The Modest Moth: Triptogon Modesta
Of course this moth was named Modesta because of modest colouring. It reminds me of a dove, being one of my prime favourites. On wing it is suggestive of Polyphemus, but its colours are lighter and softer. Great beauty that Polyphemus is, Modesta equals it.
Modesta belongs to the genus Triptogon, species Modesta--hence the common name, the Modest moth. I am told that in the east this moth is of stronger colouring than in the central and western states. I do not know about the centre and west, but I do know that only as far east as Indiana, Modesta is of more delicate colouring than it is described by scientists of New York and Pennsylvania; and, of course, as in almost every case, the female is not so strongly coloured as the male.
I can class the Modest moth and its caterpillar among those I know, but my acquaintance with it is more limited than with almost any other. My first introduction came when I found a caterpillar of striking appearance on water sprouts growing around a poplar stump in a stretch of trees beside the Wabash. I carried it home with a supply of the leaves for diet, but as a matter of luck, it had finished eating, and was ready to pupate. I write of this as good luck, because the poplar tree is almost extinct in my location. I know of only one in the fields, those beside the river, and a few used for ornamental shade trees. They are so scarce I would have had trouble to provide the caterpillar with natural food; so I was glad that it was ready to pupate when found.
Any one can identify this caterpillar easily, as it is most peculiar. There is a purplish pink cast on the head and mouth of the full-grown caterpillar, and purplish red around the props. The body is a very light blue-green, faintly tinged with white, and yellow in places. On the sides are white obliques, or white, shaded with pink, and at the base of these, a small oval marking. There is a small short horn on the head. But the distinguishing mark is a mass of little white granules, scattered all over the caterpillar. It is so peppered with these, that failure to identify it is impossible.
These caterpillars pupate in the ground. I knew that, but this was before I had learned that the caterpillar worked out a hole in the ground, and the pupa case only touched the earth upon which it lay. So when my Modesta caterpillar ceased crawling, lay quietly, turned dark, shrank one half in length, and finally burst the dead skin, and emerged in a shining dark brown pupa case two inches long, I got in my work. I did well. A spade full of garden soil was thoroughly sifted, baked in the oven to kill parasites and insects, cooled, and put in a box, and the pupa case buried in it. Every time it rained, I opened the box, and moistened the earth. Two months after time for emergence, I dug out the pupa case to find it white with mould. I had no idea what the trouble was, for I had done much work over that case, and the whole winter tended it solicitously. It was one of my earliest attempts, and I never have found another caterpillar, or any eggs, though I often search the poplars for them.
However, something better happened. I say better, because I think if they will make honest confession, all people who have gathered eggs and raised caterpillars from them in confinement, by feeding cut leaves, will admit that the pupa cases they get, and the moths they produce are only about half size. The big fine cases and cocoons are the ones you find made by caterpillars in freedom, or by those that have passed at least the fourth or fifth moult out of doors. So it was a better thing for my illustration, and for my painting, when in June of this year, Raymond, in crossing town from a ball game, found a large, perfect Modesta female. He secured her in his hat, and hurried to me. Raymond's hat has had many wonderful things in it besides his head, and his pockets are always lumpy with boxes.
Although perfect, she had mated, deposited her eggs, and was declining. All she wanted was to be left alone, and she would sit with wings widespread wherever placed. I was in the orchard, treating myself to some rare big musky red raspberries that are my especial property, when Raymond came with her. He set her on a shoot before me, and guarded her while I arranged a camera. She was the most complacent subject I ever handled outdoors, and did not make even an attempt to fly. Raymond was supposed to be watching while I worked, but our confidence in her was so great, that I paid all my attention to polishing my lenses, and getting good light, while Raymond gathered berries with one hand, and promiscuously waved the net over the bushes with the other.
During the first exposure, Modesta was allowed to place and poise herself as seemed natural. For a second, I used the brush on her gently, and coaxed her wings into spreading a little wider than was natural. These positions gave every evidence of being pleasing and yet I was not satisfied. There was something else in the back of my head that kept obtruding itself as I walked to the Cabin, with the beautiful moth clinging to my fingers. I did not feel quite happy about her, so she was placed in a large box, lined with corrugated paper, to wait a while until the mist in my brain cleared, and my nebulous disturbance evolved an idea. It came slowly. I had a caterpillar long ago, and had investigated the history of this moth. I asked Raymond where he found her and he said, "Coming from the game." Now I questioned him about the kind of a tree, and he promptly answered, "On one of those poplars behind the schoolhouse."
That was the clue. Instantly I recognized it. A poplar limb was what I wanted. Its fine, glossy leaf, flattened stem, and smooth upright twigs made a setting, appropriate, above all others, for the Modest moth.
I explained the situation to the Deacon, and he had Brenner drive with him to the Hirschy farm, and help secure a limb from one of the very few Lombardy poplars of this region. They drove very fast, and I had to trouble to induce Modesta to clamber over a poplar twig, and settle. Then by gently stroking, an unusual wing sweep was secured, because there is a wonderful purple-pink and a peculiar blue on the back wings.
It has been my experience that the longer a moth of these big short-lived subjects remains out of doors, the paler its colours become, and most of them fade rapidly when mounted, if not kept in the dark. So my Modesta may have been slightly faded, but she could have been several shades paler and yet appeared most beautiful to me.
Her head, shoulders, and abdomen were a lovely dove grey; that soft tan grey, with a warm shade, almost suggestive of pink. I suppose the reason I thought of this was because at the time two pairs of doves, one on a heap of driftwood overhanging the river, and the other in an apple tree in the Aspy orchard a few rods away, were giving me much trouble, and I had dove grey on my mind.
This same dove grey coloured the basic third of the fore-wings. Then they were crossed with a band only a little less in width, of rich cinnamon brown. There was a narrow wavy line of lighter brown, and the remaining third of the wing was paler, but with darker shadings. These four distinct colour divisions were exquisitely blended, and on the darkest band, near the costa, was a tiny white half moon. The under sides of the fore-wings were a delicate brownish grey, with heavy flushings of a purplish pink, a most beautiful colour.
The back wings were dove colour near the abdomen, more of a mouse colour around the edges, and beginning strongly at the base, and spreading in lighter shade over the wing, was the same purplish pink of the front under-wing, only much stronger. Near the abdomen, a little below half the length, and adjoining the grey; each wing had a mark difficult to describe in shape, and of rich blue colour.
The antennae stood up stoutly, and were of dove grey on one side, and white on the other. The thorax, legs, and under side of the abdomen were more of the mouse grey in colour. Over the whole moth in strong light, there was an almost intangible flushing of palest purplish pink. It may have shaded through the fore-wing from beneath, and over the back wing from above. At any rate, it was there, and so lovely and delicate was the whole colour scheme, it made me feel that I would give much to see a newly emerged male of this species. In my childhood my mother called this colour aniline red.
I once asked a Chicago importer if he believed that Oriental rug weavers sometimes use these big night moths as colour guides in their weaving. He said he had heard this, and gave me the freedom of his rarest rugs. Of course the designs woven into these rugs have a history, and a meaning for those who understand. There were three, almost priceless, one of which I am quite sure copied its greys, terra cotta, and black shades from Cecropia.
There was another, a rug of pure silk, that never could have touched a floor, or been trusted outside a case, had it been my property, that beyond all question took its exquisite combinations of browns and tans with pink lines, and peacock blue designs from Polyphemus. A third could have been copied from no moth save Modesta, for it was dove grey, mouse grey, and cinnamon brown, with the purplish pink of the back wings, and exactly the blue of their decorations. Had this rug been woven of silk, as the brown one, that moment would have taught me why people sometimes steal when they cannot afford to buy. Examination of the stock of any importer of high grade rugs will convince one who knows moths, that many of our commonest or their near relatives native to the Orient are really used as models for colour combinations in rug weaving. The Herat frequently has moths in its border.
The Modest moth has a wing sweep in large females of from five and one-half to six inches. In my territory they are very rare, only a few caterpillars and one moth have fallen to me. This can be accounted for by the fact that the favourite food tree of the caterpillar is so scarce, for some reason having become almost extinct, except in a few cases where they are used for shade.
The eggs are a greyish green, and have the pearly appearance of almost all moth eggs. On account of white granules, the caterpillar cannot fail to be identified. The moths in their beautiful soft colouring are well worth search and study. They are as exquisitely shaded as any, and of a richness difficult to describe.