Rarely seen but by the most fortunate of individuals, our giant silkworm moths are out there in the night, flapping their expansive wings in silence. Males’ feather-like antennae sniff out the pheromones of the females from miles away and despite the distance traveled, we do not often get lucky enough to view them. Have you ever seen one?
Starting out in life as a shockingly unique caterpillar, even their larval forms are stunning to observe. From the apple green picky sticky envenomating Io caterpillar to the blue and red tubercles ending in an array of anemone-like spikes on the Cecropia moth caterpillar, silkworms are stunners. Some like the Imperial moths have three distinct color forms of caterpillars with long, silky hairs.
Silkmoths as adults are large, showy and fuzzy. Many are so furry that they resemble cuddly creatures or stuffed animals. Chances are you’ve become familiar with a few due to clever marketing tactics. Used in sleep medicine commercials, the Luna moth is a mint green beauty with long, flowing tails on the hind wings. From a caterpillar that does little but eat, they emerge from their large papery cocoons as glorious adults which live but days. Only alight long enough to mate and lay eggs, a glimpse of one is a rare treat indeed.
Many of these large moths have “eye spots” on their wings as protection from predators. Perhaps the grandest of these is the Polyphemus moth. Do you recall the one-eyed giant of Greek mythology? He was the one-eyed son of Poseidon and Thoosa. Our Polyphemus silkmoth has a wingspan of nearly five inches and the lower wing includes a big yellow and black marking resembling a large eyeball. The eggs of this moth resemble tiny hamburgers rigidly attached to leaves. If you are fortunate enough to see one of these resting around artificial outdoor lights, males have huge antennae.
The Sweetbay silkmoth is named for its host plant, one of our bay tree species. Males and females differ in hue, with males being of a darker coloration than the females. While their nearly two-week adult lifespan offers more opportunity to see them, they are uncommon due to their habitat preferences of swampy woods.
Even rare is the elusive and incredible black witch moth- Ascalapha odorota. Migratory, it is one of the largest moths to come through our state. Superstitions abound with worries that to see one is the worst of luck or perhaps a sign of impending doom. Easily mistaken at first glance for a large bat due to the enormous wingspan, if you’re ever fortunate enough to see one I suspect you will be too busy being blinking in amazement to worry about such nonsense. A sighting of one of these is the equivalent of winning the insect lottery so may the odds be ever in your favor.