Archive for July, 2015

Polyphemus moth update!

I have had three of the six caterpillars that made it into Cocoons hatch as of July 27th. First, two males,July 24th and 25th and finally a girl this morning, July 27th! Im not sure what Im goin to do if they mate,raising them is a lot of work and this brood will overwinter.  I have seen how ants invaded thier cage on my sunporch and know they cannot stay inside or they will hatch when food is not available. It is simply awesome to see these huge moths go through their entire life cycle!

male                                             female



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The Praying Mantis- A 1990’s Study with my Children

Scientific name: mantodea Family: mantis religiosa Size-1/2″ long att hatching, up to 6″ long as an adult. Color: In Southern North America, there are now “importted Chinese mantises, which are large and green with green eyes. The Carolina Mantis is smaller and brown with brown eyes. They have mixed and some mantises now have brown wings and abdomens and green eyes.                                                              13330351

Though I have studied the praying mantis for many years, I intensified my studies in the 1990’s when my children could participate in “nature studies” with me. For two seasons in the mid-1990′ I kept a journal of the lives of the many praying mantises who lived in my yard, garden and neighborhood. My children and I observed every stage of their lives, from the laying of their eggs in casings, to these same casings hatching in spring, and going through the five instars (shedding their exoskeletons) until they became adults and the cycle started all over again. It was absolutely the most fascinating insect study I have ever done, and my children remember these days with an amazing clarity even today, as the study with their own children.

In 1995, I marked individual mantises as early as their their third instar in order to trace each mantises’ location and specific behaviors. It wasn’t until their fourth instar that I marked most of the 40-some mantises in my study. I also observed that they had the ability to rejuvenate injured or missing limbs as they molted. The larger a mantis became, the larger prey, such as butterflies or even cicadas might become prey. Though they usually stick with small butterfly-like skippers, and bees, a fight with a large butterfly can cause them to loose a limb.

It was especially rewarding to watch the ones that I had marked “moult” or shed their exoskeleton, which is the way an insect with three stages (egg, nymph, adult) grows, because I could then, remark them with the same color and dash-dot sequence as they had been in their previous instar. I used craft paint in a series of dots and dashes. I had them named in my journal, which my children really enjoyed “helping me with”. I found that only the adult or fifth instar could be marked on their thorax, because the hard paint “dot” would inhibit their ability to shed their exoskeleton. On the fourth instar mantises, I would mark them on their abdomen. The third instar starts to show wing buds, and it is usually possible to tell a male from a female at this point. The female has a broader abdomen and is usually larger than the male. Males have a narrow abdomen.


During the third instar, I simply marked them with a small red dot to show that they were in my study. I did mark a few third instars with specific marks, so I could try to follow them to adulthood. Watching a mantis moult is fascinating. As he slowly splits open his transparent brown exoskeleton, the green mantises, also called Chinese Mantises, are a bright blue green, and quite vulnerable. They usually attach their back legs to the underside of a leaf in order to be in a protected place as they moult. They also sleep in this protected position until the sun comes out in the morning.

During the time that I was studying the praying mantis, I did not have the internet, so most of my facts came from personal observation or a variety of nature journals, such as Audubon’s , National Geographic, Insect Guides or other library books on insects. Likewise, I had a wonderful camera and made some photographs that were used in advertising for a photo shop, but, alas, they are on film, and I have never had them put onto disks. Since I do not have the photos on my data files, all but the first photo will be borrowed from internet sources.

The mantis can take on many forms, they are well camouflaged , both to catch prey and avoid being prey. In the tropics, they can be pink, have wings that look like the leaves on the plants they live on or have mottled, oddly shaped wings, and may molt up to ten times. They live less than one year, going through their life cycle from during the warm season in the Appalachians, where I live, or possibly for a longer time in the tropics.

I found that my mantises were very territorial, rarely going far from the gardens and bushes where they hatched. The reason for this is simple, if there is plenty to eat, why leave? Often a second or third instar would be found on bushes with tiny blooms, where gnats and sweat bees were abundant. As they grew, they would move to areas where asters, stonecrop and plants with larger flowers feed. Their favorite prey seemed to be skippers. If you want to study carnivorous insects, you cannot have a weak stomach. The first thing a mantis does is chew off and discard the wings, so that its prey cannot flutter or fight. I have seen a large mantis eating a cicada, while the poor cicada, “screamed’ out in terror as the mantis nibbled on its abdomen.

As with all creatures, the hunter doesn’t always win. My children and I observed several Black Swallowtails put up such a fight that the mantis lost its arm and the butterfly escaped. It was because of my marking of the mantises that we became aware that with each moult, a preying mantis would grow back a small portion of its missing limb. Even though they had only a few instars to develop their new legs or specially made claws that they use for catching prey, a smaller leg, or claw was better than none at all. I had never even read that a preying mantis could regenerate its limbs, much like a starfish or octopus!

An example of my journal would look like this:

Name: Sonny Instar first sighted: third privet hedge in back garden

Other sightings: 7-25-95 -same privet 8-8- second privett 8-15 asters in top garden

Over the course of the summer and fall, I found that mantises remain true to their territory for a week or so, then, they might be found on a nearby flower or bush. It was rare that I saw a mantis in one of my gardens, or neighbors yard, and later found it in a place more than 10 yards away unless it was a large garden filled with asters, marigolds and other flowers. I was able to study quite a few mantises throughout the season.

The mantises became quite used to my presence and would often let me touch them or crawl onto my hand, even up my arm. If they were frightened, they would spread their wings and stand on their back legs while holding out their front claw in order to look as large as possible. We called this a “spreadin’ adder” position, because my aunt often referred to snakes as a “spreadin’ adder” if it curled up and hissed.

One male, we named, “Captain Hook” lost the entire upper portion of his left front “hook-like”claw. Surprisingly it was in a battle with a skipper, which is sometimes described as ” not quite a butterfly and not quite a moth”, because it feeds during the day, but has wings that fold up more like a moth. It is only about an inch long, usually shades of brown and orange. The lack of its second claw made it difficult for Captain Hook to catch and hold onto prey. Occasionally, he would make a “lucky catch, such as a fly or honey bee. The speed with which they snared their prey was amazing. The mantis would ususlly be waiting, claws ready, at the edge of a flower or group of small asters. Sometimes, we “helped” Captain Hook, by hold a fluttering skipper where he could snatch it with its good claw. Since he lost his limb in his fourth instar, he had only a small claw on the end of his lower leg when he moulted into his fifth instar as an adult.

Only a fifth instar mantis has full wings and can fly. The third instar may be starting to show wing buds, but the fourth instar has wings which have developed a bit and are visible at the intersection of the abdomen and thorax. The preying mantis has one ear, which is a slit located on the bottom of the thorax. They are also equipped with “sonar” capabilities, which help them detect night feeding predators such as bats.. They can around in a dive-bomber like movement and change directions in order to avoid capture.

Most young mantises feed on gnats, flies, and sweat bees. As they grew, they, unfortunately, feed on bees which help pollinate our flowers. The do not like beetles and will discard them if they catch one, which they rarely do, apparently having a “sense” of what they prefer to eat by the way it moves. I don’t believe I have ever seen a praying mantis feed on anything but a flying insect.

I have seen a preying mantis crawl onto the edge of a spiders web and be bitten. It escaped, but the limb which as bitten remained paralyzed, even after moulting. I also saw a small brown mantis that had been caught by a spider and was being wrapped up in web, after being bitten. I removed him from the web, and hand fed him for several weeks, but he remained addled and eventually died. The mantis rarely makes such mistakes, and it was only my close observation that allowed it. The praying mantis is the only insect that can move its head to any extent. They seem almost human, as they turn their heads 180 degrees, if necessary to look at you, if you come into their field of vision. With their speed.”sonar” capabilities and movable head, they are one of the best equipped of insects!

It is often said that a female mantis eats its mate, but this is rarely true. I have seen many marked mantises mating with more than one female. In my film-photos, I have a picture of three male mantises trying to mate with one female at the same time. I often saw two males attempting to mate one female. Safety in numbers? Who knows! Just as with the black widow spider who also has the reputation of eating her mate, it only happens if the female is hungry and the male ‘dismounts” in a precarious manor.

The male mantis deposits a “packet” of sperm into the female. They sometimes stay together in the mating position for several days. She can lay several casings from one episode of mating. I have seen a female lay up to three casings on a plant within a few days. The casing is spun by an organ on her lower extremity. It looks like and, during winter, acts like a sort of insulation. The casing is tan in color and is attached to a small branch of a plant that will stand upright or be in a bush, through the winter. When she is making casing, she sits, head downward and moves her abdomen back and forth as she lays her eggs (up to 300) and surrounds them with the insulating froth.

In the mantises I have studied, the males died before the females. A heavy frost will kill them. They can hide underneath leafy plants and survive a light frost. I have seen females hiding under plants or piles of sticks until early December if we have a late frost. We have kept and hand fed injured female mantises until after Thanksgiving. It is the absence of food as well as the cold that kills this delightful insect. I have studied many insects, butterflies, moths and spiders and have written articles for a publication for “Amature Naturalists”, but the preying mantis has always been my favorite.

Now that many of the gardens and bushes that used to be “home” to praying mantises are no longer there, I do not have the opportunity to study them as I once did. I would love to be able to take more digital photographs of them. I study which ever creature presents itself to be studied. It seems most people are not aware or truly interested in the wonderful variety of life that surrounds them. I have been able to share my hobby with many friends, neighbors and school children. I now have the privilege of seeing my grandchildren get nature lessons from both their parents and from me. Watching the life cycle of any creature is hard work, but also fun and educational. I have no doubt that a child will remember these lessons long after a video game has gone out of style!

picture #2 from Google Praying Mantis Facts

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Rose Colored Glasses by John Conlee

When my best friend and I were in High School, it wasn’t “cool” to listen to Country  Music, but her father had a great Country Music Band, and we would stand around the corner and listen…..Shhhhhh!

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A Moth-God-The Polyphemus Moth

A Moth God-Polyphemus ( with notes on other insects I have studied)

The Polyphemus Moth is named after the Giant Cyclops found in Greek mythology. One look at the adult moth will tell you why-their back wing is marked with a large “eye spot”, which is a means of protection during their short adult life. Predators may see the “eye spot” and think it is a larger creaure, thus helping it avoid predators.

13330295                             13330287

The scientific name for the Polythem Moth is Antheraea polyphemus. They are part of the silk moth family and are commonly found in most parts of the United States. They are large moths,(4-6 inch wing span), with medium brown color being prominent on the top wings of both sexes. There are smaller eye spots on the front wings, with the coloring on both sets of “eye spots” being yellow at the edge, with pink next to the yellow and a white center. The bottom of the wings are of a duller brown, matching the bark of deciduous trees from which they feed. It is easy to tell males from females as the males have “feather-like antennae” which pick up pheromes from the females, which have straight antennae with no feather like structures.


I have enjoyed raising moths and butterflies my entire adult life. Neighbors often refer to me as the “Bug lady”, and it is fr om neighbors or family members that I obtain most of my specimens. It is especially interesting when I get a female who has not yet laid her eggs. The males hatch a few days prior the females, often in late afternoon. On this occasion, a neighbor told me of a pair of large moths were mating on her garage door on early evening in late May. Her husband had seen the moths there the night before. Poeple often give me an “Are you crazy?” look when I ask, “Oh, can I have them?” This neighbor loved the idea that her yung son might be able to observe their life cycle. Since I have quite a few grandkids, I was excited to share the Polyphemus experience with them as well.


I could only hope that the Polyphemus pair had mated, because they seperated when I put them in a cage that I keep for such purposes. By the next morning, the female had laid several hundred eggs all over the cage. In the wild, they would have been laid on the bottom of deciduous leaves, which serve as food for the caterpillars when they hatch. The male and female are short lived and die soon after mating. Many large moths do not eaven have eating parts, they simply mate and die. I kept the deceased adult moths to show children ( and adults) who wanted to see them. Most of the moths lifespan is spent as a cocoon. The eggs hatch after about 12 days and feed vorciously for about three weeks before pupating.


The caterpillars grow quickly and have about 5 instars (they must shed their outer skins in order to grow). As the caterpillars go through their instar stages, their bright green coloring with yellow spots becomes more apparent. They have six sets of feet-two which are close to the reddish-brown head, with a small space between four more sets of legs, In their rear, there are two claspers which help them grasp the vein of a leaf as they feed. They have an “anal plate” at the end of their last segment.

I have counted eleven segments on my caterpillars, but have read articles that said they had only nine. I can only report what I have seen on my own. I have read that fifth instar male larva had a black “pit” on its lower abdomen which females lack, but I have nt seen it. I intend to check this out. The caterpillars life consists of eating, defacating deep geen pellets and resting. They are easily handled. I had to be careful when I changed their leaves, because their grip on their food source is quite strong, especially with the grippers on the ninth segment.

My story of the moth is meant to be more “my own experience’ than purely educational, and I suggest you look up the Polyphemus moth to learrn more about them. The pictures in this article will be my own. I am sure you can find more detailed descriptions and photographs in internet articles such as Wikipedia and other internet articles, along with books, which I used as my sources of information when I was not sure of the exact data I was reporting.

One problem that I have had with raising large moths is that there is a seemingly “natural” die-off of the larvae as they grown. In nature, of course, predation takes many of the larvae. I had the “dying off” problem with a brood of Royal Walnut Caterpillars which I raised from their mother laying eggs to their cocoon stage, Some eggs never hatch, some hatch a few days late. In the case of my Polyphemus moths, I put them in a larger container when they reached their 2nd or third instar and put the container on the enclosed sun porch. When I checked on them in the afernoon, tiny ants had invaded and killed about half of the 71 larva that had made it that far. From then on, the cage stayed in my house! It was very disappointing because I had felt fortunate in having so many survive that long.

It was very hot during the time the larvae were going through their instars and even though I tried to keep the leaves moist and fresh, I would note several moths that looked unhealthy each night and they would be limber and dead by morning. I became aware that once in a while, the larva could not free itsself from its smaller instar as it grw and it would “bind” the caterpilar , stopping its grown
th. I succssfully helped several caterpillars finish the shedding of their instar, even the “face” part, which was “scary”. I was afraid of hurting them. I used a sharp needle and gently broke the stands that held the old exoskeleton on. It was a new and rewarding experience with Moths, I had done the same proceedure with praying mantises and even black and yellow argiopes many years ago. I always waited until I was sure the larva could not escape the exoskeleton beforeI interfered.

A week ago, I had 16 larvae left. Although I havekep the leaves fresh and the cage indoors, I have lost about 9 more. (It is now July 4th). Some looked like they are in their fifth instar and I have placed sticks into their age for them to climb on an pupate. Two nights ago, two larva began to spin cocoons on a stick. They used a very strong silk to attach themselves to the stick and leaves, after all, they are hey are classified as silk moths. Another moth begn making silk on the side if the cage, and I carefully wrapped him in a leaf with a stick, hoping he will continue to pupate. I have rearraged the leaves and sticks so that the moths would be more likely to attach to a stick than the side of the cage. Research has taught me that Luna moths and Polyphemus moths have to work hard to escape from their cocoon as they have no natural “escape hatch” or weak place in the cocoon which helps aid their journey to adulthood. Each time, I am offered an opportunity to observe the life cycle of a moth or butterfly, I turn up more ineresting facts about them. I will continue to make photographs of the Polyphemus moths that I am now raising and hope to use them in tthis article. With the possible exception of a polyphemus cocoon, the photographs are my own.

Information about Other Butterflies and Moths I Have Raised

It is my goal to learn about each moth or butterfly as I watch them grown. There is no better way to learn that to observe the life cycle as you do your research. I have seen a black swallow tail female lay her eggs on a plant which I planted in a pot and, within my cage, observe thir entire life cycke. (Their natal plant is the wild carrot, also called Queen Anne’s Lace, or regular carrot or dill plants.) Seeing the amazement on the face of a child as they hold a newly hatched butterfly on their finger is beyond comparison. We have hatched many monarchs found as eggs or larvae on milkweed, better known as butterfly weed.


All moths and butterflies must excrete a liquid when they hatch. Some of it consists of waste accumulated during pupation but they must also “pump up” their wings in order to live. This excretion is not only normal, but necessary to their survival. The monarch has a beautiful geen chrysalis with gold spots. Most moth and butterfly eggs hatch 10-12 days after the female lays the eggs. It takes a while for a newly hatched adult to gain strenght and fly away, so there is time for gently holding them on a finger and watching them take flight for the first time.

By letting the word out among neighbors and friends, I have had the opportunity to observe the life cycles of many species of moths and buterflies, along with spiders, such as the Black and Yellow Argiope (Garden spider), the Black Widow Spider and insects such as Ladybugs and the fascinating Preying Matis-the only insect that can turn its head. Nature is out there for us to enjoy and learn from. I am surprised that more people do not take the opportunity to do so. Whether it is an insect, spider, or perhaps a flowering plant, nature offers us many opportunities to learn and to share the wonders of nature with those around us.

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