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Chapter 4

The Yellow Emperor: Eacles Imperialis


Several years ago, Mr. A. Eisen, a German, of Coldwater, Michigan, who devotes his leisure to collecting moths, gave me as pinned specimens a pair of Eacles Imperialis, and their full life history. Any intimate friend of mine can testify that yellow is my favourite colour, with shades of lavender running into purple, second choice. When I found a yellow moth, liberally decorated with lavender, the combination was irresistible. Mr. Eisen said the mounted specimens were faded; but the living moths were beautiful beyond description. Naturally I coveted life.

I was very particular to secure the history of the caterpillars and their favourite foods. I learned from Mr. Eisen that they were all of the same shape and habit, but some of them might be green, with cream-coloured heads and feet, and black face lines, the body covered sparsely with long hairs; or they might be brown, with markings of darker brown and black with white hairs; but they would be at least three inches long when full grown, and would have a queer habit of rearing and drawing leaves to their mouths when feeding. I was told I would find them in August, on leaves of spruce, pine, cherry, birch, alder, sycamore, elm, or maple; that they pupated in the ground; and the moths were common, especially around lights in city parks, and at street crossings.

Coming from a drive one rare June evening, I found Mr. William Pettis, a shooter of oil wells, whom I frequently met while at my work, sitting on the veranda in an animated business discussion with the Deacon.

"I brought you a pair of big moths that I found this morning on some bushes beside the road," said Mr. Pettis. "I went to give Mr. Porter a peep to see if he thought you'd want them, and they both got away. He was quicker than I, and caught the larger one, but mine sailed over the top of that tree." He indicated an elm not far away.

"Did you know them?" I asked the Deacon.

"No," he answered. "You have none of the kind. They are big as birds and a beautiful yellow.'

"Yellow!" No doubt I was unduly emphatic. "Yellow! Didn't you know better than to open a box with moths in it outdoors at night?"

"It was my fault," interposed Mr. Pettis. "He told me not to open the box, but I had shown them a dozen times to-day and they never moved. I didn't think about night being their time to fly. I am very sorry."

So was I. Sorry enough to have cried, but I tried my best to conceal it. Anyway, it might be Io, and I had that. On going inside to examine the moth, I found a large female Eacles Imperialis, with not a scale of down misplaced. Even by gas light I could see that the yellow of the living moth was a warm canary colour, and the lavender of the mounted specimen closer heliotrope on the living, for there were pinkish tints that had faded from the pinned moth.

She was heavy with eggs, and made no attempt to fly, so I closed the box and left her until the lights were out, and then removed the lid. Every opening was tightly screened, and as she had mated, I did not think she would fly. I hoped in the freedom of the Cabin she would not break her wings, and ruin herself for a study.

There was much comfort in the thought that I could secure her likeness; her eggs would be fertile, and I could raise a brood the coming season, in which would be both male and female. When life was over I could add her to my specimen case, for these are of the moths that do not eat, and live only a few days after depositing their eggs. So I went out and explained to Mr. Pettis what efforts I had made to secure this yellow moth, comforted him for allowing the male to escape by telling him I could raise all I wanted from the eggs of the female, showed him my entire collection, and sent him from the Cabin such a friend to my work, that it was he who brought me an oil-coated lark a few days later.

On rising early the next morning, I found my moth had deposited some eggs on the dining-room floor, before the conservatory doors, more on the heavy tapestry that covered them, and she was clinging to a velvet curtain at a library window, liberally dotting it with eggs, almost as yellow as her body. I turned a tumbler over those on the floor, pinned folds in the curtains, and as soon as the light was good, set up a camera and focused on a suitable location.

She climbed on my finger when it was held before her, and was carried, with no effort to fly, to the place I had selected, though Molly-Cotton walked close with a spread net, ready for the slightest impulse toward movement. But female moths seldom fly until they have finished egg depositing, and this one was transferred with no trouble to the spot on which I had focused. On the back wall of the Cabin, among some wild roses, she was placed on a log, and immediately raised her wings, and started for the shade of the vines. The picture made of her as she walked is beautiful. After I had secured several studies she was returned to the library curtain, where she resumed egg placing. These were not counted, but there, were at least three hundred at a rough guess.

I had thought her lovely in gas light, but day brought forth marvels and wonders. When a child, I used to gather cowslips in a bed of lush swale, beside a little creek at the foot of a big hill on our farm. At the summit was an old orchard, and in a brush-heap a brown thrush nested. From a red winter pearmain the singer poured out his own heart in song, and then reproduced the love ecstasy of every other bird of the orchard. That moth's wings were so exactly the warm though delicate yellow of the flowers I loved, that as I looked at it I could feel my bare feet sinking in the damp ooze, smell the fragrance of the buttercups, and hear again the ripple of the water and the mating exultation of the brown thrush.

In the name--Eacles Imperialis--there is no meaning or appropriateness to "Eacles"; "Imperialis"--of course, translates imperial--which seems most fitting, for the moth is close the size of Cecropia, and of truly royal beauty. We called it the Yellow Emperor. Her Imperial Golden Majesty had a wing sweep of six and a quarter inches. From the shoulders spreading in an irregular patch over front and back wings, most on the front, were markings of heliotrope, quite dark in colour: Near the costa of the front wings were two almost circular dots of slightly paler heliotrope, the one nearest the edge about half the size of the other. On the back wings, halfway from each edge, and half an inch from the marking at the base, was one round spot of the same colour. Beginning at the apex of the front pair, and running to half an inch from the lower edge, was a band of escalloped heliotrope. On the back pair this band began half an inch from the edge and ran straight across, so that at the outer curve of the wing it was an inch higher. The front wing surface and the space above this marking on the back were liberally sprinkled with little oblong touches of heliotrope; but from the curved line to the bases of the back pair, the colouring was pure canary yellow.

The top of the head was covered with long, silken hairs of heliotrope, then a band of yellow; the upper abdomen was strongly shaded with heliotrope almost to the extreme tip. The lower sides of the wings were yellow at the base, the spots showing through, but not the bands, and only the faintest touches of the mottling. The thorax and abdomen were yellow, and the legs heliotrope. The antennae were heliotrope, fine, threadlike, and closely pressed to the head. The eyes were smaller than those of Cecropia, and very close together.

Compared with Cecropia these moths were very easy to paint. Their markings were elaborate, but they could be followed accurately, and the ground work of colour was warm cowslip yellow. The only difficulty was to make the almost threadlike antennae show, and to blend the faint touches of heliotrope on the upper wings with the yellow.

The eggs on the floor and curtains were guarded with care. They were dotted around promiscuously, and at first were clear and of amber colour, but as the little caterpillars grew in them, they showed a red line three fourths of the way around the rim, and became slightly depressed in the middle. The young emerged in thirteen days. They were nearly half an inch long, and were yellow with black lines. They began the task of eating until they reached the pupa state, by turning on their shells and devouring all of them to the glue by which they were fastened.

They were given their choice of oak, alder, sumac, elm, cherry, and hickory. The majority of them seemed to prefer the hickory. They moulted on the fifth day for the first time, and changed to a brown colour. Every five or six days they repeated the process, growing larger and of stronger colour with each moult, and developing a covering of long white hairs. Part of these moulted four times, others five.

At past six weeks of age they were exactly as Mr. Eisen had described them to me. Those I kept in confinement pupated on a bed of baked gravel, in a tin bucket. It is imperative to bake any earth or sand used for them to kill pests invisible to the eye, that might bore into the pupa cases and destroy the moths.

I watched the transformation with intense interest. After the caterpillars had finished eating they travelled in search of a place to burrow for a day or two. Then they gave up, and lay quietly on the sand. The colour darkened hourly, the feet and claspers seemed to draw inside, and one morning on going to look there were some greenish brown pupae. They shone as if freshly varnished, as indeed they were, for the substance provided to facilitate the emergence of the pupae from the caterpillar skins dries in a coating, that helps to harden the cases and protect them. These pupae had burst the skins at the thorax, and escaped by working the abdomen until they lay an inch or so from the skins.

What a "cast off garment" those skins were! Only the frailest outside covering, complete in all parts, and rapidly turning to a dirty brown. The pupae were laid away in a large box having a glass lid. It was filled with baked sand, covered with sphagnum moss, slightly dampened occasionally, and placed where it was cool, but never at actual freezing point. The following spring after the delight of seeing them emerge, they were released, for I secured a male to complete my collection a few days later, and only grew the caterpillars to prove it possible.

There was a carnival in the village, and, for three nights the streets were illuminated brightly from end to end, to the height of Ferris wheels and diving towers. The lights must have shone against the sky for miles around, for they drew from the Limberlost, from the Canoper, from Rainbow Bottom, and the Valley of the Wood Robin, their winged creatures of night.

I know Emperors appear in these places in my locality, for the caterpillars feed on leaves found there, and enter the ground to pupate; so of course the moth of June begins its life in the same location. Mr. Pettis found the mated pair he brought to me, on a bush at the edge of a swamp. They also emerge in cities under any tree on which their caterpillars feed. Once late in May, in the corner of a lichen-covered, old snake fence beside the Wabash on the Shimp farm, I made a series of studies of the home life of a pair of ground sparrows. They had chosen for a location a slight depression covered with a rank growth of meadow grass. Overhead wild plum and thorn in full bloom lay white-sheeted against the blue sky; red bud spread its purple haze, and at a curve, the breast of the river gleamed white as ever woman's; while underfoot the grass was obscured with masses of wild flowers.

An unusually fine cluster of white violets attracted me as I worked around the birds, so on packing at the close of the day I lifted the plant to carry home for my wild flower bed. Below a few inches of rotting leaves and black mould I found a lively pupa of the Yellow Emperor.

So these moths emerge and deposit their eggs in the swamps, forests, beside the river and wherever the trees on which they feed grow. When the serious business of life is over, attracted by strong lights, they go with other pleasure seeking company, and grace society by their royal presence.

I could have had half a dozen fine Imperialis moths during the three nights of the carnival, and fluttering above buildings many more could be seen that did not descend to our reach. Raymond had such a busy time capturing moths he missed most of the joys of the carnival, but I truly think he liked the chase better. One he brought me, a female, was so especially large that I took her to the Cabin to be measured, and found her to be six and three quarter inches, and of the lightest yellow of any specimen I have seen. Her wings were quite ragged. I imagined she had finished laying her eggs, and was nearing the end of life, hence she was not so brilliant as a newly emerged specimen. The moth proved this theory correct by soon going out naturally.

Choice could be made in all that plethora, and a male and female of most perfect colouring and markings were selected, for my studies of a pair. One male was mounted and a very large female on account of her size. That completed my Imperialis records from eggs to caterpillars, pupae and moths.

The necessity for a book on this subject; made simple to the understanding, and attractive to the eye of the masses, never was so deeply impressed upon me as in an experience with Imperialis. Molly-Cotton was attending a house-party, and her host had chartered a pavilion at a city park for a summer night dance. At the close of one of the numbers; over the heads of the laughing crowd, there swept toward the light a large yellow moth.

With one dexterous sweep the host caught it, and while the dancers crowded around him with exclamations of wonder and delight, he presented it to Molly-Cotton and asked, "Do you know what it is?"

She laughingly answered, "Yes. But you don't!"

" Guilty!" he responded. "Name it."

For one fleeting instant Molly-Cotton measured the company. There was no one present who was not the graduate of a commissioned high school. There were girls who were students at The Castle, Smith, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr. The host was a Cornell junior, and there were men from Harvard and Yale.

"It is an Eacles Imperialis Io Polyphemus Cecropia Regalis," she said. Then in breathless suspense she waited.

"Shades of Homer!" cried the host. "Where did you learn it?"

"They are flying all through the Cabin at home," she replied. "There was a tumbler turned over their eggs on the dining-room floor, and you dared not sit on the right side of the library window seat because of them when I left."

"What do you want with their eggs?" asked a girl.

"Want to hatch their caterpillars, and raise them until they transform into these moths," answered poor Molly-Cotton, who had been taught to fear so few living things that at the age of four she had carried a garter snake into the house for a playmate.

"Caterpillars!" The chorus arose to a shriek. "Don't they sting you? Don't they bite you?"

"No, they don't!" replied Molly-Cotton. "They don't bite anything except leaves; they are fine big fellows; their colouring is exquisite; and they evolve these beautiful moths. I invite all of you to visit us, and see for yourselves how intensely interesting they are."

There was a murmur of polite thanks from the girls, but one man measured Molly-Cotton from the top curl of her head to the tip of her slippers, and answered, " I accept the invitation. When may I come?" He came, and left as great a moth enthusiast as any of us. This incident will be recognized as furnishing the basis on which to build the ballroom scene in "A Girl of the Limberlost", in which Philip and Edith quarrel over the capture of a yellow Emperor. But what of these students from the great representative colleges of the United States, to whom a jumbled string made from the names, of half a dozen moths answered for one of the commonest of all?


Gene Stratton-Porter

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