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Chapter 14

The Pride of the Lilacs: Attacus Promethea


So far as the arrangement ofthe subjects of this book in family groupings is concerned, any chapter might come first or last. It is frankly announced as the book of the Nature Lover, and as such is put together in the form that appears to me easiest to comprehend and most satisfying to examine. I decided that it would be sufficient to explain the whole situation to the satisfaction of any one, if I began the book with a detailed history of moth, egg, caterpillar, and cocoon and then gave complete portrayal of each stage in the evolution of one cocoon and one pupa case moth. I began with Cecropia, the commonest of all and one of the most beautiful for the spinners, and ended with Regalis, of earth--and the rarest.

The luck I had in securing Regalis in such complete form seems to me the greatest that ever happened to any, worker in this field, and it reads more like a fairy tale than sober every-day fact, copiously illustrated with studies from life. At its finish I said, "Now I am done. This book is completed." Soon afterward, Raymond walked in with a bunch of lilac twigs in his hand from which depended three rolled leaves securely bound to their twigs by silk spinning.

"I don't remember that we ever found any like these," he said. `Would you be interested in them?'

Would I? Instantly I knew this book was not finished. As I held the firm, heavy, leaf-rolled cocoons in my hand, I could see the last chapter sliding over from fourteen to fifteen to make place for Promethea, the loveliest of the Attacine group, a cousin of Cecropia. Often I had seen the pictured cocoon, in its neat little, tight little leaf-covered shelter, and the mounted moths of scientific collections and museums; I knew their beautiful forms and remembered the reddish tinge flushing the almost black coat of the male and the red wine and clay-coloured female with her elaborate marks, spots, and lines. Right there the book stopped at leaf-fall early in November to await the outcome of those three cocoons. If they would yield a pair in the spring, and if that pair would emerge close enough together to mate and produce fertile eggs, then by fall of the coming year I would have a complete life history. That was a long wait, thickly punctuated with `ifs.'

Then the twig was carried to my room and stood in a vase of intricate workmanship and rare colouring.

Every few days I examined those cocoons and tested them by weight. I was sure they were perfect. That spring I had been working all day and often at night, so I welcomed an opportunity to spend a few days at a lake where I would meet many friends; boating and fishing were fine, while the surrounding country was one uninterrupted panorama of exquisite land and water pictures. I packed and started so hastily I forgot my precious cocoons. Two weeks later on my return, before I entered the Cabin, I walked round it to see if my flowers had been properly watered and tended. It was not later than three in the afternoon but I saw at least a dozen wonderful big moths, dusky and luring, fluttering eagerly over the wild roses covering a south window of the Deacon's room adjoining mine on the west. Instantly I knew what that meant. I hurried to the room and found a female Promothea at the top of the screen covering a window that the caretaker had slightly lowered. I caught up a net and ran to bring a step-ladder. The back foundation is several feet high and that threw the tops of the windows close under the eaves. I mounted to the last step and balancing made a sweep to capture a moth. They could see me and scattered in all directions. I waited until they were beginning to return, when from the thicket of leaves emerged a deep rose-flushed little moth that sailed away, with every black one in pursuit. I almost fell from the ladder. I went inside, only to learn that what I feared was true. The wind had loosened the screen in my absence, and the moth had passed through a crack, so narrow it seemed impossible for it to escape.

Only those interested as I was, and who have had similar experience, know how to sympathize. I had thought a crowbar would be required to open one of those screens! With sinking heart I hurried to my room. Joy! There was yet hope! The escaped moth was the only one that had emerged. The first thing was to fasten the screen, the next to live with the remaining cocoons.

The following morning another, female appeared, and a little later a male.

The cocoons were long, slender, closely leaf-wrapped and hung from stout spinning longer than the average leaf stem. The outside leaf covering easily could be peeled away as the spinning did not seem to adhere except at the edges. There was a thin waterproof coating as with Cecropia, then a little loose spinning that showed most at top and bottom, the leaf wrapping being so closely drawn that it was plastered against the body of the heavy inner case around the middle until it adhered. The inner case was smooth and dark inside and the broken pupa case nearly black.

The male and female differed more widely in colour and markings than any moths with which I had worked. At a glance, the male reminded me of a monster Mourning Cloak butterfly. The front wings from the base extending over half the surface were a dark brownish black, outlined with a narrow escalloped line of clay colour of light shade. The black colour from here lightened as it neared the margin. At the apex it changed to a reddish brown tinge that surrounded the typical eye-spot of all the Attacus group for almost three-fourths of its circumference. The bottom of the eye was blackish blue, shading abruptly to pale blue at the top. The straggle M of white was in its place at the extreme tip, on the usual rose madder field. From there a broad clay-coloured band edged the wing and joined the dark colour in escallops. Through the middle of it in an irregular wavy line was traced an almost hair-fine marking of strong brown. The back wings were darker than the darkest part of the fore-wings and this colour covered them to the margin, lightening very slightly. A clay- coloured band bordered the edge, touched with irregular splashes of dark brown, a little below them a slightly heavier line than that on the fore-wing, which seemed to follow the outline of the decorations.

Underneath, the wings were exquisitely marked, flushed, and shaded almost past description in delicate and nearly intangible reddish browns, rose madder on grey, pink-tinged brown and clay colour. On the fore-wings the field from base to first line was reddish brown with a faint tinge of tan beside the costa. From this to the clay-coloured border my descriptive powers fail. You could see almost any shade for which you looked. There were greyish places flushed with scales of red and white so closely set that the result was frosty pink. Then the background would change to brown with the same over-decoration. The bottom of the eye-spot was dark only about one-fourth the way, the remaining three-fourths, tan colour outlined at the top with pale blue and black in fine lines. The white M showed through on a reddish background, as did the brown line of the clay border. The back wings widespread were even lovelier. Beginning about the eighth of an inch from the top was a whitish line tracing a marking that when taken as a whole on both outspread wings, on some, slightly resembled a sugar maple leaf, and on others, the perfect profile of a face. There was a small oblong figure of pinkish white where the eye would fall, and the field of each space was brownish red velvet. From this to the clay-coloured band with its paler brown markings and lines, the pink and white scales sprinkled the brown ground; most of the pink, around the marking, more of the white, in the middle of the space; so few of either, that it appeared to be brown where the clay border joined.

The antennae were shaped as all of the Attacus group, but larger in proportion to size, for my biggest Promethea measured only four and a quarter from tip to tip, and for his inches carried larger antlers than any Cecropia I ever saw of this measurement, those of the male being very much larger than the female. In colour they were similar to the darkest part of the wings, as were the back of the head, thorax and abdomen. The hair on the back of the thorax was very long. The face wore a pink flush over brown, the eyes bright brown, the under thorax covered with long pinkish brown hairs, and the legs the same. A white stripe ran down each side of the abdomen, touched with a dot of brownish red wine colour on the rings. The under part was pinkish wine crossed with a narrow white line at each segment. The claspers were prominent and sharp. The finishing touch of the exquisite creatign lay in the fact that in motion, in strong light the red wine shadings of the under side cast an intangible, elusive, rosy flush over the dark back of the moth that was the mast delicate and loveliest colour effect I ever have seen on marking of flower, bird, or animal.

For the first time in all my experience with moths the female was less than the male.

Even the eggs of this mated pair carried a pinkish white shade and were stained with brown. They were ovoid in shape and dotted the screen door in rows. The tiny caterpillars were out eleven days later and proved to be of the kind that march independently from their shells without stopping to feed on them. Of every food offered, the youngsters seemed to prefer lilac leaves; I remembered that they had passed the winter wrapped in these, dangling from their twigs, and that the under wings of the male and much of the female bore a flushing of colour that was lilac, for what else is red wine veiled with white? So I promptly christened them, `The Pride of the Lilacs.' They were said to eat ash, apple pear, willow, plum, cherry, poplar and many other leaves, but mine liked lilac, and there was a supply in reach of the door, so they undoubtedly were lilac caterpillars, for they had nothing else to eat.

The little fellows were pronouncedly yellow. The black head with a grey stripe joined the thorax with a yellow band. The body was yellow with black rings, the anal parts black, the legs pale greyish yellow. They made their first moult on the tenth day and when ready to eat again they were stronger yellow than before, with many touches of black. They moulted four times, each producing slight changes until the third, when the body took on a greenish tinge, delicate and frosty in appearance. The heads were yellow with touches of black, and the anal shield even stronger yellow, with black. At the last moult there came a touch of red on the thorax, and of deep blue on the latter part of the body.

In spinning they gummed over the upper surface of a leaf and, covering it with silk, drew it together so that nothing could be seen of the work inside. They began spinning some on the forty-second, some on the forty-third day, when about three inches in length and plump to bursting. I think at a puncture in the skin they would have spurted like a fountain. They began spinning at night and were from sight before I went to them the following morning. So I hunted a box and packed them away with utmost care.

I selected a box in which some mounted moths had been sent me by a friend in Louisiana, and when I went to examine my cocoons toward spring, to my horror I found the contents of the box chopped to pieces and totally destroyed. Pestiferous little 'clothes' moths must have infested the box, for there were none elsewhere in the Cabin. For a while this appeared to be too bad luck; but when luck turns squarely against you, that is the time to test the essence and quality of the word `friend.' So I sat me down and wrote to my friend, Professor Rowley, of Missouri, and told him I wanted Promethea for the completion of this book; that I had an opportunity to make studies of them and my plate was light-struck, and house-moths had eaten my cocoons. Could he do anything? To be sure he could. I am very certain he sent me two dozen `perfectly good' cocoons.

From the abundance of males that have come to seek females of this species at the Cabin, ample proof seems furnished that they are a very common Limberlost product; but I never have found, even when searching for them, or had brought to me a cocoon of this variety, save the three on one little branch found by Raymond, when he did not know what they were. Because of the length of spinning which these caterpillars use to attach their cocoons, they dangle freely in the wind, and this gives them especial freedom from attack.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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