Moth Royalty

In the jungle, during one night in each month, the moths did not come to the lanterns; through the black reaches of the outer night, so it was said, they flew toward the full moon.

~ Peter Matthiessen

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the case this past weekend, even though an almost full moon shone brightly through the treetops. I set out the moth light again to see if I might capture a few different species now that about a week had passed since my inaugural moth night. On my first check of the sheet, there were some of the usual suspects, including a plethora of tiny moths, several Rosy Maple Moths, and another huge (non-moth) Eastern Dobsonfly. But, there were also a few newbies, which created another excuse to while away the heat of the next afternoon flipping through some field guides (paper and online). Those that really caught my eye had quite distinctive shapes, making it a little easier to refine my search. Once again, identifications are my best guess, corrections are welcome.

Curve-toothed Geometer - Eutrapela clemataria??

Curve-toothed Geometer – Eutrapela clemataria – surrounded by small caddisflies of some sort (click photos to enlarge)

One resembled a stealth bomber.

Datana sp.

Datana sp.

One looked a bit like a banded cigarette butt, somewhat tubular in shape, with a fuzzy head.

Virginia Creeper Sphinx - Darapsa myron

Virginia Creeper Sphinx – Darapsa myron

Another resembled a different military aircraft, some sort of supersonic fighter jet.

Deep Yellow Euchlaena - Euchlaena amoenaria

Deep Yellow Euchlaena – Euchlaena amoenaria

And one just looked like an elegant person wearing a fancy shawl with their arms outstretched (and remember, these were my thoughts on the early shift…imagine what comes at the 2 a.m. shift). Two more checks that night, with the final one being at 2 a.m. That one turned out to be the winner…moth royalty made an appearance.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis

While driving up the long gravel road the night before, a huge moth had performed a kamikaze spiral in front of my headlights. We came to a stop and I got out and managed to cup my hands around it and found a beautiful Imperial Moth. That was excuse enough for me to set up the moth light that resulted in this report. Imperial Moths are one of our largest so-called Giant Silkworm Moths in the family Saturniidae. They have wing spans varying from 3 to 6 inches, with females being larger than the males.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, darker male

There were two of these huge yellow and mauve night-flying insects on the front side of the sheet and one on the back. At first, I thought the two lighter-colored ones might be female (males in the south tend to have darker markings).

Imperial Moth, male head shot

These moths readily cling to your finger when gently touched

When I let one of the more yellow ones crawl up on my fingertip, I could see feathery antennae, an indicator that this, too, was a male (a female Imperial Moth’s antennae are simple their entire length, whereas a male’s are feathery on the basal two-thirds of each antenna). Males usually emerge from their pupa a few days ahead of the females, and tend to show up more at lights. One theory is that females are quickly mated after they emerge and therefore do not travel very far from the plants where they fed as caterpillars. Males, on the other hand, may travel great distances searching for available females, guided by pheromones the female releases.

Imperial moth larva

Imperial Moth caterpillars can reach 4 inches in length and be about the diameter of your pointer finger. Their color can vary from green to brown.

Well, it sure would be great to have some Imperial Moth larvae (they are huge) for the caterpillar tent at next month’s BugFest event at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, so I guess I will be putting out the light a few more nights and hope I get lucky. I suppose losing a little sleep would be worth it if I were rewarded by a visit from the queen of moth royalty.

Moth Majesty

There are two worlds; the world of sunshine, and the world of the dark. There are whole armies of living things , which, when we go to sleep, begin to awaken; and when we awaken, go to sleep.

~W.J. Holland

It happened again the other night. When I started to close the inside door for the night, there were a few moths clinging to the screen door. Most were small and dark, the LBT’s (little brown things) of the insect world that make mothing so challenging. But one was majestic, royal, magnificent.

imperial Moth, male, underside

A male Imperial Moth staring at me through the screen door (click photos to enlarge)

It was one of the large silk moths, an Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis. These beauties have wing spans of 4 to 5.5 inches, and are reported to be seen in the south from April to October, although I usually see them in mid- to late summer.

Imperial Moth, male

Imperial Moth, male

Females are larger and more yellow in color than males, so this one’s color pattern, with large blotches of purplish-brown on the upper wings, identified it as a male. Most references say they have but one generation per year, although Bug Guide says there may be two in the south. They overwinter as a pupa underground, emerge, and fly about for a couple of weeks (the adult moths do not feed), mate, and die.

Imperial egg

Imperial Moth egg, about to hatch

Females lay large eggs, singly, or in small groups, on a variety of trees including elm, hickory, oak, sweet gum, and pines. A couple of years ago, I had a large, gravid female, come to a light. I held her overnight in a paper grocery bag where she laid a number of eggs inside the bag. She was released the next morning. I cut out strips of the bag containing eggs and clipped them to several potential host plants in the yard and watched the caterpillars hatch and grow.

Imperial moth early instar

Imperial Moth caterpillar, early instar

Young larvae have prominent spikes which become less pronounced as they molt and grow.

Imperial eating

Imperial Moth caterpillars grow to be almost 4 inches in length and can vary in color

Later instars can range in color from green to brown to orange-ish, and grow to be almost 4 inches in length. They lose the large spikes, but are covered in fine “hairs”. When finished eating and growing, they bury themselves in the soil and pupate, spending the winter underground.

Imperial Moth, male 1

Imperial Moth in all its glory

When they finally emerge, they are one of our most beautiful moths, and bring joy to any who are lucky enough to see them in their brief time in our night sky.