Polyphemus Moths Live Near Me

By Edie Parnum

Female Polyphemus Moth. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth alighted on my walkway.  It was August 2016, and I had just moved to a retirement community.   This cinnamon-colored giant silk moth had a wingspan of 4 1/2 inches.  Each hind wing had a large eyespot highlighted with yellow and blue.  It’s named for Polyphemus, the one-eyed Cyclops, who was blinded by Odysseus. Although I’m a “moth-er”, I had never seen this handsome moth before.

This summer I acquired two Polyphemus caterpillars at Mothapalooza, a mothing

Polyphemus Moth caterpillar. Photo from Wikimedia Commons by MamaGeek. Click to enlarge.

conference.  They survived the 9-hour ride from southern Ohio.  Once home, I fed them White Oak leaves from my community’s wooded area.  They ate voraciously and pooped continuously.  (Scientists call the excrement frass.)  Once or twice a day I cleaned out the mesh cage and supplied them with fresh leaves.  After two weeks, they stopped eating and formed their cocoons.

Twelve days later, a beautiful Polyphemus adult emerged.  I knew she was a female because she had unfeathered antennae.  Some friends and I released her at dusk.

Antennae of male Polyphemus. © Barb Elliot. click to enlarge.

Off she flew beaming out her pheromones to attract a mate.  Two days later a male emerged from the second cocoon.  We released him, too.  Using his feathered antennae, he can “smell” a female’s pheromones from miles away.

These two moths (or others of their species) will meet up and mate.  They will not eat.  Their sole job is to mate. The fertilized female will lay her eggs on an oak, willow, maple, or birch.

Her eggs will hatch and become caterpillars.  Birds, mammals, and other insects will eat most of them.  Miraculously, a few will survive.  The cycle of life will continue—cocoon, adult moth, mating, egg laying, tiny caterpillars, big caterpillars, and cocoon again.  This will happen over and over, as long as we have wooded areas or yards with the essential native trees to support them.

A Woolly Bear caterpillar looks for a place to spend the winter. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Fall can be a good time to look for Polyphemus and other caterpillars. Many caterpillars leave the host plants where they’ve been feeding and start walking.  These “wanderers” are looking for a suitable place to overwinter.  Many will spend the winter in leaves on the ground; others will spin a cocoon attached to a twig.

Barb found this Polyphemus Moth cocoon in her yard. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Polyphemus moth cocoon could spend the winter in your own yard. Never mind the cold.  Go out into your yard and examine the bare branches of your native trees and shrubs. In 2012 Barb Elliot found a Polyphemus moth cocoon on a Spicebush twig.  She told her story on our blog: http://backyardsfornature.org/?p=87, “A Magnificent Moth”.  Maybe you, like Barb, can find a Polyphemus or other cocoon. At all times of the year, we can look for signs of nature, both active and dormant, in our backyards.

Pollinators Need Our Help!

By Barb Elliot

The earliest spring flowers will soon emerge.  In my garden I’ll admire the delicate white petals of Bloodroot, the first to bloom. Soon I’ll enjoy the blue bell-like flowers of Jacob’s Ladder, the bright yellow of Golden Ragwort, and striking red blooms of Wild Columbine.   The flowers are charming, but I will be more captivated by their insect visitors.  Small bees and flies will fly from blossom to blossom. Working intently, they will stop briefly to feed and gather nectar and pollen.  These will be the first pollinators of the year.

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed.  @ Barb Elliot

Skipper sipping nectar from Upland Ironweed. @ Barb Elliot

As spring and summer progress, pollinators will visit the succession of blooms on my native trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and wasps will be at work.  I’ll watch each butterfly unfurl its straw-like proboscis to daintily probe flower heads and sip nectar.  Yellow pollen grains will dot the heads and bodies of bees and flies.  Female bees will sport saddlebag-like pollen baskets on their hind legs.  The undersides of leafcutter bees’ abdomens will be golden from pollen grains stored on special hairs.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Bumble Bee with pollen baskets. Photo by Beatriz Moisset. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I’ll notice the size, shape, and tongue lengths of pollinators – characteristics that enable some to better exploit different shaped flowers than others.  Iridescent green sweat bees will glisten in the sunlight as they feed on nectar.  The strikingly-marked Locust Borer Beetle will catch my attention as it methodically forages for pollen on my goldenrods.  I’ll marvel at how close I can get to colorful wasps as they busily collect nectar.  Hover flies will hang suspended in air as they take a break from feeding on nectar and pollen.  After dark, with my flashlight, I’ll find moths flying from flower to flower, performing nighttime pollination.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod.  Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

Locust Borer Beetle on goldenrod. Wikimedia Creative Commons photo.

My flowering plants put on their royal finery to entice these pollinators, not me.  Their showy colors and patterns advertise and guide the pollinators to the plants’ nectar and pollen.  The plants must rely on the pollinators to transport pollen among different flowers of the same species.  This cross-pollination enables plants to produce the seeds and fruit needed  for reproduction.  Well-pollinated plants bear more fruit, produce genetically diverse seed, and are healthier. For the pollinators the nectar provides carbohydrates for energy. The pollen supplies them and their offspring with protein, vitamins, minerals, fats, and starches.

Pollinators play essential roles in our ecosystems.  Seventy-five percent of the world’s plants require pollinators to produce seed or fruit.  One-third of our food supply comes from pollinator-reliant plants. Birds and other wildlife in my yard and the world over eat

Green Sweat Bee.  Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

Green Sweat Bee. Photo by Beatriz Moisset on Wikimedia Creative Comoons.

the seeds and fruits produced by pollinator-dependent plants.  Pollinators themselves are food for birds and other animals, including insects.  A diverse population of pollinators is critical to the web of life.

Unfortunately, many pollinators are in decline.  Some are threatened with extinction.  Our most beloved pollinator, the Monarch butterfly, is in serious trouble.  The eastern U.S. population crashed in 2013, and the smallest number on record over-wintered in Mexico this year.  Not only Monarchs but other pollinator populations, including bees, our most prolific pollinators, are in trouble, too. The effects of Colony Collapse Disorder on non-native honeybee populations are well known. However, many of our 4,000 U.S. native bee species, key pollinators of both

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Bumble bee with tongue extended on Mountain Mint. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

native plants and crops, are also at risk.  Bumble bees seem particularly hard hit, with about half of our 47 U.S. species in decline.  Some are in danger of extinction. Less studied pollinators like beetles, wasps, and moths are likely declining as well.

Loss of good foraging and nesting habitat is the primary cause for pollinator declines.  Pesticides and introduced parasites add to the toll.  Many experts believe neonicotinoid insecticides pose a particular threat to bees and other pollinators.  Those that forage on treated plants become weak or die.  “Neonics” and other systemic pesticides are taken up through a plant’s roots and travel to all parts of the plant, including its nectar and pollen.  Last June, 50,000 bumble bees foraging on flowering trees at a single location in Oregon were killed after the trees were sprayed with a neonicotenoid.  Neonics are present in a variety of insecticide brands commonly sold to gardeners. They are also used in nurseries that raise plants.  In fact, some plants sold as bee-attractants contain neonicotenoids.

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Wasp on Mountain Mint. @ Barb Elliot

Despite all the threats, we gardeners can help sustain pollinator populations in our area.  (See table below.)  Some gardeners like to attract butterflies, but balk at inviting moths, bees, beetles, flies, and wasps.  However, these insects have important roles to play in the web of life and are generally harmless to gardeners.  Native bees are unaggressive and rarely sting. Even wasps are docile when foraging on flowers, although they may forcefully defend a nest.  By incorporating a variety of native plants in our yards, our most important conservation action, we will attract pollinators that are also predators and keep insect populations in check.  Various beetles, flies, and wasps prey on aphids and other insect pests.  By growing a diversity of native plants (see plant list below), we will encourage a healthy balance of insects in our gardens.

Hover Fly on Snakeroot.  @ Barb Elliot

Hover Fly on Snakeroot. @ Barb Elliot

I hope the plight of the Monarch butterfly will compel us to action. We must help not just the Monarchs* but the less charismatic butterfly, bee, fly, wasp, beetle, and moth pollinators as well.  For too long, we have ignored pollinators or treated them as pests to be destroyed.  We have gardened for aesthetics and our enjoyment without considering nature.  These beneficial creatures are crucial players in the web of life in our own gardens and beyond. We can make a difference for them.  We and our gardens will benefit.

 *Please note that we will be selling milkweed plants for Monarchs again this year!  Stay tuned for an upcoming post about Monarchs and details of the milkweed sale.

How to Help Pollinators
Provide Food 
  • Plant:
¨  A variety of nectar- and pollen-rich native plants. Strive for 8 or more species.
¨   Perennials in clusters, preferably 5 or more of a single species, so plants are easily found.
¨   For a succession of blooms from early spring through late fall.
¨   Natives with different flower shapes for pollinators or varied sizes, shapes, and tongue lengths.
¨   Host plants for butterflies and moths.
  • Buy plants at local native plant retailers or where sellers identify whether plants are pre-treated with systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids.
  • Remove invasive plants so they crowd out natives
Provide nesting and overwintering sites
  • Leave:
¨  Areas of bare soil in sunny, well-drained spots.
¨   Stumps, logs on the ground, dead branches and trees.
¨   Leaf litter for over-wintering butterflies, moths, beetles and their larvae or pupae
¨   Stems of perennials standing from fall through late winter
Provide water
  • Add a shallow dish with sloped sides for easy entry and exit
  • Keep an area of soil moist or muddy for butterflies and other pollinators that forage for minerals and salts in soil
Prevent pesticide poisoning
  • Don’t use pesticides, but especially avoid neonicotinoids.  Click here for a list of common brands containing neonics.
  • Don’t apply herbicides or fungicides to lawn or beds with nest sites or pollinator plants
Other Ways to Help Pollinators
  • Make a commitment to protect pollinators by getting your yard certified as a pollinator habitat and posting a sign.  See The Xerces Society’s “Bring Back the Pollinators” campaign
  • Become a citizen scientist to help scientists track pollinator populations, such as by reporting sightings of bumble bees to Bumble Bee Watch or other species to Project NoahXerces Bring Back the Pollinators habitatsignfull (1)
Recommended Native Plants for Pollinators by Bloom Period

Common Name

Botanical Name

Flower Color

Bloom Period^

Height

Soil

Exposure

Notes

Perennials

Bloodroot
Sanguinaria canadensis
White
April
6-8”
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Golden Ragwort
Packera aurea
Yellow
April-May
1-2’
Moist to wet
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Jacob’s Ladder
Polemonium reptans
Blue
April-May
8-15”
Moist
Part  shade to shade
Deer resistant
Wild Geraniium
Geranium maculatum
Pink – purple
April-May
1-3’
Moist to dry
Part sun to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
False Solomon’s Seal
Maianthemum racemosum
White-cream
May
12-24”
Moist to dry
Part shade to shade
Smooth Solomon’s Seal
Polygonatum biflorum
White -light yellow
May-June
2-4’
Moist to dry
Part sun
Deer resistant
Wild Columbine
Aquilegia canadensis
Red
May-June
1-3’
Moist to average
Part sun to shade
Deer resistant
Beardtongue
Penstemon digitalis
White
June-July
2-3’
Dry to moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Bee Balm
Monarda didyma
Red
June-August
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
Butterfly Milkweed
Asclepia tuberosa
Orange
June-August
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Host plant for Monarch, others.  Deer resistant
Nodding Onion
Allium cernuum
Pale -dark pink
July
1-2’
Dry to moist
Sun
Deer resistant
Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea
Purplish pink
July
3-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Swamp Milkweed
Asclepias incarnata
Light – dark pink
July
3-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Host plant – Monarch butterfly; deer resistant
Blazing Star
Liatris spicata
Purple
July-August
2-4’
Moist
Sun
Culver’s Root
Veronicastrum virginicum
White
July-August
3-5’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Joe Pye Weed
Eutrochium maculatum; E. fistulosum
Pink
July-August
4-7’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
Short-toothed Mountain Mint
Pycnanthemum mutucum
White
July-August
2-3’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant
White Turtlehead
Chelone glabra
White
July-August
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun to part sun
Wild Bergamot
Monarda fistulosa
Pink
July-August
2-4’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Common Boneset
Eupatorium perfoliatum
White
July-September
2-4’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Cup Plant
Silphium perfoliatum
Yellow
July- September
4-8’
Moist to wet
Sun
Host plant
Fragrant Hyssop
Agastache foeniculum
Blue-violet
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Deer resistant
False Sunflower
Heliopsis helianthoides
Yellow
July-September
3-5’
Moist to dry
Sun to part sun
Garden Phlox
Phlox paniculata
Pink/white/
lavender
July-September
2-6’
Moist
Sun to part shade
Goldenrod -Stiff
Solidago rigida
Yellow
July-Sept
3-5’
Dry to moist
Sun to part sun
Host plant. Deer resistant
Great Blue Lobelia
Lobelia siphilitica
Blue
August
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Cutleaf/ Green-headed Coneflower
Rudbeckia laciniata
Yellow
August-September
3-6’
Moist
Sun to part sun
New England Aster
Symphotrichum novae-angliae
Pink -purple
August-September
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Host plant
Goldenrod – Zigzag
Solidago flexicaulis
Yellow
August-October
1-3’
Dry to moist
Part shade to shade
Host plant. Deer resistant
New York Ironweed
Vernonia noveboracensis
Magenta
August-October
3-6’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Obedient Plant
Physostegia virginiana
Pink
August-October
2-5’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Mistflower or Hardy Ageratum
Conoclinum coelestinum
Blue
September-October
1-3’
Moist to wet
Sun to part shade
Deer resistant

Vines

Virgin’s Bower (a magnet for daytime species & moths at night)
Clematis virginiana
White
August-September
To 10’
Moist
Sun to part shade
May spread. Deer resistant

Trees and Shrubs

Pussy Willow
Salix discolor
Silvery gray
March
20-35’
Sun
Wet to moist
Serviceberry
Amelanchier canadensis;  A. laevis
White
April
6-20’
Sun to part shade
Dry to moist
Highbush Blueberry
Vaccinium corymbosum
White – pink
April-May
6-12’
Sun to shade
Wet to dry, acid
Redbud
Cercis canadensis
Pink – lavender
April-May
20-30’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Cherry
Prunus serotina
White
May-June
50-75’
Sun to part shade
Moist
Sweetbay Magnolia
Magnolia virginiana
Creamy white
May-June
10-20’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Black Gum
Nyssa sylvatica
Green
June
30-50’
Sun to part shade
Moist to wet
Deer resistant
Tulip Tree
Liriodendron tulipifera
Yellow-green  & orange
June
75-100’
Sun to part shade
Moist to average
Basswood
Tilia americana
Pale yellowish
Late June-early July
75-100’
Full sun to light shade
Moist
Buttonbush
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Creamy white
July-August
6-12’
Sun
Wet to moist

Moth Night

By Edie Parnum

Moths are underappreciated.  Most people think they’re dull and uninteresting.  They ignore those nameless little moths that fly up while walking through the grass.  Those moth pests in the kitchen cupboards are considered just that—pests. True, most of us

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth.  © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)- a day-flying moth. © Barb Elliot Click to enlarge.

can be captivated by a large, daytime moth like a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from flowers.  However, because moths are usually nighttime creatures, most folks have little appreciation of their variety, esthetic appeal, and role in the web of life.  As for myself, I confess to moth love.

Moth Night is now an annual event in my backyard. A few weeks ago, I invited nature-loving family members and friends for nighttime “mothing”.  A few hours before sunset, I prepared for the occasion.  Since a great many nocturnal moths are attracted to light, I hung two white cotton sheets and positioned lights in front of them.  One light is a grow light and the other is a black light.  Both of these attract moths because they project a wider range of UV light than standard incandescent or florescent light bulbs. Some moths do not come to lights.  Instead, I lured them to a fermented concoction (see recipe below) I painted on tree trunks.

Once it was quite dark, we ventured out into the darkness. Using our flashlights or headlamps, we observed the moths attracted to the lighted sheets and tree trunks.  By shining our lights back and forth in the garden, we found more moths hidden in the vegetation, especially on flowers. Sometimes their eyes reflected back to us.  Big and small, ornate and plain, colorful and monochromatic—they were there.

Sad Underwing.  A 2"-long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Sad Underwing. A 2″-long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

We often heard someone say, “Look at this one!”  That’s what my friend Mike said when he found the Sad Underwing (Catocala maestosa).  We were happy to see this intricately patterned two-inch species.  I presume it’s called “sad” because the underwing

The Sweetheart - a 2" long moth.  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

The Sweetheart – a 2″ long moth. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

(hindwing) is plain.  Another time Barb, my friend and colleague, discovered The Sweetheart (Catocala amatrix), an Underwing that charmed us with its rosy-pink hindwing pattern. The uncommon Hop’s Anglewing (Nyphonix segregata) was a good find that night.

Hops Angleshade.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Hops Angleshade. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

We “moth-ers” exclaim “ooh” and “ah” frequently because moths are varied and beautiful creatures.   They display a variety of colors including pink, purple, orange, green, and yellow.  Some shimmer in the light or have iridescent spots. Those that are orange and black are toxic or pretending to be. True, many of them are just shades of tan and grey, but often the patterns are well-defined and elaborate. Others are camouflaged to look like dead leaves or bird droppings.

Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama).  @ Debbie Beer.  Click to enlarge.
Becky, a moth-er, looking at a Yellow-Banded Underwing (Catacola cerogama). @ Debbie Beer. Click to enlarge.

The shapes can be interesting, too. We see wings that are deeply scalloped, creased, or curled.  The Plume Moths with their skinny wings look like miniature airplanes. Moth antennae sometimes resemble feathers.  Bizarre hairy tufts can show up almost anywhere on their bodies: the legs, thorax, or abdomen.

By looking for the eye-shine of other creatures, we discovered bees, caterpillars, praying mantises, spiders, and cicadas.  My nine-year-old grandson found and identified a Leopard Slug (a creature from the netherworld?) eating the bait on a tree trunk.  We listened for night sounds, too, and heard the whinny of a screech owl and squeaks of flying squirrels.

Leopard Slug.  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Leopard Slug. © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

Many of us took photos and then later admired the details on our computer screens.  That’s when I try my hand at moth ID.  It’s difficult.  After all, 11, 000 species of moths in North America have been identified.  Moths outnumber butterfly species 11 to one.

After I’ve identified a moth, I note its host plants.  These are the plants where the moth lived its earlier stages as an egg and caterpillar and where the female adult moth will lay eggs for the next generation.  Many of these host plants grow on my property (see below). Although I live in a congested suburban area, my ¾-acre property has a good variety of the native perennials, grasses, and woody plants that moths use. And, I don’t use pesticides. It is moth-friendly habitat.

Why should we care about moths?  Moths are important links in the web of life.  The adult moths are good pollinators and are food for birds and bats.  Birds, especially nestling birds, also feed on moths in their egg, larvae, or caterpillar stages.   Small mammals, reptiles, and other insect predators consume moths in their various stages as well. In fact, insects power our ecosystem and are the most important animals of all.

Moths have lured me into the nighttime natural world of my backyard.  Now I feel more intimately connected to the lives of moths and other creatures that contribute to my property’s biodiversity.  I won’t wait until next year to hold another Moth Night.  I’ve caught the moth bug.

Harris's Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata).  © Edie Parnum.  Click to enlarge.

Harris’s Three-Spot (Harrisimimna trisignata). © Edie Parnum. Click to enlarge.

——- For additional photographs of moths, see Moth Photo Gallery below  —–

Edie’s Bait Recipe

  • One or two overripe bananas, mashed
  • Dollop of molasses
  • Small scoop of brown sugar
  • Glug or two of beer (stale is ok)
  1. No need to be precise.  Mix together and adjust proportions to create a pancake batter consistency.
  2. Leave it for a day or two in a warm place.  I like to take it outside for a few hours to let bees and flies add their contributions.
  3. With a paint brush, smear this concoction at eye level on tree trunks about an hour or two before sunset.

Resources

  • Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America by David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
  • BugGuide.  www.bugguide.net  Images of moths and other insects  Can submit ID request
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America.  www.butterfliesandmoths.org  Images of butterflies and moths.  Can submit ID request
  • Moths of Eastern United States. http://www.facebook.com/groups/MothsoftheeasternUS  Facebook group for members to post images and discuss sightings

Significant Native Plants to Host Moth Caterpillars

Basswood Maples
Beech Oaks
Birches Pines
Blueberries Walnut
Elm Wild Cherry
Grasses Willows
Hickories Viburnums

Moth Photo Gallery

 

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

False Crocus Geometer (Xanthotype urticarial). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). - wingspan 2 1/4".  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Lunate Zale (Zale lunata). – wingspan 2 1/4″. © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Large lace Borer (Scapula limoundata).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.
Large Lace Borer (Scapula limoundata). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

 

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva aurea). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis).  © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Common Looper (Autographa precationis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Raspberry Pyrausta (Pyrausta signatalis). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa).  © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa). © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

A Magnificent Moth

by Barb Elliot

When I was a ten year old kid I “saved” a Polyphemus moth my father had almost accidentally killed while pruning our hedge.  Actually, I didn’t save it—in truth, quite the opposite.  I captured it and put it into a collecting jar.  After it died I mounted and framed it.  Enamored with butterflies and moths, I then hung it in my bedroom along with the rest of my collection. Over the years I have displayed this beautiful, six-inch moth in my various homes.  However, I never saw one in the wild again until this spring – more than 50 years later.

Male Polyphemus Moth (Dan Mackinnon @ fcps.edu)

On May 20th, a spectacular male Polyphemus moth just like that first one emerged from a cocoon in my yard.  I had discovered the large cocoon hanging from a Spicebush twig in early March. I couldn’t tell what type of moth might be overwintering in the cocoon, but I checked it often, hoping to see what would emerge.

Cocoon in my yard, 3/7/2012

When the time came, I almost missed it because it hung several inches from the cocoon, which appeared to be intact except for a small hole in the top.  As the moth hung among the leaves, only the under wings, which look like dead leaves, were visible. I would have liked to see the more striking upper sides of the wings, but did not disturb it for a better look.   This moth was to remain completely free — and in fact it was gone by the next day.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth in my yard, 5/20/12

It likely flew off that night in hot pursuit of a female, using its large, feathery antenna to detect the powerful sex hormone scents (pheromones) a female emits to attract a mate.  Polyphemus males can detect and fly to females that are miles away.  The moths survive for about a week, living only to mate and lay eggs. In fact, the adults don’t have mouthparts and can’t eat or drink.

 

A Polyphemus caterpillar, however, is an eating machine.

Polyphemus moth late stage caterpillar (buglifecycle.com)

In the five to six weeks it takes until it is ready to pupate and spin its cocoon, it increases its weight by more than 10,000 times and grows to three inches long and ¾ inch in diameter. The caterpillar then wraps itself in a leaf and encases itself in silk thread spun from its mouth or it may crawl down and spin its cocoon on the ground.  A cocoon wrapped in a leaf may stay on the tree or shrub all winter as “mine” did, or it may fall to the ground in the autumn.  This is an important reason not to rake up the leaves that fall under your trees and shrubs.

As a result of their nocturnal habits and since so few make it to adulthood, not many of us ever get to see these beautiful creatures. Birds and mammals search out the protein-rich caterpillars, and few caterpillars escape the many parasites that prey on them.  If you provide host plants that the caterpillars eat, you can increase your chances of seeing one and help to increase their chances of survival.  Polyphemus moth caterpillars eat the leaves of a variety of native trees, including Oaks (Quercus), Maple (Acer), Birches (Betula), Hickories (Carya), Walnut (Juglans), Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), and  American Elm (Ulmus americana).  I’m not sure which of these plants “my” caterpillar ate, as I have five of these species in my yard.

The Polyphemus moth is in the family of large showy silk moths native to southeastern Pennsylvania.  Others species include the Cecropia (the largest moth in North America), Luna, Io, Imperial, Promethea, Tuliptree, Rosy Maple, and Royal Walnut Moth.  These moths also eat a variety of native trees and shrubs that would make great additions to a yard.

One last thing you can do to help the Polyphemus and other moths survive and reproduce successfully is to keep outdoor lights turned off as much as possible.  Any lights at night can “capture” moths, interrupt their search for mates, exhaust them, and make them easy targets for predators.

Newly emerged Polyphemus Moth with cocoon, 5/20/12

I hope you too may have the exciting experience of seeing a Polyphemus or one of the other showy silk moths in your yard!