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.
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.