Monday, June 20, 2011

Hope... and things with wings...from a naturalist's notebook

January 18th was a day for winter walking.
Light rain mid-morning had given way to blue skies, which, in a season best described as a string of predictably gray flannel afternoons that stretches from November to March, was in itself reason to make note. But in the woods where I stood looking up, admiring the unusual brilliance from beneath a tangle of bare limbs, I discovered something even better--a small package tethered to a branch. Just above my head, encased in the barest brown wrapper and tied to the very tip of a twig at the furthest reach of slender arm off the large maple, was the cocoon of a Cecropia moth.
Gently, I broke the twig free and its small brown package, tucked into my pocket.
Beneath the date in my notebook, I wrote, “Cecropia cocoon!”

The Cecropia moth, Hyalophora cecropia, is the largest member of the Saturniidae family native to North America. Giant silkworm moths, whose members also include the Luna and Promethea, emerge in the spring from cocoons left to overwinter by last summer’s 5-inch long, ravenous caterpillars. Constructed inside a covering of leaves which falls away in the winter weather, this strong silken pouch, within which the transformation takes place, is seldom seen against the backdrop of winter’s brown and gray.

On my back porch, I carefully propped the prized cocoon against one side of a small, glass tank and secured the lid. From there, while winter’s temperatures moved the cocoon slowly toward an eagerly awaited spring, I could easily keep an eye on any change.
But could I really?


April 1st brought with it a series of doubts.
Had I been correct in my hasty assumption months ago that this was really a cecropia cocoon?
And if so, was it even still alive? There was no way to see beyond the leathery brown wrapper. Perhaps the silken sac was years past holding anything viable.
Had my high hopes steered my perception to the point that I was now guarding an imagined treasure that would turn out to be nothing at all?
Had I fallen to nature’s trickery on this day of jokes and pranks?

The Cecropia spins a 2-layered cocoon--
a leathery outer layer which fits loosely
and a dense inner chamber inside which he pupates.
Added all up...4000 to 5000 feet of silk!

In the sunshine of the front stoop, I slowly opened the small package. A fine pair of scissors and steady hand made only the least slit necessary through which to steal a glimpse of what treasure might lie inside. Beyond the silken pouch was another—a fuzzier encasement more obviously oval, more shaped like the fat, squat body that I had hoped to find. Gingerly, I peeled back just the very end of it, taking care not to squeeze or bruise the precious contents in any way.

I tipped it out onto my hand, and there he was…revealed in sunlight, the dark-clad form, perfect face, plumose antennae, forelegs folded, his still, unfurled wings…patiently waiting.

Abdominal segments to the left, folded forewings to the right,
and antennae wrapping his face!
It's a boy!

In the warmth of my hand he turned, spinning circles with his abdomen as one would spin to keep a hula-hoop aloft.
Yes, there was life in this plain brown wrapper—life yet somewhere between caterpillar and moth.

Exactly as he had been, I put him back.
With a needle and thread, I drew closed the opening in the fuzzy, oval case, then set it back inside the silken pouch. A papier-mâché patch sealed it snuggly shut.


June 8th began as a day like any other.
By now, at 142 days of waiting, each pass I made across the back porch, whether coming or going, had evolved into an elaborate sort of curtsy at the back door. With one hand on the doorknob, I bowed and peeked below the lid of the glass tank to be sure the moth hadn’t yet emerged to rest unseen on the underside of the lid.
It had been a long and slowly passing spring.

By noon, I left to run errands. The day warmed vigorously, the air becoming heavy and heated beneath strong sunshine as the afternoon hours unfurled. With a load of groceries, I returned home, strode up the walk and paused to curtsy beside the back door.

Broad, fresh wings fanned slowly inside the tank. Already spread to their full 6-inch span, they pumped strongly and steadily, back and forth, their water-colored rims just barely dimpled.

Furry forelegs held fast to the tip of his makeshift branch. Released from their dark wrapper, his antennae stood proudly like plumes above his perfect face.

And for the first time, I saw a tiny eye--all that is needed by one who will be guided by scent, and who patiently waits for nightfall…to fly.

Scales covering the forewing are actually modified hairs

Cecropia moths emerge from their cocoons through loose valves at the end. Once free, they hang to inflate their folded wings, using a pumping action to press lymphatic fluid into them from an oversized abdomen. Living only a brief 7-10 days, cecropia moths have no mouthparts and are unable to feed. Their sole purpose in this time is to complete the reproductive cycle. Sometimes flying more than 7 miles, males locate females using their more developed antennae to pick up her scent (pheromones) in the warm night air. Cecropia moths are univoltine—in the course of a year, only one breeding cycle takes place. Eggs left by the female will hatch this summer, feed as caterpillars and pupate to overwinter within a cocoon and emerge next spring.
Squirrels sometimes eat overwintering pupae.
Tree trimming may be detrimental as well, as cocoons are fastened to the outermost ends of branches.

Hair-like receptors for detecting odors line his antennae...look closely!

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Bill S. said...

What a beautiful post. I loved it and the pictures really brought your story to life. Fantastic experience for you to share with us.

Kat said...

I just searched to see if I lived in range of these gorgeous creatures, and sadly I don't. BUT, I did find a great site that listed for me the 131 types of moths and butterflies in my county. 131 isn't too many, really, making me think I might just keep a "list" of those that show up in my yard.

Cicero Sings said...

Wow! So interesting. What a beautiful moth. What patience to sew him back up so he could continue to develop. What an over all experience to be able to watch unfold and document.

Clare said...

Incredible Nina. And gorgeously written as always.

Joni James said...

I raised a Cecropia Moth and a Luna Moth one year. These moths are stunning in their beauty and magnificence. Thank you for a wonderful post. When they emerge it is such a gift!

Erica said...

Absolutely gorgeous post! This butterfly grew beautifully.

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Guy said...

Hi Nina

Wow I am in awe, you brought the entire experience together beautifully and the photos are magnificent. I am really inspired to start paying a lot more attention to the world around me.


Elva Paulson said...

How cool that you were able to take a peek inside the cocoon and later have him emerge successfully. Beautiful.

Patricia Lichen said...

Astonishing photographs and story!
It would never occur to me to break into a cocoon and then stitch and papier-mâché it back up!
Thanks for sharing this!