose and they also sit still and "call" for a mate. This calling consists of remaining in one location while doing a little quivering tremble and sending her pheromones out. Males in the area will pick up these pheromones using their sensitive antennae and fly to her from up to five miles away! If you see a Luna moth sitting still in the wild it is most likely a female calling for a male, or a moth that has completed its mating cycle and is waiting to die.
After a day or two without a mate, (there were no males around in the middle of December), she proceeded to lay her unfertilized eggs. Females can lay 200-300 eggs, whether or not they are fertilized. A few days later she passed away naturally.
During the adult phase of the life cycle, the entire purpose of the insect is to reproduce the next generation. They do not eat during this time and live off of their stored energy from life as a caterpillar. Adult Luna moths do not even have functional mouth anatomy! They emerge, breed and then die all within a few short weeks. If it had been spring or summer I could have tried placing her outside in a cage to attract a wild male and then pair them for breeding. That will be my goal this spring with the cocoons I have in diapause right now (more on that later).
The other cocoons I received turned out to be males. They emerged a few weeks later, and were much more active than the female. If given the opportunity they would fly around the house searching for a lover. They did not find success in mating, and died within a few weeks. I kept all of the cocoons, wings, and eggs to make art with, of course!
That was not the end of my endeavors in mothing.
I decided that I would raise some from eggs the following season, when the host plants were in season and I could find some from a supplier. Shipping eggs is a very time sensitive matter, and of course you must immediately have food for the baby caterpillars to eat. Since I planned to feed mine black walnut leaves from the abundant trees surrounding my home, I would have to wait.
This brings the story to about now. This year I missed purchasing a clutch of eggs that were offered by an online hobbyist in the spring, and when I saw them being offered again in September I jumped on it. I ordered two dozen eggs and really started digging for information on the internet on how to rear them. I also went on vacation and hoped that they would not arrive in my mailbox until I got home!
The day I got home from my trip the very first thing I did was go to the post office. It was a good thing that I did, the package had been there since the day before. I opened it with excitement and saw that some had hatched that morning and others were about to. I drove home and got them all set up as quickly as I could. Caterpillars that small are very sensitive to their environment, and need to eat within 12 hours of hatching. They all hatched by that afternoon on September 10, 2016. There were 26 upon counting.
The eggs had been shipped protected in bottle cap taped to a piece of brown paper bag, which their mother had laid the eggs on. The purpose of this was to seal them from drying out. The habitat for the hatchlings would also need to be free from drafts. In the wild they would be living in the tops of trees, where there is humidity and moisture to protect them from desiccation. I put my babies in a small tupperware with a lid, as per the instructions from the breeder.
Getting their food ready involved placing a few leaves from a black walnut tree in a sealed floral tube with water. I had to be careful that the moisture from the bottle would not leak out, as too much moisture would also cause problems, and also that the tiny 'pillars could not crawl in. It was necessary to use the floral tube because caterpillars will not eat wilted leaves. Just a few leaves were plenty at the time, as the eggs were the size of poppy seeds, so the babies were equally tiny. They looked like little green strings no bigger than half a grain of rice! They started eating and making frass, which is a fancy word for caterpillar poop. They ate, pooped, and grew, a lot.
From September 10 through October 22, my baby Luna moths continued to eat more and more. I had to start putting small branches in their habitat to keep up with them! Their frass got proportionately larger and required daily cleaning. As they grew, they went through five instars, or molts. I lost many of them along the way, and ended up with four big fat 'pillars and one little runt. I was not sure that the runt would make it.
On October 9, 2016, my first Actias Luna caterpillar emptied its guts in one big mess and started spinning a cocoon. It was much like the ones I had ordered the previous fall; brown silky threads wrapped in dried (black walnut) leaves. Within a few days it had completed its little pod, and the others began to follow. One by one they spun cocoons until only the runt was left. Once the little one was alone it grew at a much faster rate than I had ever seen, and on October 22 it began to spin.
Now that they have all formed cocoons they will begin to pupate. If they are in diapause that means they should emerge in the spring, after several months. Diapause is the suspended state that insects go into during metamorphosis, until the environmental conditions are favorable. If my babies eclose in the spring, I will attempt to get a breeding pair and fertile eggs at that time. Then the whole process will (hopefully) begin again! My dream is to raise thousands of these winged jewels in my lifetime, and share their beauty with others while helping bring them back to the area. It would be nice to have some wings for my art as well (after they have naturally passed, of course!).
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog about raising Actias Luna moths. If you would like to know more about my experience or have any questions, please feel free to email me at email@example.com or connect with me via social media. You can find me on FB at www.facebook.com/ringingrocksjewelry or on Instagram @ringingrocksjewelry